The top girls who skate for the Buffalo Bisons hockey programs are so talented that any national attention they receive these days should not come as a surprise.
Yet, for a program that is churning out Division I talent with regularity, it is quite the feat that roughly half of the state’s representation in the upcoming USA Hockey Evaluation Camps at St. Cloud, Minn., are Western New Yorkers – with 13 of the 15 Bisons.
There is something that would be even more impressive: If just one of them earned the right to don the red, white and blue Team USA jersey.
The quest to skate for Old Glory begins in earnest as America’s top talents between the ages of 14-17 battle for a spot during the seven-day camps. The 17-under candidates gather today while the select 14- and 15-year-old camps run July 19-25.
Those who do well in these camps will earn an invitation to a smaller, select camp later this summer where Team USA brass will choose players for the national program.
Emily Pfalzer of Getzville, who has helped Boston College reach the Frozen Four each of the past two seasons, is believed to be the only Western New York female hockey player to make it onto one of USA Hockey’s three national teams – serving as an alternate captain in 2010 and 2011 on Under-18 teams that earned gold and silver medals at the world championships.
“On sheer numbers, I think we’ve got some opportunities,” Scott Welch, the Bisons and Nichols coach, said of the odds of landing at least one player on a national team. “The kids are very driven and they’ve continued to develop.”
Four of the candidates who are vying for a spot on either Team USA’s Under-18, Under-22 or national teams verbally committed to Division I schools prior to their senior year of high school. They are Allison Gasuik (Bisons/Nichols/Ohio State), Julianna Iafallo (Bisons/Nichols/Ohio State), Madison Sansone (Bisons/Nichols/Providence) and Annika Zalewski (Bisons/Nichols/Colgate).
Gasuik recorded 28 goals and 53 points in 49 games with the Bisons last year. She also played 39 games for Nichols, notching 26 goals and 49 points. Iafallo had 53 goals and 88 points in 86 combined games with the two teams. Sansone added 56 goals and 87 points in 80 games.
Zalewski, who only played 33 games for the Bisons last year and will also join Nichols this season, had 14 goals and 21 points.
Others vying for an opportunity of a lifetime include Mikaela Ditonto (Buffalo Bisons/Orchard Park), Brandy Streeter (Bisons/Nichols), Olivia Zafuto (Bisons/Nichols), Abby Cleary (Shattuck St. Mary’s, formerly of Bisons/Nichols), Rachel dePerio (Bisons/Nichols), Bailey Lewczyk (North American Hockey Academy), Ava Simoncelli (Bisons/Nichols), Lila Toczak (Bisons), Abby Welch (Bisons/Nichols), Maureen Murphy (Bisons) and Taylor Pietrowski (Buffalo Regals).
Gasuik, Iafallo, Sansone, Streeter, Zafuto, Zalewski and Ditonto will skate in the Under-17 camp. Gasuik missed last year’s camp with a hip injury, while Ditonto is a first-time participant.
“In general this is one of the highest numbers Buffalo has sent,” to the national camp, said John Cleary, who runs the Bisons girls hockey program and is West section director for women’s/girls hockey in New York.
How did so many from the 716 get discovered?
It’s easier for players to get noticed when their team regularly skates in prestigious in-season tournaments against the nation’s best – which in turn attracts Team USA and college scouts, but that’s only part of the answer.
Players are putting in the work to go from being very good to being considered elite. Some have done that by starting strength training at an earlier age. Attending in-season skills clinics provides players additional ice time outside of the normal practice setting and gives them additional chances to turn weaknesses into strengths. Some even have personal skating coaches.
“I think it’s a combination of everything,” said Welch, who has coached 41 girls during his 15 seasons who have played either Division I or III college hockey. “If you look at teams in general in this area, obviously the Bisons have had a lot of success and it’s continued to develop so I think you see at the national level the kids do well.
“They do well at the national championships and … I think that transcends to helping in the selection of the kids for national camp as well. I just think in New York State right now, Western New York is the hot bed for girls hockey.”
Welch coaches five players who have verbally committed to Division I schools (the aforementioned four as well as daughter and goalie Madison Welch, who has committed to Syracuse even though she’s just a junior-to-be at Nichols).
Two other Bisons/Nichols players he coached last season, Maddie Elia and Kelly Seward, will skate for Boston University and Penn State, respectively, in the fall. They join former Bisons Haley Welch (Union), Julia DiTondo (Mercyhurst) and Emily Janiga (Mercyhurst), and Clarence Center’s Jenn Godin (RPI) in the Division I ranks.
“I think competition in general has gotten huge,” said Haley Welch. “I think everyone’s turning into great hockey players. They’re starting young training.”
The slick, playmaking Iafallo and the fast-skating Sansone are among the past evaluation camp participants who caught the eye of the Division I college coaches the last time they attended the event.
“It was good, it was fun,” said Iafallo. “It was great competition to see how you place with the best of the best. You play against a lot of those girls so it’s good to kind of play with and have some of them on your team.
“I was a little nervous the first year just because it was my first year. I think everyone has those nerves, but I was real excited too because you get to play with the girls that you always had those games where you have to watch her because she’s really good so it is exciting to play against those girls and with them.”
Gasuik is a fearless player with a great finishing touch. She can’t wait to skate with the nation’s best after missing last year’s event. Besides working out everyday, she has a personal skating coach in Canada, Darryl Belfry, who has helped alter her stride so that she’s more on her toes which, she said, makes her stronger on pucks in the corner.
“It’s a good opportunity for me,” said Gasuik, who showed off her soft hands and athleticism during a recent workout by juggling the puck on her stick and heel and kicking the puck back onto her stick while skating at half speed from the goal line to the far blue line. “Last year I faced some big adversity, but I recovered and I think this year I will make the U-18 team.”
The invitees should feel confident in their abilities.
They’ve skated against top competition for years whether it’s during the season in events such as the Connecticut Polar Bear and North American Hockey tournaments; the season-ending USA Hockey Championships; or the Sunday night summer gatherings at their North Buffalo Ice Rink home, where 14-under skaters work out with older players, including the Division I talents.
The Division I players attend not only so they can get some summer ice time but also serve as positive role models for the younger generation.
“You just watched them, try to take their habits, use them and add them to your game and it helps you all around,” Gasuik said.
What’s also helped the players has been the moral and financial backing from their families, something Scott Welch is quick to point out whenever a player tells him, “I earned a scholarship.”
“Your family got the scholarship because without them driving you, without them spending a lot of money and doing a lot of these crazy things, you wouldn’t have the opportunity,” he said. “It’s their talent on the ice but it’s the dedication behind the scenes.”
That commitment along with the work exerted by the players could lead to more great moments later this summer.
“I’m really excited,” said 14-year-old dePerio, who’s attending her first USA camp. “I’m just going to try my hardest, do my best and make my parents proud of me.”