As per usual, Buffalo will be well-represented in the girls USA Hockey Championships, which begin today in Marlborough, Mass., for Tier I and at Northtown Center in Amherst for Tier II squads, but there’s intrigue among the Buffalo teams vying for the national titles at Tier I 14-under and 16-under divisions.
Why? The teams are not wearing green and white. They’re wearing red, white and blue.
For the first time, the Buffalo Regals’ girls will represent the state at nationals in Tier I 14-under and 16-under against the likes of traditional powers Shattuck St. Mary’s, East Coast Wizards and Assabet Valley. The Regals’ teams – both first-year Tier I outfits – skate into history/unchartered waters at 1:10 and 3 p.m. today at the New England Sports Center. The 16-under face the New Jersey Colonials at 1:10, while the 14-under square off against Detroit Little Caesars.
“Just to get an opportunity to play against teams like that, it’s an experience of a lifetime,” said Regals girls travel program coordinator and 16-under coach Thomas Ruggiero.
It’s an opportunity born out of hard work by the players and strategy.
With the Bisons’ 19-under team adding younger players to fill out a roster that includes ultra-talented 1996-birth year players Julianna Iafallo (Ohio State), Annika Zalewski (Colgate) and a plethora of other future Division I and III college players, that made 16-under Tier I more open for competition than in past years.
That coupled with the fact Ruggiero’s 16-under crew added to a talent base of a team that finished as national runner-up two years ago at the Tier II level, he figured moving up to compete with the big girls would be more beneficial to his players’ development than dominating Tier II. Mix in the organization’s talent on the 14-under team and the decision to move up became that much easier.
Still, winning two Tier I state titles on your first try?
“We earned a state championship, but we didn’t just show up and say let’s play Tier I,” said Ruggiero, noting the team has spent countless hours dry-land training prior to and during the season along with tons of practice time. “There’s a commitment. There’s a lot of pain and sacrifice. … It paid dividends before we thought it would.”
Ruggiero has coached his team since they were 9. They are determined to represent the area with pride as a good number of them still feel the sting from a 2-1 loss in the national final two years ago to Team Alaska. They view this trip to nationals as a second chance.
“These girls, it was a 1-1 game against Team Alaska and we lost in the last minute and they said ‘we’re getting back here,’ ” Ruggiero said. “Realistically it’s hard to get back there. But you crossover and get into the playoff round and who knows what will happen.”
While it’s hard to single out players on teams that roll three lines, key players for Ruggiero’s crew include team captain Emma Ruggiero (22 goals, 46 points), linemate Victoria Allard (25 goals), fellow forwards Zoey Perchulak (13 goals, 44 points) and two-way center Brynn Wopperer. Goalies Amber Dubill and Maddy Utz anchor a defense led by speedy Megan Reukeuf (24 points) and Maeve Christ.
“We felt we had the talent to not only compete but win,” said Ruggiero, whose team brings a 30-29-7 record into nationals, including 18-7-3 against United States-based Tier I teams, and is ranked 22nd in the U.S. “Fortunately it worked out for us.”
Just like it has worked out for the Frank Attea-coached 14-under Regals. They enter nationals ranked 11th with a 38-17-5 mark despite having just a 14-person roster. The team, which won in-season tournaments in Cleveland and Syracuse, plays a sound game and its goal at nationals is simple.
“We’re just a good team and we’re looking to do well for our team and do well for the city of Buffalo,” said Attea.
Top scorers include Kaitlin Drew-Mead, who has 28 goals and 33 assists for 61 points in 56 games. Olivia Smith (28-17-45), Julia Mings (21-27-48) and Sophia Koenig (21-22-43) also contribute offensively, while Allison Attea, Taylor Pietrowski, Kristina Schuler, Erin Stoklosa and Kayla Sienkiewicz anchor the blue line. The rest of the team includes Alexis Clark (15 goals), Kayla Blas (16 goals) and Jaime King, and goalies Lindsay Browning and Brittany Nowak.
Bisons swan song
The core of the 19-under Bisons girls have been through a lot together over the years, including a pair of national runner-up finishes (12-under, 16-under) and this will be the last tournament they’ll compete in together. Coach Scott Welch has noticed something different with his team all season, more so in the days leading up to today’s tournament opener at 10 a.m. against New Jersey in New England Sports Center.
“They’re ready to go. They’ve been counting down to nationals,” said Welch, whose team enters the tournament 26-9-7 and ranked fifth nationally. “This year’s team, they all feel engaged. They just know it’s my turn, it’s time to perform.”
The Bisons have eight players who will play in college, including Division I signees Madison Sansone (Providence) and Brandy Streeter (Union). The key could be Olivia Zafuto, who’s young enough to be on the Bisons’ 16-under team but more than talented enough to play with the big girls. The Colgate-commit played defense for the Bisons during the fall, but injuries forced the converted center to return to her roots for Nichols’ season. During the scholastic season with Nichols, she, Iafallo and Zalewski averaged five goals per game as a line, helping the Vikings three-peat as North American Prep Hockey Association and Conference of Independent Schools Athletic Association champions and making up for the loss of Ohio State-bound Allison Gasuik (hip surgery).
The Bisons average just under four goals per game with Zafuto on defense, which means Welch, who coaches both Nichols and Bisons teams, may keep her at forward or move her back-and-forth as dictated by game situations.
Around the boards
• Amherst’s 14- and 16-under teams and the Buffalo Stars 19-under teams will be the area’s representative in the Tier II nationals at Northtown Center. Daily passes for all games are $15, or a tournament pass is available for $35.
• Buffalo’s Abby Cleary, formerly of Nichols and the Buffalo Bisons, is a member of the 16-under Shattuck St. Mary’s team that will face the Regals on Thursday. She has 14 goals and 31 points in 43 games for the nation’s No. 1 team.
• From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today at Northtown Center, there will be a Hockey Hall of Fame display on the history of women’s hockey for those attending games or those who just happen to be hockey buffs interested in a look at history.
The teams and their families will be treated to a mini Taste of Buffalo experience today as beef on weck and wings will be part of the menu.