The Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation, with its depth of talented teams and long tenure (21 years), is considered by many as one of the best, if not the best, high school hockey leagues in the state.
Many times, new teams will struggle upon entering a league that annually boasts state-ranked teams and has produced state champions in both the public and Catholic ranks.
But not all teams.
Both West Seneca schools joined the Federation three years ago, while this is Orchard Park's fifth season in the league -- and it has been a promising one for all three Southtowns programs.
West Seneca East is 9-1-2 overall and a contender for the Federation Division V title at 3-1-1. West Seneca West struggled early but has surged lately. Orchard Park, which was competitive in its first season of 2006-07, is in the middle with a 3-2-1 mark in Division II, home of traditional powers Williamsville North, St. Joe's, Canisius and Niagara-Wheatfield.
West Seneca East coach Kevin Goldie attributes the district's ability to adapt to Federation play to its youth leagues and the West Seneca rink.
"With the rink there, so many kids start off at an early age and get the guidance to get what it takes to be a good hockey player," said Goldie. "It has a lot to do with that."
Senior Austin Castleberry has been a scoring leader for East while junior goalie Will Korzinski "has bailed us out many times," said Goldie.
West Seneca West is 3-7-3, but it has rebounded from early injuries and illness that contributed to a 1-7 start by going unbeaten in its last five (2-0-3). It is 2-3-1 in Division III. Two of the Indians' top players, forward Brendan Barren and defenseman Matt Chapman, missed significant time early on with mono. Freshman callup Brendan Dunning has four goals in four games.
"There can be a couple of years of growing pains," said Bob Rosen, longtime coach of Williamsville North. "Teams come in, they get up and running, and for the first 4 or 5 years, they'll have a couple of down years, but once there for while, they learn how to do it. We've seen it with teams like Sweet Home, Frontier -- once they are established for a bit, there aren't as many peaks and valleys."
*Williamsville North is in its usual spot atop the Federation and on top of the state rankings. The Spartans are 12-0-1 overall and undefeated in league play thanks to excellent play from back to front. Goalie Parker Gahagen has four shutouts in front of a defensive corps led by junior Jake DeSimone and juniors Sean Talty, John Haynes and Brian Deegan. Jake Rosen, the Spartans' leading scorer and son of the coach, is joined by Scott Sims and Jeff McAndrews on an all-junior top line.
North is atop the state sportswriters poll and the myhockey.com poll for Division I while it is first overall in the U.S. High School Hockey Online state poll. Second is Suffern, which is the team North tied.
*St. Joe's is 13-3-1 -- its only league loss came to Williamsville North (3-2) on Dec. 23 -- and has clinched the top seed for the private school playoffs.
Senior captain Rob Neff (nine points, plus/minus of plus-19) leads a defense that has allowed 26 goals over 17 games. A three-goalie rotation has put together a .910 save percentage: junior Marc Mallare (six games, two shutouts), junior Connor Stockman (eight goals in six games), and sophomore Nick George (nine goals in five games, one shutout).
Coach Rich Crozier said the Marauders opened up the offense this year, and it has resulted in 64 goals, including 18 on the power play (28 percent success). Junior Connor Hagner has a team-high 10 goals, junior Tyler Mills (plus-14) joins Hagner with a team-high 16 points while senior and penalty-killing unit (90 percent success) leader Rob Finn has six goals and four assists.
*Technically, the top hockey team at St. Francis is the squad that plays in the Midwest Prep Hockey League, but the Red Raiders' Federation team is continuing this year to show off the school's deep pool of hockey talent.
The Red Raiders, who won their division with a 12-2-2 mark last year and made the private school championship game, are 14-3 overall and 8-2 in Division III thanks to a balanced squad on offense and defense.
"We don't even look at it that way [as being the "second" team at St. Francis]," said coach Craig Fattey, in his second year coaching the Fed program and his 22nd season overall in various levels at St. Francis. "It's a tribute to the depth of hockey players we have at our school -- we had 130 try out, including 15 goalies."
