By Miguel Rodriguez

News Sports Reporter

Dennis Gilbert of St. Joe’s. Tyler Shotwell and Brandon Sabha of Lewiston-Porter.

They are among the talented student-athletes who aren’t playing for their high school teams as seniors in the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation this season simply because of the way the sport is set up in the state.

Most high-end talents play for full-season travel teams or prep schools because playing for those programs provide the best chance for them to not only keep honing their skills but also get noticed by top junior teams or college coaches, and in some instances NHL scouts.

Their absence, however, doesn’t mean the area’s most recognizable high school league is devoid of talent.

Anthony Tulipane of Kenmore East. Alex Hailey and Nick Lepine of Niagara Falls. Mike Steffan of Williamsville East. Matthew Barnaby Jr. of St. Joe’s.

They are among the freshmen and sophomores in the league who are seizing opportunities to be impact players for their respective teams even though they’re younger and, in some cases, smaller than a good number of players in the league.

Hailey, a sophomore, leads Division III in goals (eight) and shares the lead in points (12). Lepine anchors the Wolverines’ defense, plays in all situations, has three goals and three assists and is just a freshman.

Tulipane shares the Division II lead in points (12) and is part of a Bulldogs outfit averaging 4.7 goals per game. He’s one of three sophomores playing on Ken East’s top two lines.

Barnaby, a scrappy sophomore with good on-ice vision and the son of former NHLer Matthew Barnaby, recorded a hat trick in a recent win over Lancaster and has provided a spark for the Marauders since being moved to the top line by coach Rich Crozier four games ago.

Steffan, a freshman, had three goals in Williamsville East’s first four league games.

“I think you have a lot of up-and-coming rising stars this year,” said Kenmore East coach Kyle Pray. “I think a lot of players will be really good players next year. It’ll be fun to watch them develop this year. The sophomore class seems to be very strong.”

“Hopefully they develop into something further beyond high school hockey,” Niagara Falls coach Stan Wojton said of his young talent. “It’s a goal to make them the best they can be. Wherever it takes them.”

St. Joe’s is hoping its six sophomores, which includes Barnaby, forwards Bradley Herlan, Griffen LoVullo and Jack Attea, and defensemen August Cudeck and Jeffrey Rymarczyk, learn on the fly quickly as it looks to defend its state Catholic championship.

The Marauders are off to a 4-5-1 start – with their most impressive victory coming in overtime last Thursday against Williamsville North before an estimated 1,500 during the Original Eight rivals’ annual pre-Christmas clash. St. Joe’s rallied from a pair of one-goal deficits in that triumph.

“We’ve got some younger kids and they’re learning. It’s actually real exciting for me to kind of see where we’re going to be at the end of the year,” Crozier said. “We’re asking them to play like juniors and seniors. I like it because the group I just graduated. … We went with them as sophomores and just kind of brought them along.”

North rebounds

Williamsville North has an impactful sophomore of its own in goaltender Matthew Ladd, who already has four shutouts during the Spartans’ 3-2-1 start.

North has blanked two-time defending Section VI large school champion Niagara-Wheatfield and also skated to a 0-0 tie with Catholic contender Canisius as it looks to rebound from its first losing season ever.

The program, which has won four state titles and six Fed playoff championships, has been in the league since its founding in 1990.

“We knew last year was going to be a tough year, maybe not as tough as it was record wise. Hopefully some of the things we went through last year will pay dividends this year,” said North coach Bob Rosen, the program’s only coach who experienced his first losing season at any level during his 31 seasons of coaching last year.

North has 15 returnees, including Ladd, senior forwards Pat Haynes, Bryce Ferrel and Brad Bailey, and senior defensemen Will Stryker and Sean Bailey. The Baileys are twin brothers (not identical).

The Spartans are among a host of contenders among the large public schools looking to knock off two-time defending champ Niagara-Wheatfield.

Like North and N-W, Orchard Park returns plenty of experience (14 players from last year’s 11-9-2 outfit).

Goalie Charlie Kritkauski is in his fourth season in the league and he’s joined by returning first-team division all-star defenseman Tim Duffy and senior forward Tyler Riter. Defenseman Ryan Maccarick has six points in the Quakers’ first four games.

Odd is good at Frontier

Frontier coach Bob Klimowicz says it’s “odd” that he has a more experienced team this season than in past ones. He has 10 returnees, nine of them seniors, from last year’s 15-win outfit and has a roster that features just one sophomore.

The big luxury - Klimowicz has all five of his defensemen from last season back, including first team Division I all-star Alex Buczek, Adam Skopinski, Matt Schiferle, Tyler Schwartzott and Mike Hughes. All are seniors except Hughes, who is a junior.

“We really count on them to be the backbone of the back end of our team,” Klimowicz said.

Senior Tyler Gaglia is captain and one of the leading scorers in Division I. Seniors Jim Gleason and Mike O’Rourke can also put the puck in the net.

Meanwhile, goalie Justin DiChristopher, defensemen and captain Bryan Kross and forwards Ryan Haines and Josh Grazen are among the top 10 returnees for Lancaster.

Clarence coach Rich Brooks’ only assistant this year is his son Peter, who played for and graduated from Sweet Home in 2012.

Small schools’ dogfight

There are a plethora of contenders for the Section VI Small Schools championship, including the Bulldogs – both Bulldogs teams in fact.

Fitting that Hamburg and Kenmore East skated to a 2-2 tie Sunday.

