Chris Malicki is back behind the bench for the combined Monsignor Martin Association team in the Western New York Girls Varsity Hockey Federation. While his coaching duties haven’t changed much, the same can’t be said for the federation.
In the league's eighth season, there are no more easy wins, and that's a good thing.
"The league is way more competitive than my first go around," said Malicki, who guided Monsignor Martin to a 50-3-1 record and two postseason championships during the Fed's first three seasons. "(Now) all of the teams have great goaltending. … On any day No. 1 through No. 7 can win. The league is super tight."
Other coaches have uttered similar comments. All one needs to do is look at Monday's results for proof. Lancaster-Iroquois-Depew (LID) earned just its second win of the season by taking down second-place Clarence-Amherst-Sweet Home (CASH) in a 4-3 contest. Hamburg-Eden-West Seneca (HEWS) and Kenmore-GI battled to a scoreless tie Monday and that followed HEWS' 1-1 draw with Frontier-Lake Shore-Orchard Park (FLOP).
Last-place Kenmore-Grand Island, a five-time past Section VI champion that places more value on postseason results than regular season, is still looking for its first win but has lost one-goal games to defending champion and first-place FLOP, CASH and fourth-place Monsignor Martin.
"We played Lancaster twice and beat them in tight games," Malicki said. "It doesn't matter who you play. The teams are really good and I think it's because of the goaltending. Everybody has really good goaltending."
That includes the Monsignor Martint, which has two of them in junior Isabella Battaglia of Cardinal O'Hara and sophomore Grace Harrington from Mount Mercy.
The team's top forward line features Sacred Heart senior Kayla Blas at center, Nardin junior Izzy Friedman and Mount St. Mary junior Emily Matthew. Blas, also a field hockey and softball standout, was selected as team captain by her teammates. She'll play Division I field hockey at Northwestern. Buffalo Seminary senior Ellie Cleary and Mount St. Mary junior Eva Towers anchor the defense.
Malicki took over after his successor, Linda Mroz, stepped down after four seasons behind the bench.
Goalies: Malicki said each team has at least one goaltender that plays for a travel team in addition to high school. That's big-time experience and different from past seasons in which teams sometimes had to scramble to find someone to guard the net.
CASH has two goalies this season, which is viewed as a luxury by coach Nicola Adimey. During her five seasons, Adimey has had two athletic softball catchers serve as goaltenders (one of them is back this season in Gina Denisco) and a soccer player who volunteer to play the position with the team in need.
Denisco was pressed into service last year as teammate and incumbent netminder Hannah Barrett was sidelined by an undisclosed injury. Both share the lead league in wins this season with four.
Among goalies who have played more than 90 minutes, Williamsville's Jenna Lukomski leads the league with a .930 save percentage and has four wins. Teammate Rose Quattro is next with .924. FLOP goalie Maggie Spyche also has four wins.
Hamburg-Eden-West Seneca goalie Sissy Harmon made 69 saves in a 1-1 tie against Frontier-Lake Shore-Orchard Park. Teammate Lauren Brown made 33 saves in a scoreless tie against Kenmore-Grand Island.
The defending champions: What can FLOP do for an encore after having captured its first Section VI and Federation postseason championships?
The team wants to win the one title that slipped through its grasp – the state crown. So far, the team is off to a great start as it leads the Fed in points. There are several returnees from last year's state runner-up – including defenseman Brooke Becker. She's regarded by most coaches as the top player in the league. The sophomore Providence commit ranks second in the league in goals (10) and fourth in total points (14) in 11 games.
FLOP may have the strongest blue line in the league as seniors Gabby DeMeo and Sirena Fitzery also are solid puck handlers and passers. The top line features Emily and Mary Kromer and Jessica Peters. Spyche and Tori Cottrell have split goaltending duties.
"We have a solid group of skilled girls up front and on back end to repeat," coach Bob Klimowicz said. "Just need our younger players to continue to improve to improve our depth."
Two who have returned to the program after taking a season off are lacrosse standouts Taylor Gehen and Haylee Tatar. Both helped Frontier win the Section VI title last spring. Gehen is committed to Towson to play lacrosse.
