If anyone believes Sweet Home is unworthy of being the top-ranked boys hockey team in the state, go to the penalty box. Don't come out until the Panthers fire the puck into the net.
Riding a smoldering power play and refuse to lose attitude, Sweet Home achieved what many thought was unthinkable except for those within the blue and gold inner circle.
The Panthers went from playing in the Western New York Varsity Federation's weakest division to New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association champion. Sweet Home captured its first state title in program history by beating fellow Fed member West Seneca West, 7-5, on Sunday afternoon in a wild Division II final at HarborCenter.
Tyler Edholm capped his Panthers career with a five-point game that included a second straight hat trick, while Kyle Neudorf chipped in with three points. Sweet Home avenged a 2-1 loss in the Section VI final two weeks ago to West by beating the Indians in the first all-Section VI state championship game in the history of the NYSPHSAA Tournament.
Sweet Home gained entry into states as an at-large team because there aren't enough sections that have small-school (Division II) programs to complete the eight-team state tournament bracket. This year it was Section VI's turn to send two to the tournament. The Panthers proved their worthiness of inclusion as they joined 2015 state champion Skaneateles of Section III as at-large teams to win the crown.
Even when Sweet Home was ranked first in the state earlier this season, some folks dismissed it as the state pollsters not knowing what they're doing – considering the Panthers had been assigned to the weakest of the competitive divisions in its own Federation.
Good luck with that argument anymore, especially once the final rankings come out with Sweet Home's name following the No. 1.
"Nobody believed we were the No. 1 team around here," said tournament MVP Edholm, who also recorded a hat trick in Saturday's state semifinal win over Auburn. "They looked past us. They thought we were a Division III team. Well a Division III team has won the state championship."
The Panthers (21-4-1) did it by scoring six straight goals, including four on the power play, after spotting first-time state finalist West Seneca West a 2-0 lead on goals by Ethan Parsons and Kyle Haettich.
Edholm struck for a pair of power-play goals late in the first period – redirecting point shots – to send the game into the first intermission tied, although the Indians took a penalty late in the period.
That proved to be costly as the Panthers took the lead for good 57 seconds into the second period on Joe Torrillo's goal as he redirected a screen shot from the right circle from Neudorf. Sophomore Blake Russo made it 4-2 with an even-strength goal 3:23 later. Edholm completed his hat trick two minutes later tipping in a Neudorf shot from the right circle for the Panthers' fourth power-play goal.
"A hat trick in back to back state games is amazing," said 17th-year Sweet Home coach Dave Gerspach.
Eric Abbate also scored for Sweet Home, which led 6-3 after two period. Mike Lisman made 27 saves for the win.
Billy Coughlin, Chase Chodkowski and Jake Fort also scored for the Indians (18-7-1), who received two assists from Matt Myers. Myers guided the football team to a state title in the fall.
Another ring wasn't in the cards for West.
While the Panthers' power play has been dangerous all year it went up several notches Sunday with Gerspach making an adjustment. He moved Edholm in front and hard-shooting Neudorf to the side.
It was late golden move in a season full of them by Sweet Home.
"There's never a good way to lose when you come this far," West coach Kevin Rozo said. "We had a 2-0 lead. I thought 5 on 5 we were playing great hockey. We ran into a little penalty trouble and our penalty kill that's been good all year long gave up (some) goals. It's tough."
For the Panthers, the title capped a long road for several seniors who have been with the program four years – including a couple seasons where it was tough to record wins.
That's so in the past now.
"I love them all," Gerspach said. "They're like sons to me. … I'm very thankful for this opportunity with these guys."
"We love our coaches," said Edholm, who posted single-season program records for goals (36) and points (63). "We did it."