Belief is a key component to a team with aspirations of winning.
It’s something Niagara-Wheatfield, St. Joe’s and Williamsville East are overflowing with after adding to their hockey championship collections Monday at First Niagara Center.
N-W completed the unthinkable during the Section VI Division I (Large Schools) championship game. The No. 2 seed overcame an early 2-0 hole and rallied to beat top seed Williamsville North, 3-2, to become the first Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation member to ever win three straight playoff championships.
Justin Durkee’s goal late in the second period broke a 2-2 tie and enabled a Falcons crew that was still smarting from last year’s state semifinal loss to earn another shot at that ever elusive state crown.
“I can’t say enough about how proud I am to see them come back,” said winning coach Rick Wrazin, who has guided N-W to four sectional titles in its six seasons as a varsity program. “They fought and clawed for it. … North is a hell of a program, one of the best in the state.”
No. 3-seed St. Joe’s once again denied top-seeded Bishop Timon-St. Jude of championship glory as senior Nicholas Zenger scored twice while classmate Peter Chopra made 29 saves during the Marauders’ 4-2 triumph in the Niagara Cup final.
In the Section VI Division II (Small Schools) final, Williamsville East rallied to beat Kenmore East, 3-2, in a battle between top 10 state-ranked schools. Jason Cohen (one assist) broke a 2-2 tie early in the third period to make sure the Flames, ranked 10th in the state, didn’t lose in a sectional final for the third year in a row. It’s Williamsville East’s second title in four seasons.
An estimated 4,200 attended the championship tripleheader Monday. Those who showed up for the finale were treated to an entertaining show.
North, making its seventh playoff final appearance in the last eight seasons, struck twice in the opening 1:46. Zach Kurbiel and Brian Couto scored for the Spartans (12-8-2), ranked 12th in the state large school poll.
N-W (13-6-3), ranked fifth in the state, took over instead of going into a turtle position.
Domenic Senese, last year’s title-game MVP, scored on a breakaway late in the first to pull N-W within one. James Stenzel pounced on a rebound in the slot with 8:49 left in the second period to tie the game, 2-2. The Falcons took the lead 2:32 later on Durkee’s goal off a feed from Matt Paonessa. Paonessa and Andrew Logar won a battle behind the net for the puck with Paonessa making the back-door feed to Durkee for the easy goal.
Goalie Nate Sommers finished with 21 saves after giving up the two early goals for N-W, which will play at Ithaca on Saturday afternoon in the state quarterfinals.
“It’s definitely special, winning three in a row,” said Falcons senior Anthony Vekich. “It’s been our goal all along to go back to states. We plan on winning it.”
Zenger and Connor McKenna scored second-period goals to break a scoreless tie and St. Joe’s never relinquished its advantage in winning for the 10th time in its last 11 games and earning a shot at defending its state Catholic championship this Saturday night against St. Anthony’s (L.I.) in the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. The Marauders also beat Timon for the Niagara Cup last year, 3-2, and now have won 10 playoff titles since the formation of the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation in 1990.
Zenger made it 3-1 late in the third period after St. Joe’s (16-11-1) won a battle along the left wall. Junior Dominic Perna capped a two-point game by scoring into the empty net with 7.2 seconds left. That goal came 30 seconds after Justin Blake’s goal pulled Timon (19-6-1) within 3-2. The loss ends the Tigers’ 12-game winning streak.
“Those guys who were champions last year, they may have been the difference tonight,” said St. Joe’s coach Rich Crozier of the holdovers - including Perna, Zenger, McKenna, James Bassett and John Schmitt. “It feels great. … It’s a little different. We’re playing some great hockey at the right time while last year we had won 20-something in a row heading into the final.”
The Division II sectional final featured a battle between state No. 2 Kenmore East and Williamsville East, which cracked the rankings for the first time this season on Monday.
The Flames have a chance to improve on that. Max Battistoni finished with 27 saves, including three breakaway stops for Williamsville East (17-4-2).
Mike Mostowy and Dylan Cicero also scored for the Flames. Cohen’s game-winner sums up this year’s East crew. It was a blue-collar goal - he put it on net in close and jabbed away at the puck until it crossed the goal line.
David Christopher and Trevor Pray scored for Kenmore East (16-4-3).
“This is literally the best feeling in the world, I can’t describe it,” said Cohen.