Is this the year? A couple of teams that have come close to postseason breakthroughs hope the answer is 'yes.'
That includes Williamsville, which went undefeated during the regular season last year but lost in the Section VI semifinals to longtime foil Kenmore-Grand Island and then in the Federation postseason championship game to Frontier-Lake Shore-Orchard Park.
"We're just trying to play well in February," coach Richard Hopkins said. "It's just been a thorn in our side."
Williamsville has 16 returnees and 10 seniors looking to reverse the program's fortune. They include seniors Holly Schmelzer, Lukomski and Amanda Gaffney.
"They're hungry to play well in the playoffs," Hopkins said. "We just want to be peaking in time for the playoffs."
CASH has the same goal, although this could be the year where the team has the pieces to clear the semifinal hurdle. Gone are the days in which Adimey's crew either has had to try to overcome lack of depth or goaltending issues.
"This is the first time that we have a solid group of three full lines and two goalies to support," Adimey said. "We are taking it one game at a time, learn from each game."
In addition to their goaltenders, the key returnees for CASH include senior defenseman Casey Adimey, who's in her sixth season. She's planning to play collegiately at Division III UMass-Boston. She's paired up with her younger sister, freshman Lilli. Junior Emma Faso returns after finishing second in scoring last year. She's one of the fastest players in the league and has 94 career points, which is believed to rank seventh all-time in Federation history.
Faso and teammate Charleigh Rondeau share the league lead in points with 20, while Rondeau ranks first in goals (13) and Faso second (11).
The rest of the league: Kenmore-Grand Island is young and graduated 80 percent of its offense from last year in Olivia Smith but remain ambitious as always. The Devil Dogs' consecutive run of championships ended in last year's sectional final even though they were a No. 5 seed to start the postseason. Kenmore-GI's goaltenders include returnee Ellie Simmons, an eighth-grader, and seventh-grader Carolyn Bourgeault. Other key players include sophomore forward Abby Blair and junior defenseman Chloe Moore.
"Our strength is goaltending," coach Jeff Orlowski said. "We will try to play a defensive system to hold off the other team and capitalize on their mistakes."
LID has 14 returnees and has already matched last season's win total (two). The top players include Jersey Phillips of Depew, Anna Pitz of Iroquois and Jill Blas of Lancaster.
Tom Ferro takes over from Brian Hillery at Hamburg-Eden-West Seneca. They have two strong netminders in Harmon and Brown, and senior defenseman Emma O'Neill is HEWS' strongest skater and puck mover. She's joined on the back end by Nicole Harris. Another player to keep an eye on is junior center Katelyn Morris.
What's up with Nichols: Nichols' prep-league team is off to a 4-2-1 start and riding the wave of junior Katy Knoll's selection to the United States' Under-18 girls national team, which has advanced to Friday's world tournament semifinal.
"We feel that Katy being named to the 18-under National team, it gives our other players an extra boost to work harder to achieve their goals," Nichols coach Shelly Looney said. "It also helps show not only your players but all Western New York female players that anything is possible if you put the hard work in."
In addition to Knoll, the 2017 Prep Talk Awards Girls Hockey Player of the Year, other top players for the Vikings include senior fowards Ciara Barone and Maddie Moell, senior defenseman Taylor Pietrowski and senior goalie Jada Brenon. Freshman defenseman Tory Mariano is off to nice start.
Key dates: Section VI Tournament begins, Feb. 1; Section VI final, 8 p.m. Feb. 7 at Northtown Center; New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association final four Feb. 9-10 at Oswego; WNY Federation Postseason Tournament begins, Feb. 13; Federation final, 6 p.m. Feb. 25 at HarborCenter.
Story topics: Clarence/Amherst/Sweet Home/ Fronter/Lake Shore/Orchard Park/ girls hockey/ Hamburg/Eden/West Seneca/ Kenmore-Grand Island/ Lancaster/Iroquois/Depew/ Monsignor Martin/ Nichols/ Williamsville