It’s about 8:15 on Tuesday morning and the players line up across the blue line. Practice is over. Well almost. There are still a few conditioning sprints – from blue line to blue line. The sounds of blades on ice echo through the empty HarborCenter rink.
Just another practice for Erie Community College on anything but another week of the hockey season.
The team will defend its national title this weekend at Suny Broome Ice Center in Binghamton, returning to the National Junior College Athletic Association Ice Hockey Championship.
The No. 1 seeded Kats will play No. 4 Williston State of North Dakota (11-19-0) in a semifinal at 3:05 p.m. on Saturday as they look to become the first ECC hockey team to win back-to-back national titles.
“Personally I think it adds a lot of pressure because we have an opportunity to go back-to-back and not many teams have that opportunity,” said sophomore forward and Newfane native Trevor Evans. “So this is a big chance this weekend.”
The Kats are familiar with Williston State. In 2014 they were blanked by them, 7-0, in the national semifinal. Last year, they fell behind 1-0 in the championship game. The Kats tied the game in the second and Evans scored the game-winner in the third period.
That gave ECC its second national hockey title after winning as the No. 3 seed in 2011.
This year the Kats are wearing the proverbial target. The No. 1 seed with a 20-4-0 mark they lead the country in most statistical categories.
They are scoring an average of 7.12 goals a game while giving up just 2.39.
The top three scorers in the nation are from Erie — Aaron Wanat (62 points, 30 goals, 32 assists, 5 shorthanded goals), Evans (51 points 28 goals 23 assists, 9 power play goals) and Jordyn Bellitto (41 points).
William Korczynski leads all goaltenders with a 2.32 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
Part of that key is a roster filled with second-year players who already understand the system, what it takes to win and are hungry for another title.
“There are 12 guys back from last year’s roster that are on the team and nine of them played in the championship game,” ECC coach Gary Rost said. “So this is a more seasoned group than we’ve had before. There wasn’t as much teaching that we needed to do at the start of the year. They knew how to prepare for games, how to prepare for practice. The leadership was there that wasn’t there a year ago.”
There also are new facilities which are beginning to impact the Kats program. ECC is in its second season of playing and practicing at HarborCenter while players workout at IMPACT Sports Performance twice a week.
All of that helps, particularly in recruiting area high school students, but a big part of the team’s success is old-fashioned experience and teamwork.
“A lot of core guys back,” said Korczynski, a West Seneca native. “We know a lot about each other already. We have practice early in the morning and hang together, go bowling, stuff like that, to get together as a team. All year we’ve just grown as a team.”
That closeness will help Saturday when they face Williston State, a team that’s older than the Kats filled with players who went to juniors and played through age 20.
“They’re a little older than us,” said sophomore defenseman Tim Duffy from West Seneca. “We’re all pretty much right out of high school. They went to juniors and aged out but I think we’re up to the task and if we play the way we’ve been playing we’ll be all right.”
In Saturday’s other semifinal, No. 2 Dakota (15-9-1) will face No. 3 Hudson Valley (10-8-1) at 6:35 p.m. The national title game will be played at 2 p.m. on Sunday.