It’s hard to believe a good hockey program like Williamsville East has sort of flown under the radar most of the season, but the Flames won’t be hiding in plain sight anymore and it’s not just because they’re making their annual playoff trek to First Niagara Center.
Kenmore East knows about its old friend all too well, and for the third time in four years the two former state champions will meet once more for the right to add to their championship collection.
State No. 2 Ken East had the tougher assignment during Wednesday’s Section VI Small Schools semifinal doubleheader at Northtown Center at Amherst but survived its dog fight with state-ranked Hamburg, 4-3, as Robert McNamara’s second goal of the game – roughly 90 seconds after the No. 7 Bulldogs of Hamburg had tied the game at 3, proved to be the game-winner. Sophomore goalie Luke Stewart finished with 36 stops as Ken East managed to advance to Monday’s final even though it was outshot 39-20.
“It’s just exciting to reach the final,” said McNamara, a senior who was part of the Bulldogs’ state title team two years ago. “You don’t get too many opportunities like this. You have to make the most of it.”
That’s what Williamsville East hopes to do – this time. The playoffs’ top seed advanced to its fourth-straight Section VI Small Schools final with a 6-0 rout of upstart North Tonawanda as junior Dylan Cicero recorded a hat trick, while classmate Matt Steffan added two goals and an assist, while goalie Max Battistoni made 16 saves for his sixth shutout.
The teams will play for the title at 6:15 p.m. Monday. It will be the middle game of the Federation’s playoff championship tripleheader at the home of the Buffalo Sabres. Timon plays defending Catholic champion St. Joe’s in the Niagara Cup final at 4 p.m. Williamsville North and Niagara-Wheatfield battle for the Section VI Large School championship at 8:30 p.m.
The Flames (16-4-2) are 1-2 in their recent title-game appearances, beating Ken East (13-2-3) in 2011 before bowing in the rematch with the Bulldogs and losing last year to West Seneca West.
A two-game total of an estimated 2,500 attended Wednesday’s doubleheader, with roughly 1,300 on the edge of their seats during most of the Ken East-Hamburg showdown.
The clash was hard hitting and fast-paced. While Hamburg (13-5-4) had the edge in shots – including 32-8 over the final two periods, the swift Bulldogs still created scoring chances. McNamara broke a 3-3 tie with 5:19 left by hammering in the rebound of Cullen Smyth’s wide shot which caromed to him perfectly off the back boards into the left slot.
Jordyn Bellitto gave Hamburg the early 1-0 lead, but David Christopher, Brandon Smith and McNamara scored before the end of the first period to give Ken East a 3-1 lead.
Colin Coppola scored in the second period for Hamburg. Alex Peters tied the game with a tip-in after winning a faceoff with 6:40 left in regulation. Instead of letting Hamburg ride that momentum to victory, though, Ken East found a way to pull it out.
“We just knew we had to bounce back and finish the game,” McNamara said. “We knew the game was in our hands.”
Three small schools from Section VI (No. 14 West Seneca East, Hamburg, Ken East) have consistently been ranked in the state Sportswriters poll all season, but tournament top seed Williamsville East hasn’t been among them.
Will East looked like it could make a run at No. 1 Wednesday, playing a solid team game based on using its size and speed to its advantage.
Cicero, who admitted before the game he was nervous, quickly got comfortable –giving the Flames a 1-0 lead just 2:52 into the game. He made it 2-0 nearly three minutes later by being in the right place at the right time and tapping in a rebound of a wide shot in off goalie Kyle Painter.
“Around the net, the kid is money,” said coach Mike Torrillo. “He just finds a way to score.”
The Flames, who outshot their foe 36-16, pulled away by scoring thrice in the opening 7:48 of the second period on goals by Alex Finley, Cicero and Steffan. Steffan closed out the scoring late in the third period.
The Flames did lose non-league games to New Hartford, Pelham and Canton earlier this season, but they have beaten Hamburg twice while playing Ken East to a tie after an early season 3-0 loss to those Bulldogs.
The lack of love in the poll isn’t something that’s keeping Torrillo awake at nights.
“I’m a longtime college basketball fan. Why do I want to be No. 1? They always lose,” Torrillo quipped.
“There’s only one ranking that matters,” Torrillo said. “At the end of the season if we win we know where we’ll be ranked.”