It was more or less business as usual when it came to high school hockey in these parts.
In other words, Western New York’s teams once again ruled the competition throughout the state.
St. Joe’s captured the Catholic High School Athletic Association championship, while Williamsville North was the winner of the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Division I (large schools) crown. The two schools – which finished one-two at the top of the Division I standings in Federation play in the regular season – added to the area’s winning tradition.
“I’ve always been a big proponent on saying how good our league is from top to bottom,” Williamsville North coach Bob Rosen said. “It’s the best league in the state.”
And while the two area teams compete hard against each other during the season in Federation play, they seem to be happy that the other does well in statewide competition.
“We love the fact that another team from our section, another team from Western New York, went on to win the state championship,” St. Joe’s coach Rich Crozier said. “We were rooting for them right until the end.”
Winning teams often have more in common than a championship celebration after the last game of the year. The Spartans and the Marauders both had a key quality on their side: experience.
In Williamsville, about half of the lineup will be lost to graduation.
“We’re losing 10 players,” Rosen said. “That’s pretty normal. We’ve been as low as seven at times, and sometimes we’ll have a few more than 10.”
Crozier had even more experience on his roster this season, and it was a big help along the way.
“You have to give credit those 13 young men,” he said. “And to be honest, we always call it 14. Our student-manager has been with us for some time. Patrick Velpri has been in a wheelchair, and he’s a big part of the team. We felt that all 14 seniors were a major reason why we were able to repeat, and to do so in such a dominating fashion.”
Even so, the journeys were different. Williamsville North hadn’t won a title since 2011; Rosen had four state championships to his credit until hitting the six-year “drought.”
The Spartans had some expectations entering the season, but they learned the hard way in 2016 to take nothing for granted.
“We knew we’d be good, because last year we were very close,” Rosen said. “I knew that our defense was the strongest group from top to bottom that I’ve had in 27 years. I’ve had two good defensemen on a team before, but it was never like this.
“Last year it was disappointing because we outshot them, 48-12, and lost, 2-1, in the regional game. I think that did a lot for the core group that came back this year. We learned how easily you can be the better team and not win. That was a valuable lesson.”
Just when it looked like everything was coming together for Williamsville North, illness threw the team a curve at playoff time: goalie Jake Zurat came down with mononucleosis.
“He was his sickest in the regional game against West Genesee,” Rosen said. “On Friday, we were doing filmwork, and he was as white as a ghost. I said, ‘Go to your room.’ He practiced on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday he came into see film and he looked like he did on Friday. We drove him right home. He had bloodwork done and his spleen wasn’t enlarged, so there was no chance of added damage. We felt comfortable playing him.”
Zurat had 13 saves for the Spartans in the championship game against Pittsford, a 3-2 win. Williamsville North improved to 21-4 for the season.
St. Joe’s had a different problem hanging over them throughout the season. Everyone expected the Marauders to win. The danger, then, is having a team that is playing not to lose.
Fortunately for St. Joe’s, that wasn’t a problem.
“In my nine years, the last two are definitely the most dominating,” Crozier said. “Last year we were 26-2-1. This season we were 25-1-2. That’s over 50 wins in two years, and three losses in two years. I wish I could tell you when I took this job nine years ago that I envisioned that. This is beyond my imagination.”
A hockey team doesn’t post that sort of record without everyone contributing. Crozier had some players who did stepped up their games this past year.
“Nathan Burke went from a third- or fourth-line center to a major contributor,” he said. “He scored some big goals and was involved in a number of big moments throughout the year. Luke Pierce was a player who played club varsity, and was on our team for the first time as a senior. He was named our unsung hero at our banquet; he did an outstanding job. Luke really made the most of an opportunity. Donovan Boshier was another player who only played in the Federation this season. He was a goalie who went 16-0-1 - he never lost.”
Best of all, both St. Joe’s and Williamsville North had the chance to win state titles in their own backyard, so to speak - HarborCenter. There’s nothing like having friends and family around to add to a celebration.
“Each team and each moment are special in their own right,” Crozier said. “But that afternoon, it seemed like it brought everyone out - family, friends, alumni. To do it in front of all those people in an electric environment made this one special for all of us.”
“Before the championship game, I looked up in the stands and I saw 450, 500 people - alumni and the parents of kids from the 27 years I’ve been there,” Rosen said. “I couldn’t look up after that. I was afraid I was going to cry. It was nice to go to Utica, they did a great job, but there’s nothing like doing it at home.”
The best in the area
The talent base continues to improve in Western New York, and that makes it ever more difficult to pick the area’s best players. But the ones that do become All-Western New York are an impressive group.
Among large schools: forwards Nathan Burke of St. Joe’s, Brett Sardina of Williamsville North, and Zachary Biasillo of Orchard Park; defensemen Anthony Trigilio of Williamsville North, and Jack Lalley of St. Joe’s; and goalie Thomas Held of Orchard Park. Sardina and Trigilio are juniors, and the others are seniors.
For small schools: forwards Michael Seffan of Williamsville East, Zach Rehbaum of Williamsville South, and Pat Faliero of Timon; defensemen Owen Gonter of Hamburg and Zach Valvo of Grand Island; and goalie Jason Lupp of Grand Island. Rehbaum, Gonter and Lupp are juniors, while the others are seniors.
Steffan was named first team all-state, while Valvo and Rehbaum were honorable mention picks.