It’s not a blueprint that guarantees victory, but sometimes the best way to win a championship is by having an offense that’s a threat to turn any game into a rout in a matter of a few shifts.
Defending Division II (small schools) state champion Kenmore East proved that last season, averaging 6.5 goals per game by rolling four lines filled with finishers to a 22-2-1 record. That championship ending helped the Bulldogs squash any lingering feelings of disappointment they felt at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, when their offensive juggernaut of a team – which averaged 6.7 goals in 14 league games – ran into a hot goalie (every team’s nightmare), who ended their season in the Federation final.
West Seneca West knows about disappointment. The Indians have lost in double overtime in the Fed Small School semifinals twice the past three seasons – including last year when they lost to Williamsville East to cap a 15-6-1 campaign.
It’s still early in the season, but West Seneca West looks like it has plenty of finishers to perhaps bury past postseason disappointments. The Indians have 24 goals through four games.
Among key returnees is senior Tyler Chodkowski, who will become the program’s all-time leader in goals the next time two times he lights the lamp. Adam Johnson holds the record with 25 and Chodkowski has 24.
“Every team has one [scoring line], but we have three or four and we believe that gives us a little bit of an advantage with our depth,” West coach Kevin Rozo said. “We were the only team [Fed small schools] that beat Ken East last season. For us it’s looking to take that next step. We’re looking to take that next step and get to Super Sunday.”
Chodkowski saw significant time last year along with fellow returnees Pat Ciancio and Brandon Bork. Jamie Tobias, a senior who hadn’t played the past two seasons, has three goals and a team-high seven points in three league games. He is a two-sport athlete this winter as he’s also running distance races for West’s indoor track team. He runs cross country during the fall.
According to Rozo, he wanted to play hockey one more time before graduating and have a chance to play on the same team as his younger brother Adam, a sophomore defenseman.
“He’s been a huge help for us and has bolstered those top two lines,” Rozo said of Jamie Tobias. “He’s the fastest guy on the ice. He can set them up and he can finish.”
Other key returnees for the Indians include senior captain John Danovskis and defenseman Matt Barth. Both are in their third seasons.
Williamsville East and Sweet Home are also making some noise early in the season.
Will East began the league season 4-1 (the loss to West Seneca West), with returning junior goalie Adam Dentico winning each of those games via shutout. He’s the Flames’ No. 1 goalie now that Tucker Weppner, the MVP of the 2011 Fed Small School final, is playing for a prep school in Connecticut.
Will East senior forward Austin Bianchi entered last weekend with five goals and nine points in five league games. He’s one of 15 returnees from last year’s sectional runner-up team that went 12-2 in league. Other key ones include senior forwards Josh Sadkin, Mike Carballada and John Bielinski. The defense returns seniors Brenden Chambers, Bobby Finley, David Paul and Jacob Shine.
“We keep coming at you,” Flames coach Mike Torrillo said. “We’re a tough team I think. ... They’ve experienced a lot of things. They’re not intimidated. ... Having them ready to play come playoff time, that’s the goal.”
Sweet Home (5-1-1) bolted to a 4-0 start behind senior Randy DiNatale’s 17 points. He had 24 goals and 19 assists last year, while junior Connor Beaudet had nine goals and 35 points in 22 games.
New ‘Dogs in fold
Graduation isn’t the only thing to hit Ken East hard. The Bulldogs also lost potential returnees to either full-season Tier I or junior-level teams (both of which are higher level of play than Fed).
Taylor Davis, who was a second team all-state pick as a sophomore, is now playing defense for Ottawa of the major junior Ontario Hockey League – which is heavily scouted by National Hockey League personnel. Andy Robinson, Colin Farrell and David Hopfer are playing for the Buffalo Regals/Jr. Sabres Elite Midget Team, which is scouted by junior-level and Division I college coaches.
With eight returnees, Ken East’s goal is to maintain its competitiveness throughout the season and “hopefully peak around February and sectionals,” according to coach Kyle Pray.
Among the returnees are goalies Mike Davern and Trevor Taggart. Mitchell Calkins should help anchor the defense, while senior captain Anthony Amoia is an excellent two-way player. Brenon Sarratori and Mike Diliberto will lead the offense.
“We’ll have some growing pains, but if the boys work hard and adapt to our system, I feel we swill be better in the second half of the season,” Pray said.
