Weekly Feature

2017-07-13 / Sports

East hockey, West boys bowling share Bee’s Team of the Year honor

There’s nothing quite like being the first to accomplish something.

In the world of West Seneca high school sports, two teams — one from each side of the district — got to experience that rush this year by earning sectional championships for the first time in their respective program’s history. And because it would be impossible not to recognize the achievement that each squad earned through the hard work of their players, the East boys hockey team and West boys bowling team have the distinction of sharing The West Seneca Bee’s Team of the Year honors for the 2016-17 school year.

“I thought it was a real possibility we could have success this [past] season,” East hockey coach Phil Prynn said. “It was just up to us and the coaching staff to do our part to extract all the ability out of every player, because everyone on the team had to play important roles. I don’t think other people saw us as a ‘can’t-miss’ team, but I felt we had the ability to do things. If we could therefore carve out those roles, we really felt we had a good chance to win.”

This past winter’s success really started two years earlier with the laying of the foundation of this past year’s squad. After establishing a set of principles and values for the team, including a sense of playing with consistency that came from teaching the differences of playing at the Federation level compared with the travel level, Prynn and the Trojans were able to get a taste of what was to come during the 2015-16 campaign.

With a good chunk of that year’s roster back to play again this winter — and some key additions who had previously stopped playing for East to compete for the Regals organization — it was up to Prynn and his staff to sell the squad on the potential for success they saw in the group.

“I did my fair share of scouting and homework, and actually had to convince a couple of the guys to come out for the team, which was almost like an ‘X’ factor in adding them to the returning core of Dom Khoury, Dan Flynn and Tyler Arndt,” Prynn said. “We just really sold those kids on the year we envisioned having with the talent we had. We had skill and depth at every position, and we had different kids step up in big ways at key times this year. Without the skill at the top and the depth to support it, we’re not as successful as we were.”

East got off to a decent start to the year, but coming back from the holiday break found itself mired in a four-game losing streak heading into the first of its two regular-season meetings with crosstown rival West Seneca West. Prynn recognized that that game, at that point of the season, was a bit of a crossroad for the Trojans, and fortunately East was able to respond to the challenge; thanks to four unanswered goals to close out the game, East was able to secure a 6-1 victory that not only snapped their losing skid but also ended West’s three-game winning streak in the process.

“We came out of the gates quickly to start the season and had been playing well, and I knew how well we were playing before the skid, but during our skid we forgot we had to actually go out and take care of business,” Prynn said. “It truly was a mental thing. We had to hit the reset button, clear some hurdles, and re-establish the mindset of approaching every game like we were playing the No. 1 team. In the end, I think that losing streak gave us a little bit of a chip on our shoulders and taught us some lessons we needed to learn. We wouldn’t have won it all had we not experienced those challenges.”

As big of a confidence boost as the West win was, handing Grand Island its first league loss of the season with the playoffs looming in the background might have been the last piece of the puzzle East needed to complete its upcoming postseason surge. The Vikings, who beat East by a 3-0 count to open the season, were upended in the rematch by a 1-0 mark.

“That night was a big night for our guys; they started to believe that we belonged at the top,” Prynn said. “We were starting to come around and guys were starting to feel better, and that was as big a win — at that point — as 
West Seneca East’s boys hockey team made the most of its first-ever appearance in the Federation Small Schools title game, taking down Kenmore West, 3-1, to win the title for the first time since joining the Federation back during the 2008-09 campaign. Members of the team included, from left: first row (in front of banner) - Adam Stradtman; second row - Jagger Maving, Tyler Arndt, Andrew Czechowski, Damond Flynn, Connor Mentel, Drew Werner; Cameron Bauer, Noah Bily, Matt Benaquist, Josh Jensen, Colin Schmatz; Will Whitney, Cameron Mentel, Josh Maloney, Jared Maurino, Dominic Khoury, Danny Flynn, Jason Pittner; fifth row - head coach Phil Prynn, assistant coach Chad Loughran, assistant coach Mike Loughran, Gunnar Galuszka and trainer Kip Palmeter. 
Photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com West Seneca East’s boys hockey team made the most of its first-ever appearance in the Federation Small Schools title game, taking down Kenmore West, 3-1, to win the title for the first time since joining the Federation back during the 2008-09 campaign. Members of the team included, from left: first row (in front of banner) - Adam Stradtman; second row - Jagger Maving, Tyler Arndt, Andrew Czechowski, Damond Flynn, Connor Mentel, Drew Werner; Cameron Bauer, Noah Bily, Matt Benaquist, Josh Jensen, Colin Schmatz; Will Whitney, Cameron Mentel, Josh Maloney, Jared Maurino, Dominic Khoury, Danny Flynn, Jason Pittner; fifth row - head coach Phil Prynn, assistant coach Chad Loughran, assistant coach Mike Loughran, Gunnar Galuszka and trainer Kip Palmeter. Photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com we’ve had in few years. The locker room afterward was good place to be. We knew our approach to that game was perfect; guys were willing to do whatever it took. Everybody saw that if we approach games the right way that we can beat anybody — but that you’ve got to do the work ahead of time. That became the theme for the rest of the year.”

East needed to be ready to put in a great deal of hard work to claim the program’s first Federation title after drawing a tough seed for the Small Schools bracket despite finishing third in the regular-season standings. Right out of the gate, the Trojans had to play a 10th-seeded Williamsville South squad that had beaten them by a 6-1 count in one of their final regular-season games. East was prepared to take revenge for the earlier setback, however, and did so by a 4-3 count in the prequarterfinal round.