*Amherst, which won its first Federation championship and had its first winning season last year, has kept surging thanks in large part to captain T.J. Kaszubski. With 26 goals and 51 assists for his career, the junior forward is already closing in on becoming the all-time points leader in school history. Ian Kyle, a 1995 graduate, is atop the list with 80 points (40 goals, 40 assists). Kaszubski played as a freshman -- but he played defense before being moved up by coach Mark Mobus last year.
Junior forward George Zimmermann has gone from one goal and one assist last season to a tie for the team lead in goals (11) along with 12 assists, part of the reason Amherst is 10-4-1 overall and 4-3-1 in Division V. The Tigers edged St. Francis, 3-2, on Sunday.
>Around the league
*Frontier is playing very well lately, grabbing first place in Division I with a win over Clarence on Saturday and topping Orchard Park on Monday. The Falcons have gotten balanced scoring while freshman Matt Blattenberger has been a big part of their recent hot streak.
"Matty Blattenberger is stepping up for us," said said Frontier coach Bob Klimowicz.
*Williamsville East, which has yet to lose to a Division IV opponent, has a big week in store as it plays Amherst on Thursday and St. Francis on Saturday.
*Kenmore East has won four straight to move to 8-5 overall and 5-3 in Division IV after starting with close losses to West Seneca East (5-4 in OT) and Williamsville East (2-1). The Bulldogs captured the Canandaigua Tournament with wins over Lancaster and Canandaigua.
Donald Battista, Andy Robinson (both with 21 points) and Steve Gentner (19) have led the way offensively while Trevor Taggart (five goals in three games at goalie), Mike Davern (2.29 GAA in seven games in goal) and Brad Deland (two goals, six assists) have been leaders in the back.
Come playoff time there will be several contenders for the small school championship, including Williamsville East, West Seneca East, Kenmore East, Sweet Home and Williamsville South. "There is a lot of parity in the small schools with six or seven teams capable of winning it," said Kenmore East coach Kyle Pray. "It should be an exciting February."
*Bishop Timon-St. Jude has seven straight wins. "We're starting to play really well as a team," said coach Gene Overdorf. "Our defensive unit led by senior Sam Connors has really stepped up its play." Timon is likely headed to a semifinal matchup with St. Francis.
*A young Niagara Falls team has already matched its league win total (two) from last season behind points leader William Fortier and goalie Tyler Bielec. Coach Stan Wojton has only one senior on his roster.
*St. Mary's has had the typical struggles of a first-year program in the Federation, but coach Rich Ineson is excited about building a program with a young team that includes standout players like sophomore Brian Dudek and Luke Brassard.
>Games to watch
Thursday: Williamsville East vs. Amherst, 9 p.m. at Northtown Center; St. Joe's vs. Orchard Park, 6:30 p.m. at Northtown Center
Saturday: Williamsville East vs. St. Francis, 3 p.m. at Northtown Center.
Sunday: Orchard Park vs. Canisius, 12:30 p.m. at Buffalo State.
Monday: Frontier vs. Lancaster, 5 p.m. at Hamburg.
Jan. 27: St. Joe's vs. Canisius (7 p.m.), Orchard Park vs. Nia.-Wheatfield (9 p.m.); Northtown Center.
Jan. 29: Williamsville North vs. Canisius (1 p.m.), Bishop Timon-St. Jude vs. Williamsville East (3 p.m.); Northtown Center.
Jan. 31: West Seneca East vs. West Seneca West, 5:30 p.m. at West Seneca.
Feb. 3: Clarence vs. Williamsville North, 9 p.m. at Northtown Center.
Feb. 5: Frontier vs. St. Joe's, 2 p.m. at Hamburg.
Feb. 10: St. Joe's vs. Williamsville North, 7 p.m. at Northtown Center.
Feb. 12: Orchard Park vs. Williamsville North, 1 p.m. at Northtown Center.
Feb. 16-17: Playoffs begin.