Meanwhile, Blake Schneider had three goals and seven points and Adam Herr had six goals through four games to help Williamsville South (5-2) open league play 4-0.
Coach Sean Green’s team has shown to be resilient thus far, something he said the 10 returnees learned from last year’s seniors. The Billies rallied for a 3-1 win last Thursday after entering the third period down, 1-0, to North Tonawanda. They also won a back-and-forth game against West Seneca East, 6-5, in overtime.
“It’s one of the most complete teams we’ve had,” Green said. “We don’t have any travel elite players but they’re playing together and doing a fantastic job.”
N-W reloads in large schools
Niagara-Wheatfield won its second Large School playoff title in four years last year and is off to a 2-0 start already with its wins over Clarence and perennial contender Williamsville North.
Senior Mike Parisi was one of the league’s top players last year, recording 14 goals in 13 Fed games. He plays on the top line with classmate Anthony Merante and junior Anthony Vekich. Vekich had nine goals and 13 assists in 16 games last year.
“We’re young but we’re good up front,” coach Rick Wrazin said. “We have a lot of speed still.
“We have a target on our backs. We know that. ... If they work hard, pay attention to detail and use their speed I think we can be there again [contending for the title].”
Junior Frank Vecchio is new to the Falcons and has five assists already. Fellow newcomer, sophomore Dominic Senese, already has four goals.
Returning defensemen include Matt Peters, Jeff Janese, Adriano Medici and John McCasey.
Clarence, Lancaster and Frontier figure to be among the contenders.
The Red Devils’ returnees include all-division honorable mentions Josh Owczarzak and Matt Colicchia. Senior forward Brian Ruff, son of Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, has a four-goal game on his resume. He is also playing for the No. 8-ranked Buffalo Junior Sabres of the Ontario Junior Hockey League as the schedules worked out so that he could meet Fed commitment requirements and play for both teams. Clarence practices in the mornings before school, which proved to be a big help.
“He wanted to do this. When you’re a senior you don’t ever get to do this again,” coach Rick Brooks said.
Senior captain and defenseman Mark Armstrong, who is 6-foot-4, is expected to attend Pittsburgh on baseball scholarship next fall. Senior Taggart Ledyard, son of ex-Sabres defenseman Grant, is Clarence’s other captain.
Lancaster’s Manny Manns (two goals, five points in three league games) was a first team all-division pick last year, while fellow returning senior William Delano (two goals, four points) was a second-team pick. Jon Chavanne had 10 points in 13 league games last season. Junior goalie Justin DiChristopher was a second-team all-division pick. Other key returnees include forward Travis Valvo and defenseman Matt Molnar. The Redskins are off to a 3-0-1 start, including a tie with St. Joe’s.
Frontier hopes to make some noise with a roster that features 15 returnees and nine seniors total, including returning first team all-division goalie Cooper Soto (2.45 goals-against average), first-team forward Bob Piotrowicz and second-team forward Gavin Evancho. Other key returnees from a team that won a program-record 15 games last year include forwards include Nick Ortiz and Jacob Macchioni.
Piotrowicz (11 goals, 26 points in league; 23 goals, 40 points overall), Evancho, who set the school record with 22 assists last year, and Ortiz (seven goals, 18 points in league) play on the same line and led the Falcons in scoring last year. Frontier beat Williamsville North for the first time in its history last Saturday.
“We’re going to do our best to win our first league championship. They have an opportunity,” Frontier’s 13th-year coach Bob Klimowicz said.
Williamsville North fields one of its youngest teams in coach Bob Rosen’s 23 years behind the bench, but still can’t be counted out based on reputation (six-time Fed champion and four-time state champion, most recently in 2011).
The Spartans’ top returnees are Tyler Green, who has a baseball scholarship for Vanderbilt, along with seniors Jon Lunney, Ben Ferro and Alex Wapniewski and junior Sean Bailey.
“The kids have a great attitude, they work hard and hopefully we’ll continue to get better,” said Rosen.
St. Joe’s out for revenge
St. Joe’s has some sharp new jerseys similar to the Montreal Canadiens scheme of things except in Marauders’ colors.
The Marauders hope they get to show off the new duds at Super Sunday in late February. They’re still upset they failed to reach the Federation’s Catholic Championship game last year because it was their biggest rival, Canisius, which foiled their dream of back-to-back championships.
