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When the Monsignor Martin Association girls hockey team needed overtime to beat Williamsville earlier this month, it wasn’t just a victory, but a glimpse into the future.

“It was a great, great girls hockey game, one of the best I’ve seen in three years,” said Monsignor Martin coach Chris Malicki. “It was back and forth. It shows all the teams are improving, the league is getting better. The very first year there were a lot of blowouts. This year you’re not seeing that, and the league is a lot tighter.”

A more competitive league is good news for the six other teams in the Western New York Hockey Federation, who have been chasing the perennial front-runners since the league formed three years ago. Monsignor Martin beat West Seneca, 2-1, to win last year’s Federation title.

The defending champions are off to an 11-0 start this year as the league hits the home stretch of an 18-game regular season.

Detractors say the team’s success shouldn’t come as a surprise as the roster of 23 players represents the best and brightest from seven different Catholic schools.

“I’ve heard it for three years,” said Malicki. “Here’s the rub, when you look at the enrollment numbers, we’re right in the middle. There are three schools above us and three below. Immaculata has 150 kids total. Mount Mercy has 225. Look at how big the three Williamsville schools are? People don’t know that or they don’t look at that.”

What they do notice is the play of standouts such as junior forward Rachel Lenard, one of six players named to last year’s All-Federation team. She’s put up some impressive numbers, including a hat trick and two assists last week against Kenmore.

“She controls the puck and the play sometimes at will,” said Malicki. “She’s so strong when she gets the puck, she keeps it on her stick, it’s very difficult to get it off. And she’s an outstanding skater.”

Senior Julia Duquette has already committed to play college hockey at Division III Plattsburgh and Rachel Ziarnowski is a versatile athlete who has signed with Niagara for softball.

Malicki has a short wish list when it comes to things he’d like to change about the league, but he does wish his team could bus to its away games.

“People don’t realize we are self-funded, we get no help from the schools, these girls are paying out of their own pocket. The public schools get bussed. We have parents car pooling. That’s the one thing I feel we miss. I wish we could get a bus and go together.”

• Frontier/Orchard Park does not take its commitment to playing hockey lying down. Not when practice starts at 5 a.m. Ice time is so scarce that the nine girls from Frontier and 11 from OP show up bright and early at Leisure Rinks ready for their morning skate three to four times a week.

“They all get out of their cars in their PJs, they’ve got Tim Horton’s hot chocolate or coffee and they get on the ice and start giggling and laughing,” said coach Jim McCarthy, a teacher at Frontier, who answers his alarm at 4:20 a.m. “I said it from day one, that’s one of the things that holds our team together.”

Senior Bernadette O’Connell holds the Frontier/OP offense together as one of the fastest girls in the league with a hard shot. The team has trouble scoring goals so it relies on a solid core of five defenseman to keep it in games.

Another unique aspect is the team has four sets of sisters: Alexa and Mikaela DiTonto, Megan and Jessica Urbank, Katie and Grace Page and Megan and Hannah Roche.

• Of all the challenges that await a team at the beginning of a season, West Seneca didn’t think having enough players would be one of them. Last year’s roster of 17 went 17-4 overall and finished as runner-up in the Federation.

This fall coach Pete Tonsoline was dismayed when seven players, with no goalie, showed up on the first day of practice.

Tonsoline immediately summoned West Seneca West field hockey coach Kelly Ruchalski, who worked the phones and rustled up enough players to save the program.

“We were warming up before one game and the ref says to me, ‘Where are the rest of their kids? Are they coming out of the lockeroom?’ I said, ‘No, that’s them,’" said Tonsoline. “I’m just happy we survived. If we couldn’t have fielded a team, I would have felt like we were letting everyone down.”

Junior Erin Gehen has been a first-team All-Fed pick the last two years. She currently is the Fed’s scoring leader with 20 goals and has 13 assists. She connected for seven goals in a recent 10-6 win over Lancaster. Her hat trick was the difference in a 7-6 win over Amherst/Sweet Home.

“Gehen never comes off the ice,” said Tonsoline. “In all the sports I’ve coached, and I’ve been coaching ice hockey for 41 years on the high school level, I think this kid plays with the most heart of anyone.”

Gehen is a three-year player along with junior Molly Sikorski (West), Kristen Sikorski (East) and Katie Zimmer (West). Two other player back from last year are freshman Jouden Weisbeck and Bri Carlin.

Tonsoline gives a lot of credit to Abby Mutton, the JV goalie on the field hockey team, who has stood in there and made 176 saves this season.

• Williamsville junior goalie Theresa Meosky (Williamsville East) has three shutouts in her 10 starts. She’s come up big in several games when the defense has broken down.

Junior defenseman Rachel Grampp (Williamsville South), a transfer from Nichols, has scored five goals on slap shots from the blue line. Her other two have been on rushes.

Senior Caroline Soh (Williamsville East) excels on defense. She is one of only three seniors on the team. Sophomore Sarah Scolnick (Williamsville East) is the speed merchant, with a low center of gravity and plays on the top scoring line.

• Kenmore’s Lauren Pray, then a sophomore, was the only goalie to make the All-Fed first team last year. She has a .946 save percentage and a 1.31 goals-against average.

Kenmore’s fortunate in having another goaltender who can get the job done with Kaitlyn Simmons, who rotates with Pray. Simmons had her best game of the season last week against Williamsville recording 24 saves in a shutout.

Also contributing to Kenmore’s 7-4-1 start are winger Alyssa Dollendorf, defensman Kaeli Mathias and defenseman Grace Simmons (freshman assistant captain). Mathias was an All-WNY selection in field hockey.

• Interest in Lancaster’s program is at an all-time high with a roster of 23 players. Only eight have experience while the rest either just play for the school or have never played at all.

Sophomore Megan Reukauf is a top defenseman and junior Maddie Norton can be found in goal or on defense. There are two middle schoolers on the team, including eighth-grader Janelle Piatt, who had a hat trick against West Seneca.

Lancaster remains the Fed’s only member that plays as single school. “We have improved tremendously over the last three years,” said coach Dave Santoro. “This year, having more girls, they push each other, go to open skates and practice on backyard ice rinks. Since we first took the ice on Nov. 2. we’ve made so much progress in our skating.”

• Amherst/Sweet Home’s top line is made up of Missy Mallon, Julia Mings and McKenna Rushford. They are complimented by junior defenseman Maddy Grisko, who is fourth in the league in points with 11 goals and seven assists in seven games. Mallon is close behind with seven goals, eight assists.

“Maddy is an all-around great player,” said coach James Ryan. “She’s been playing defense since she was a kid. She’s really been the leader. She gets involved off the rushes. She’s scored a lot of goals from the point.”

States, here we come

Section VI will be sending a team to compete for an unofficial state title for the first time. Four sections across the state now offer girls hockey, six are needed to make it an official championship. The tournament had been a three-team wild-card event before welcoming Section VI this year.

The local representative will be decided on Feb. 6 when the top two public school teams, based on league record, play a winner-take-all game at the Northtowns Center. That team advances to Canton to play in a semifinal/final on Feb. 8-9.

The team then returns home to compete in the Federation playoffs against all seven teams in the league starting Feb. 11.

email: mmonnin@buffnews.com