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Williamsville East hockey gunning for shot at state title

After their Section VI Division II hockey semifinal win over Grand Island two weeks ago, Williamsville East coach Mike Torrillo guaranteed his club would win a state championship if it could do one thing.

Stop giving up goals.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, but the Flames have tried their best. If the team featuring 11 seniors, including starting goaltender Max Battistoni, can pull that off this weekend, Williamsville East will indeed get a chance to strike a pose with the champion’s plaque on the ice at Utica Memorial Auditorium.

The Flames (21-2-0-1) are two wins away from doing something they last achieved in 2004. In order to earn a shot at the title on Sunday, though, they must get past a Lake Placid team that’s lost just once this season. The teams meet at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Utica.

“It’s been our goal since Day One to bring home the state title, not only for our school and Section VI, but for the guys who played before us who got close,” said Battistoni, who has a 1.47 goals-against average and six shutouts in 19 games this season. “It would mean the world.”

The first state semifinal Saturday is a clash between Section III rivals as the Syracuse-area champion Christian Brothers Academy/Jamesville-Dewitt faces state at-large invitee Skaneateles.

To even out the Division II bracket, the state implemented a rule to invite an at-large team so that its tournament has eight participants. This season, Section III (Syracuse area) was awarded the at-large bid.

Winners advance to the state final Sunday (12:30 p.m., TWCSN).

“I told the kids they’re all good now,” Torrillo said of the opponents his team will face.

So is Williamsville East, according to the rankings.

The Flames reached this step by beating state No. 1 St. Lawrence, 3-2, last weekend up in the North Country. Two goals by Mike Steffan and Jack Kelly’s game-winner with 2:55 left buoyed a 33-save effort by Battistoni in a contest in which the Flames had 42 shots on goal. Just like Lake Placid (19-1-1), St. Lawrence entered that game with just one regulation loss.

Now the Flames are first in the current rankings, up a spot from last week, while Lake Placid is second.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re ranked until Sunday,” Torrillo said. “That’s the one we want.”

Once the Flames grabbed the lead late in the third period, they showed just how protective they can be with it. They yielded just one shot on goal during the final 2 minutes, 55 seconds, of which the last 1:20 was played with St. Lawrence having the goalie pulled for the extra skater.

“I’m just very impressed with how guys were blocking shots, selling their bodies,” Torrillo said. “I’m real proud of the effort.”

Williamsville East has been very good at protecting third-period leads, so long as it has one. In its three losses, Will East never led during the final 15 minutes. That means the Flames are 21-0-0 in games in which they hold a lead at any point of the third period.

Battistoni is a huge reason for that. He enters the semifinals with a 0.75 goals-against average and two shutouts this postseason. Williamsville East has yielded just three goals in its four playoff games.

Another reason: veteran experience. This crew features 15 returnees – including top defensive pair Nick Vermilye and Casey Charlton – from last year’s state quarterfinalist team. They have done a lot of winning over that span.

It will be another banner weekend for the program if it can handle its business in Utica.

“I think if we stay with our system and play together as a team we have a good chance,” Torrillo said.

“We’re just so excited,” Battistoni said. “It’s just been a great experience the last five months with the guys and coaches. We’re going to try to bring home a state title.”