Proof that the defeat still gnaws at St. Joe’s: “We are looking very forward to our game against Canisius Jan. 10, not only because they’re our rival,” coach Rich Crozier said.
To put it in perspective, the Marauders handled the Crusaders during both regular-season meetings only to fall to them in double overtime in the playoff semifinals.
“Last year was disappointing,” he said. “It was a special team, 23 wins, 3 losses. When I took over the program five years ago, that group were freshmen. We kind of came through the program together. It was a difficult loss in the semifinals.
“The toughest part about any playoff loss is the immediacy. ... But that being said, I feel like we have a really strong team this year. Certainly, last year’s disappointment is motivating us to meet expectations this year. As difficult as it is and I certainly put a lot of pressure on myself, any year we take the ice, anything less that a state championship is a disappointment. The hope this year is we’ll meet expectations.”
The Marauders have 11 returnees on their 22-man roster hoping to do just that, including junior defenseman Dennis Gilbert – who has a scholarship offer from Niagara – along with gritty forward Zach Klapp (five goals, three games), the physical Eric Paradowski, who was third on the team in goals last year, and play-making center Dimitri Gogos
Speaking of the Crusaders, they have 12 returnees back from their Fed Catholic playoff runner-up team and are off to an 8-0 start.
Austin Aksoy has a goal and eight assists in the first two league games, while Louie Oliveri has displayed a finishing touch with six goals and eight points in that span.
Coach Mike Broderick said Canisius is feeding off a 4-0 nonleague run against quality teams from Ohio, including wins over Bishop Walsh and St. Ignatius.
On St. Joe’s already eying the Jan. 10 showdown: “Last year was their [the Marauders’] year. He [Crozier] worked very hard with that group. I respect Rich. They’re a very organized program, but that day was ours,” Broderick said.
While the bitter rivals may be the teams favored to advance to the state Catholic final, Bishop Timon-St. Jude is a team to fear. The Tigers are off to a 7-1 start and played four of those games without captain Alex Corbett, who returned to the lineup Sunday in a 5-2 win nonleague win over Will South. Mike Faliero and Justin Blake are top returnees. Newcomer Conor Fields leads Timon with 11 goals.
The defending champion St. Francis Red Raiders (4-7-1) lost 15 players to either graduation or the school’s prep team. They have lost five games by one goal so far but do return forward Tyler McTigue, who had five points in Sunday’s 6-5 overtime win over West Seneca East, along with forward Bernie Lettieri and defenseman Mike Prentice.
Around the boards
• The annual pre-Christmas meeting between Original Eight Fed rivals Williamsville North and St. Joe’s takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday. Fans may want to get to Northtown Center in Amherst a little early as the game tends to attract lots of fans, what with recent alumni from both schools home for the holiday break. Last year’s game drew an estimated 1,800.
• Ricky Eberhart enters his senior season for Lockport coming off a 13-goal, 23-point effort in 13 league games. The goal total ranked third in the league, one behind league co-leader Parisi of N-W and the graduated Rob Lang of Clarence. He’s been the Lions’ top player for three seasons.
• Senior Austin Bishop rejoins Hamburg after missing last season with a knee injury.
• The playoffs begin Feb. 12 with the Fed’s Catholic teams starting things off. The Small Schools Federation Tournament begins a day later. The Large Schools Federation tourney begins Feb. 15. The championship games will be played Feb. 24 at First Niagara Center as part of Super Sunday.
Other key games
• The battle of Kenmore will also take place at Northtown Center Thursday night at 9 when Kenmore East and Kenmore West square off for village bragging rights.
• Dec. 23: Niagara-Wheatfield hosts Canisius at Dwyer Arena in Lewiston at 7:30 p.m.
• St. Joe’s will compete in the prestigious Mount St. Charles Holiday Faceoff on Dec. 27-29 in Providence, R.I. The tournament features three prep schools, including two state champions. St. Joe’s is 8-4 all-time in this tournament.
“It’s quite a privilege to be invited,” Crozier said.
• Jan. 5: Clarence faces Lancaster at 6 p.m. at Holiday Twin Rinks.
• Jan. 7: Frontier versus Clarence at 5 p.m. at Nike Base.
• Jan. 14: Battle of the Pray brothers as Kyle’s Ken East squad meets Don’s Grand Island crew at 8:45 p.m. at Hyde Park Ice Pavilion in Niagara Falls.