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Like a good number of his Niagara-Wheatfield teammates, Matt Paonessa remembers last season’s lengthy playoff run.

It began with routs of Niagara Falls and Lancaster. It included the Falcons’ 7-2 victory over Clarence in the Section VI large schools championship final – a triumph in which a goal-count chant, restricted in the past to Buffalo Sabres blowout wins, briefly resurfaced at First Niagara Center.

Don’t forget the three-goal third period in the regionals that enabled N-W to knock off former state champion Ithaca, 4-2, and earn a spot in the state semifinals.

A tight-knit Niagara-Wheatfield squad became even closer during a run it hoped would never end. But it did, with a thud so sudden that the sting still hasn’t worn off.

It is of no consolation to the Falcons that the team that ended their season, Saratoga, won the state championship. The agony persists because not every team gets to the point in a season where it can almost touch the state championship plaque only to see someone else raise it.

“You just don’t want to feel that way again,” said Paonessa. “Going the whole season, playing so well and just coming up short is tough. We just don’t want to do that again.”

He’s not the only Falcon who feels that way.

There are 13 others – including last year’s top goal scorer (Justin Durkee), points leader (Anthony Vekich) and goalie (Nate Sommers) – who believe the only way to get rid of the lingering bitterness is to return to the final four, except this time bring home the program’s first state title.

“We use it all the time” as motivation, Vekich said of that 4-1 loss to Saratoga. “It makes us work harder in practice and games.”

With so many returning from an experienced playoff team, one might assume Niagara-Wheatfield – the two-time defending Section VI champion – would be the prohibitive favorite to win its fourth sectional championship in the program’s six years in the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation.

However, there’s a reason winning a Fed playoff title is almost as tough as capturing a state championship. The league is considered one of the best in the state and tends to be littered with contenders.

This season doesn’t appear to be any different, especially with realignment putting all of the large schools (except Niagara Falls and Lockport) in one nine-team division along with top Catholic contenders St. Joe’s, Canisius and Bishop Timon-St. Jude. The Catholics will participate in their own playoff tournament, the Niagara Cup, separate from the public schools.

“Every game is a big challenge and you hope it pays off later on that you have to play such a tough schedule all year,” sixth-year N-W coach Rick Wrazin said.

“I think they’re going to be a tough team,” seventh-year Orchard Park coach Derek Gilham said of N-W. But “of all the years I’ve coached in this league, this is as even a league as I’ve ever seen.”

The scores seem to back up Gilham’s assertion. Gilham, who has also served as an assistant coach at Williamsville East and Amherst, saw his club drop a 4-3 decision to N-W but beat Canisius by the same score. The Quakers also defeated last year’s large school playoff runner-up Clarence, 3-0, which beat defending state Catholic champion St. Joe’s, 1-0, for the first time in its seven seasons in the Federation.

Williamsville North, a four-time state champion coming off its first losing campaign in 23 seasons in the Federation, shut out Niagara-Wheatfield, 4-0, last Saturday, played Canisius to a 0-0 tie and defeated a Frontier team that not only beat Timon for the Batavia Holiday Tournament title but also beat St. Joe’s. That’s the same St. Joe’s crew that last Thursday scored a pulsating 3-2 overtime win over Will North.

Lancaster owns a win over Orchard Park but lost to Timon, which beat St. Joe’s but got drubbed by Canisius.

Feel free to take a deep breath.

“It’s a tough league,” Wrazin said. “We certainly hope to repeat to get back. The league this year is a lot tighter than it’s ever been so consistency is going to be a big thing.

“It’s the team that’s playing best at the end of the year that will move on. At the moment, it looks like it could be anybody.”

Niagara-Wheatfield has been that “anybody” the past two seasons – playing its best hockey when it has mattered most.

The Falcons opened the new season by winning six of their first seven games, including their first four in the league. The secret to N-W’s quality start: discipline and timely scoring.

“They’ll wait for you to take a penalty or lose your cool and then they’ll finish you off,” said St. Joe’s coach Rich Crozier, whose club dropped a 4-2 decision to N-W.

Vekich, who last season led the Falcons in points (29) en route to securing team MVP honors, already has six points and shares the team lead in goals (five) with Andrew Logar. Paonessa, who led the Falcons in assists last year, leads them with nine and has 10 points.

Durkee has four goals and seven points. Junior Domenic Senese has just two assists but has a knack for scoring in big games. He had a hat trick and earned game MVP honors in last year’s sectional final. Sommers has big-game experience in goal.

But can using last year’s disappointment provide enough motivation to help the Falcons soar to the top once again?

Crozier believes N-W can get a lot of mileage out of that, considering his club was in a similar spot entering last season.

“I think it can go a long way,” said Crozier, recalling his talented 2011-12 St. Joe’s team that lost in shocking fashion in the Federation’s Catholic playoff semifinals to underdog and archrival Canisius. “That group I had last year was a perfect example. They were real hungry. They felt like they had something to prove from the year before. ... I had a lot of guys back and it was something we talked about all year. That stung. We had a great season and no one ever expected that to happen. To lose to Canisius in overtime, we used that” as motivation “for the entire year.”

The year ended with St. Joe’s winning its eighth state Catholic title in 11 seasons.

“I think playing a tougher schedule helps us,” Vekich said.

“We got so close last year,” Wrazin said of winning the state title. “That is ultimately our goal. ... It’s obviously going to be a difficult thing getting back to as far as we did, but that’s what we’re working toward.”

email: mrodriguez@buffnews.com