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National title quests a case of sibling revelry

Neither Julianna nor Alex Iafallo knew how to answer the question: If only one of you could end the season as a national champion, who do you want it to be?

"I wouldn't be able to choose," Julianna said.

Her brother Alex -- who looked stunned that he was asked -- replied he didn't know how to answer.

That's because there's no sibling rivalry between these two highly skilled young hockey players. It's a revelry thing as the Buffalo Regals 18-and-under and Bisons girls 14-and-under programs prepare for the USA Hockey Championships. Alex is the top scorer on the Regals (29 goals, 68 points in 60 games). Julianna is one of many with the gift for scoring (although the team isn't keeping track of stats this year) on the Bisons, the nation's second-ranked team in the myhockeyrankings.com poll.

The Regals, who are ranked 17th nationally after finishing with the fourth-best record in the Tier I Elite League, begin the quest for a national title Wednesday in Simsbury, Conn. They open against national No. 3 Colorado before facing Honeybaked, which is ranked fourth, on Thursday and top-ranked Shattuck's St. Mary's on Friday in round-robin play. The tournament ends April 3.

The Bisons, who won their two New York State tournament games by a combined score of 24-1, will tune up for their national championship next Saturday during the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League championship final three in Oshawa, Ont. The Bisons will play in the USA Hockey Championships on April 6-10 in Rochester, Mich. They open with Detroit Little Caesars.

The Iafallos aren't the only brothers and sisters taking their acts national. Alex's teammate Dave Seward and Julianna's former teammate Kelly Seward also will be vying for national championship glory. Kelly Seward, 15, helped the Bisons' 19-and-under team win the state title -- they went 5-0-1 in the tournament, outscoring the opposition, 36-7 -- and earn the trip to nationals in Rochester, Mich., as a reward.

They will face Shattuck St. Mary's, Little Caesars, and Colorado in the preliminary round.

"It's an awesome accomplishment," Alex Iafallo said.

While nationals is seemingly old hat for Julianna Iafallo -- a member of the Bisons' national runner-up 12-and-under team two years ago -- getting the opportunity to play in the USA Hockey Championship was a long time coming for her brother. He played a key role in helping the Elite Midget Developmental Program of Western New York earn its 14th straight state title by scoring four goals during last weekend's state tournament at Nichols' Dann Memorial Rink.

He scored the game-winner against the Buffalo Saints in a 2-1 win to give the Regals a shot at the title. He had two goals and an assist in the 4-1 triumph over the C.D. Selects of Albany in the championship game.

"I wanted him to go [to nationals] so badly," said Julianna, who will be making her fourth trip to nationals. "I'm excited for Alex. I'm just so happy he can finally go because he's worked so hard to make it this far. It's just amazing."

The only way Julianna will be able to see her brother at nationals would be if the Regals reach the championship game. Since she's going to miss a week of school for her own national tournament, her parents won't let her attend Alex's games because they don't want her missing too much school.

Kelly Seward also won't be able to see her brother play since she'll be preparing for nationals with her teammates. The brothers, however, both plan to be in attendance for their sister's games.

They all try to attend as many of their siblings' games as possible but conflicting schedules with two of Western New York's elite travel team programs tend to thwart those opportunities.

The Sewards both got into hockey because of their older sister, Meagan. Despite the three-year age difference, David and Kelly are highly competitive with each other -- something that dates to the early street hockey battles in the family driveway. Both have respect for the other's abilities. Dave said Kelly is the better skater of the two.

"I look up to him," the 5-foot-9 Kelly said regarding her 6-5 brother. "He's a good brother."

"I try to set a good example for her," Dave said.

Both won gold medals with their respective Empire State Games Western Region teams last summer (as did the Iafallos).

While both want the other to do well at nationals, one could sense the Sewards have a revelry thing along with a rivalry thing going. Kelly, a defenseman who also plays for Nichols, didn't mince words when asked who she would pick if only one of them could win a national title.

"It'd be exciting to see him win but it would definitely be more fun for myself and the girls if we won," said Kelly. "We compete in everything. If he were to win or go a little farther he would rub my face in it a little bit."

"It's not like I don't want her to win but if she beats me in something, she'll brag about it," replied Dave. "It's household bragging rights."

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No more growing pains

The Buffalo Regals 16-and-under team endured its share of lumps early during their inaugural season in the Tier I Elite League, but they've been playing better since Christmas. They earned their reward last weekend by winning the New York State Amateur Hockey Association championship and bid into the USA Hockey Championships, which will be held at the same time and site as the 18-and-under tournament.

The Regals have beaten three of the top 10 teams in the country the past six weeks, according to coach Terry Miller.

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Around the boards

*Another year, another USA Hockey event that will be hosted by the Amherst Knights. The Knights host the Tier II Boys 14-and-under championships at Northtown Center at Amherst, beginning Wednesday. Since the Knights are a Tier I program, the Niagara Junior Purple Eagles' 14-and-under team received the host team's bid for the tournament.

Northtown will play host to all Tier I boys championships next year. The facility has hosted a USA Hockey event each year since 2006.

*Tough break for the Bisons' 12-and-under girls team, which entered last week's three-team state tournament ranked third nationally but didn't reach the USA Hockey Championships due to a goofy tiebreaker.

The Scott Welch-coached team played Syracuse to a 1-1 tie in its opening game. Both the Bisons and Syracuse earned wins over Rochester to finish with identical 1-0-1 marks, but because Syracuse scored first in the game against the Bisons it received New York's nod to nationals.

The Bisons outscored their tournament foes, 5-1, while Syracuse scored three goals and yielded one in its games.

"In every league you have normally a five-minute OT and then a shootout. USA also follows that guideline," Bisons assistant John Cleary said. "In New York State, if two teams are tied it comes down to who scored the first goal. It's odd. It's unfortunate for the girls. We knew it going in."

*Former Buffalo Regal and St. Joe's star Cole Schneider was named to the All-Rookie Team in the Atlantic Hockey Association. Schneider finished with a University of Connecticut freshman record and team-leading 32 points. He had 13 goals, including a hat trick in a win last December against Niagara.

e-mail: mrodriguez@buffnews.com

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