Mike Velasquez has some nice swag, including a 2017 state championship ring, to remind him of a pair of historic seasons by West Seneca West’s football and hockey teams.
The trinkets also serve as a reminder of what Velasquez missed because of a severe knee injury suffered in practice three days before the Indians’ 2017 football opener.
He showed his dedication to the team by showing up, being a good teammate and, as he did during last hockey season, finding a way to contribute by keeping stats as he recovered from a torn ACL and meniscus.
The senior is in a much happier place this winter because instead of using his hands to chart individual hits and shots, he’s using them on the ice to set up scoring opportunities and finishing as he has helped the defending Section VI Division II champion start the season 7-3-2.
“I think I’m back right now,” said Velasquez, who has seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in 12 games. “It definitely would’ve helped if I had played last year, but I feel good. There are some things I still need to improve on ... skating, I could use a longer stride, but I think I’m back.”
“He’s a big part of our team,” said classmate Kyle Haettich, who also played football for West. “It’s tough missing him last year. ... He brings a little atmosphere. He gets the team hyped up, he’s a big leader with all of us. It’s good to have him back.”
Velasquez was one of the team’s top scorers as a sophomore with seven goals and 21 points. Given the talent the Indians had in the cupboard for 2017-18, the three-sport athlete potentially could have made a powerful offense on the ice even more dangerous if not for injuring his knee.
He suffered the injury on a non-contact play in practice while making a cut.
“Definitely wish I could’ve played (hockey) last year,” said Velasquez, who was a candidate to be in the rotation at running back until suffering the injury. “We have a new team. We have a good bond. We have a pretty great group of kids and I think we can make a great run this year.
“I think I would’ve helped the team but I wouldn’t say specifically I could’ve been a game-changer. But I think I would’ve helped out a lot.”
Coach Kevin Rozo agrees.
“We had close to three full lines. He would’ve definitely bolstered one of those top three lines.”
Velasquez’s goal through recovery and rehab was to be ready for this hockey season. Though he received clearance to play lacrosse in April, he opted to continue strengthening his knee and, a month later, began testing it in a spring hockey league with friends.
Velasquez, who averaged about 5.0 yards per carry as a sophomore running back, opted not to play football in the fall so that he could continue preparing for hockey.
So far, it appears to be a wise move.
“Expectations are high this year,” he said. “I worked hard to come back from this injury and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Other key returnees for West include last year’s team offensive MVP Chase Chodkowski, junior forward Billy Coughlin, Haettich and senior goalie Noah Sobczyk. Key newcomers include defenseman Mike Glinski, who is a two-time All-Western New York first-team linebacker; and goaltender Griffin McAndrew, a Timon transfer.
For the second straight year, Division II teams in the Section VI playoffs only need to reach the final to secure a berth in the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Tournament.
The wild-card berth for the state tournament rotates between the sections that have hockey programs. It’s just the way things worked out that Section VI, via the system used to determine the wild card each season, got it back-to-back years. It’ll be at least another five years (or longer) before the section is eligible for the wild card.
Of course, reaching the sectional final is always a challenge in Western New York due to the depth of the league. West won the sectional title last season, but lost in the state final to league rival Sweet Home.
Velasquez has a state-title ring from football, which he’ll always cherish. But to win one in hockey?
“It would mean even more to me,” he said.