What's it like to be a state champion?
It's a question longtime Sweet Home boys hockey coach Dave Gerspach never had a chance to answer until March 11, the day of the biggest victory in program history.
The question was recently posed to Gerspach again, and it's a safe bet he'll never get tired of answering it.
"It's been pretty fantastic," Gerspach said, the state's Division II Coach of the Year. "It's something I thought we'd never accomplish."
The Panthers did it and soon will have championship rings to remind them of the feat.
The 2017-18 boys hockey season goes down as perhaps one of the best in the history of the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation and while Sweet Home is a big reason for it, that is only part of the story.
Four, count them, four Fed teams played for their respective state championships this past season. Sweet Home won the first ever Section VI vs. Section VI state final when it gained a measure of payback by beating West Seneca West, 7-5, in the rematch of the Section VI final. That entertaining contest fittingly was the very last game of the scholastic season at HarborCenter.
Call it luck of the draw – much like Sweet Home's bid to states, but more on that later.
Niagara Wheatfield (Division I) and St. Mary's (Catholic) also were first-time state finalists like Sweet Home and WSW. NW, which won its sixth sectional title in 10 years, lost to unbeaten Victor from suburban Rochester. St. Mary's, which stunned the top two seeds Canisius and St. Joe's in the Niagara Cup playoffs in its return to the Federation after a two-year hiatus, lost to St. Anthony's (L.I.).
"Just goes to show how strong our section is," Fed President and Section VI Chairman Mark DiFilippo said. "We had four teams this year play in a state championship. Those programs now know what it takes and will use that to their advantage moving forward. I also know that there were 22 other teams in Buffalo who watched that and said that could have been us. How many teams tied or beat those teams during the year that could have been in those skates which shows the level of play we have here."
The level of play is scary good when considering Sweet Home emerged from the weaker of the two small-school divisions within its own league to fashion a season to remember.
Until this year's breakthrough, the Panthers' best window for winning a state championship appeared to be a decade ago after the powerhouse teams featuring some of the program's all-time greats (including leading scorer Ryan Marko and standout goaltender Derek Mohney) just came up short of winning it all to cap back-to-back state tournament appearances in 2008.
Then came this crew – a blend of experience in the form of seven four-year players who helped build the program back up – including state tournament MVP and senior Tyler Edholm, Andrew Czyz and Joe Torrillo -- and skilled underclassmen -- including sophomores Kyle Neudorf and Blake Russo.
They did it through team work. They did it with the perfect them-against-the-world mentality that enabled them to play every game like they had something to prove – resulting in them playing at a high level. They did it with confidence.
"I think the kids did a tremendous job of keeping their focus," Gerspach said.
That definitely includes Edholm.
Edholm recorded back-to-back hat tricks in the state final four as part of an eight-point burst over two games. Edholm set single-season program records for goals (33) and points (61) and leaves the program as its second all-time leading scorer with 124 points.
He will play golf in college at Niagara, according to Gerspach.
Luck of the draw
Every state champion needs a lucky bounce along the way to that triumphant moment.
Sweet Home received its break just by the luck of the draw.
The state hands out a wild-card each year in Division II because there aren't enough small-school champions to fill-out the eight-team tournament bracket.
This past season was Section VI's turn to send two teams. The Panthers got into the state tournament simply by reaching the Section VI final.
While this season happened to be Section VI's turn in the seven-year rotation it won't have to wait as long for its turn to come up again. Section VI will send two teams again next year as the section won the draw to determine the order for the next round of wild-card bids.
The bad news in that is that after next year, it'll be a while before Section VI will be able to send two teams to states.
First team All-State
Forwards - Chace Woods (Niagara Wheatfield), Danny Flynn (W. Seneca East)
Defense - Jacob Fort (W. Seneca West), Zack Belter (NW)
Second team All-State
Forward – Brett Sardina (Williamsville North)
Defense - Anthony Trigilio (Williamsville North)
Goalie – Peyton Siegmann (Niagara Wheatfield)
All-WNY Federation Large School
Brett Sardina Forward Senior Williamsville North
Andrew Bruno Forward Senior Williamsville North
Chace Woods Forward Senior Niagara Wheatfield
Zack Belter Defense Senior Niagara Wheatfield
Anthony Trigilio Defense Senior Niagara Wheatfield
Peyton Siegmann Goalie Junior Niagara Wheatfield
All-WNY Federation Small School
Tyler Edholm Forward Senior Sweet Home
Danny Flynn Forward Senior West Seneca East
Parker Morrow Forward Senior Grand Island
Andrew Czyz Defense Senior Sweet Home
Jacob Fort Defense Senior West Seneca West
Jason Lupp Goalie Senior Grand Island