Hamburg (5-1-1) has improved its win total from four as of two years ago to 11 last year, which included a sectional semifinal appearance. The Bulldogs have 11 seniors, eight who are in their fourth season with the program. Brett Ross is a team captain and anchors the power-play and penalty-killing units. Classmate/linemate Brendan McFall is coming off a 15-goal season. Colin Coppola is the third man on that line and led Division III in assists last year.

“They just understand each other,” Hamburg coach John McFall said. “They know where each other is going. They haven’t hit their stride yet” this season “but in my opinion I don’t think there’s a stronger line you can put out there than those three.”

Alex Suchan leads Hamburg in scoring and shares the division’s scoring league with 12 points. Vinny Goodrich, a transfer from Timon, shut out his old team in his first game with the Bulldogs (4-1-1).

Ken East, which won the state title in 2012, is 6-1-1 with its lone loss to West Seneca East.

The Bulldogs have nine returnees including Tulipane, David Christopher, Ryan Zier, Rob McNamara, Trevor Pray and Jeff While. Tulipane, Pray and Zier are sophomores, the other three seniors.

Williamsville East is a team that always seems to contend come playoff time as the Flames have reached the last three sectional finals, winning in 2011.

East has eight returnees, including seven forwards. While the Flames lost top scorer Austin Bianchi to graduation, senior co-captains Tyler Trubish (five goals) and Jason Cohen (four points) have finishing touches.

West Seneca footsteps

Last season, West Seneca West embarked on a title quest and achieved its goal of winning the Section VI Small Schools title.

West Seneca East hopes to follow in its town rival’s footsteps as the Trojans have 11 returnees – including top scorer Mike Benaquist, who had five goals and six points in his club’s first three league games.

Defenseman Travis Hicks is back after playing full-season travel with the Buffalo Regals/Jr. Sabres last season and leads the Trojans with seven points. Defenseman Tyler Macey is a key returnee as is fellow blue-liner Brian Wasilewski.

Sophomore goalie Aaron Nowak returns and is joined by 6-foot-6 senior Derek Loomis and 6-3 sophomore Matt Radder.

Sydney Glynn, who began last season as the Trojans’ starting goalie before suffering a season-ending concussion, is playing girls hockey for Ridley College (Ont.) of the North American Prep Hockey Association – the same league whose defending playoff champion is Nichols.

Regarding West Seneca West, coach Kevin Rozo needed just two words to describe his team’s situation: “Rebuilding year.”

Nichols milestone

Jamie Printz won his 100th game as coach of Nichols’ top prep team. The fifth-year coach earned the milestone win Saturday against Taft (Conn.) at the Lawrenceville (N.J.) Tournament.

“It’s exciting. It just shows where the program is at,” said Printz, who is 100-51-17. “It’s not necessarily me. We have a lot of kids playing good hockey.”

Among of the players Printz has coached along the way to 100 includes Harvard forward and Sabres prospect Sean Malone and draft-eligible R.J. Gicewicz, who is currently playing junior hockey in Green Bay and is committed to St. Lawrence.

Among the Vikings’ key returnees from last year’s Conference of Independent Schools Athletic Association playoff runner-up are junior forward Carson Gicewicz, R.J.’s little brother who has also verbally committed to St. Lawrence, senior forward Jake Smith and senior goalie Anthony Tirabassi. Gicewicz has team highs of 15 assists and 17 points for Nichols (7-4-1).

Around the boards

• Scott Diebold has taken over as St. Francis Prep Team’s coach and coordinator of hockey at the school. He succeeds longtime coach and hockey coordinator John Bowers, who retired at the end of last season after 27 years coaching hockey at the school. He’s not the only longtime Red Raider hockey coach to step down as Craig Fattey handed the Fed team coaching reins to his longtime assistant Tom Murphy.

• Canisius, a favorite to dethrone St. Joe’s as the Fed’s Niagara Cup (Catholic playoff champion), is off to a 2-1-1 start in the league under first-year coach Eugene Naab. Senior defenseman Steve Skinner leads the Crusaders in points (seven) and shares the lead in goals (three) with junior forward ElliotCrimmen.

• Timon-St. Jude is off to a 6-3 start with 10 returnees from last year’s Niagara Cup playoff runner-up. Future Division I lacrosse player Connor Fields has four goals in four league games, while fellow returnee Joe Piegay has five. Bill Coppola is another key returnee up front for the Tigers, who beat St. Joe’s 6-2 on Sunday.

• Dennis Gilbert may be lacing ‘em up for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres of the Ontario Junior Hockey League but St. Joe’s made sure the Niagara University-commit’s No. 8 stayed in the family as that jersey was assigned to Gilbert’s cousin, junior Anthony Pontello.

• Sean Guetti allowed just two goals through Kenmore West’s first four games as the Blue Devils won each of those games before suffering a 2-1 setback to Lew-Port.

• Joe DeMunda (seven points) and Joe Langer (six points) are among eight returnees for Lew-Port, which is off to a 4-2 start. The Lancers need just three more wins to match last season’s total.

• Playoffs start Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. at Dwyer Arena with the Niagara Cup (private schools) tourney. The Section VI tournament begins Feb. 13 with prequarterfinals for Small Schools. The Section VI Large Schools postseason begins Feb. 15. Section VI and Niagara Cup champions will be crowned Feb. 24 at First Niagara Center.