That win put East in a rubber match with Grand Island in the quarterfinals, and the Trojans were more than willing to exploit the third-seeded Vikings’ decision to play their backup goalie en route to winning a Federation quarterfinal for the first time in program history, 5-1. Topping Grand Island also gave East a chance to avenge last year’s season-ending loss to Williamsville East, which the Trojans did by handing the top-seeded Flames a 3-2 defeat in double overtime in the semifinal round.

“We felt we had shot ourselves in the foot a little bit by not winning our division, because we had to play against four teams all seeded higher than us,” Prynn said. “South was a close game in the end that [goalie] Jagger [Maving] made some incredible saves to keep up out front late in. And we definitely had some extra motivation when we found out ahead of time that Grand Island was going to play their backup goalie against us. They’re a great non-geographical rival for us, and fortunately we were peaking at the right time.

“And we knew this was a special team going into the Williamsville East game, which was just a really good game to be a part of,” Prynn continued. “We couldn’t afford to make any mistakes against a team that good, and we were fortunate to score right after we killed their penalty in double overtime. We just had legs at the very end and they didn’t.”

At that point, all that stood between East and its first-ever Federation championship was Kenmore West. Game MVP Arndt scored both the game-winning and game-clinching goals in the third period for East, which had to rally from a 1-0 deficit that came just 68 seconds into the game to pull out the 3-1 victory.

“Accomplishing what we had up to that point, I knew we weren’t going to lose in the final,” Prynn said. “Kenmore West had a great year too, but I knew it was our game to win if we played simple, smart and took care of the opportunities we got when we could. Nothing like this is ever easy in high school sports. We asked a lot out of the guys and demanded 100 percent in everything — while they’re juggling school and part-time jobs, too — and they delivered. They did for us what we asked them to do for close to five months.”

East’s run was ultimately ended in the state quarterfinals by Brockport, but that was hardly the focal point of the season for East. At the time, Prynn had noted that anything beyond the Section VI title was “a bonus.”

“You just feel really good for the kids, their parents and the school,” Prynn said. “I was so happy to be a part of something like that for the school, and having played for the team back in the day made it even better. It’s a priceless feeling. This season was something we deserved and came up short on a couple of times before, so to deliver it for this group, you feel great about it.”

West boys bowling coach Brett Widman had similar feelings after the Indians claimed the team’s first Section VI title in program history this winter. The only other time a West bowler could’ve potentially been a part of a team sectional title was in 1966, when there was a districtwide team that claimed that championship.

At the time of the team’s sectional championship run, Widman was quick to point out that it was all seven bowlers West took to sectionals — seniors Andrew Burckhalter and Matthew Kasperek, sophomore Bryan Hill, freshmen Kyle Ziemba and Spencer Guise, and eighth-graders Parker Flis and Connor 
West Seneca West’s boys bowling team became the seventh in West Seneca history — but the first as a solely West Seneca West entity — to claim a Section VI championship when it held off Niagara Falls to post a 124-pin victory over the Wolverines at Airport Lanes this past winter. Members of The West Seneca Bee’s Co-Team of the Year for the 2016-17 school year included, from left: assistant coach Brian Guise, Matthew Kasperek, Connor Nowak, Kyle Ziemba, Spencer Guise, Parker Flis, Andrew Burckhalter, Bryan Hill and head coach Brett Widman. 
Submitted file photo West Seneca West’s boys bowling team became the seventh in West Seneca history — but the first as a solely West Seneca West entity — to claim a Section VI championship when it held off Niagara Falls to post a 124-pin victory over the Wolverines at Airport Lanes this past winter. Members of The West Seneca Bee’s Co-Team of the Year for the 2016-17 school year included, from left: assistant coach Brian Guise, Matthew Kasperek, Connor Nowak, Kyle Ziemba, Spencer Guise, Parker Flis, Andrew Burckhalter, Bryan Hill and head coach Brett Widman. Submitted file photo Nowak — who made the title possible. It’s a sentiment he still believes wholeheartedly.

“Going into sectionals, I’d say people were keeping an eye on us but at the same time weren’t too worried about us, which worked to our advantage,” Widman said. “People weren’t watching us or really playing attention to what we were doing, and it allowed us to bowl more relaxed.”

The Indians, who had been represented at states the past two years with Burckhalter’s appearance on the Section VI All-Star Team, jumped out to a 35-pin lead over Salamanca after the first game before posting their highest single game total of the day — 1,014 pins — in the second game to take a 153-pin lead over presumptive favorite Niagara Falls. West closed out the morning session with a 914 set in the third game to maintain a 142-pin lead over the Wolverines at the break.

Things took a bit of a turn south for West — and for everyone else, for that matter — once the oil pattern was reapplied for the afternoon session. West lost 35 pins off its lead over Niagara Falls by the end of the fourth game. The Indians bounced back in the fifth game, though, to beat the Wolverines by 57 pins and push their lead back to 164 pins heading into the final game.

“That’s really not a big lead we had going into another three-game block,” Widman said. “And in the afternoon, we were paired up with Niagara Falls, which is a very emotional team. We controlled our emotions a bit more, and in the end it came down to us. They had the chance to come back and win after we bowled a very poor fifth game, so we had to go into the last game and bowl our best. Fortunately, Andrew was on fire; he was so focused on doing what he needed to do to get his team to states, which was his focus all year.

“I had to sub a couple of kids in during the last game, and I just told them to keep the ball down the middle and not play with the outsides because of the lane conditions they had in place for sectionals,” Widman continued. “Niagara Falls was getting frustrated and started in-fighting a little bit to where they started dumping the ball into the gutter, which you don’t see from a good team like them. We weren’t trying to do anything spectacular, just play it safe, and by the time we were in the ninth frame, it was mathematically impossible for them to overtake us.”

Widman, who freely admits he knew nothing about the sport when he took the position four years ago so that the team wouldn’t fold, gives a huge amount of credit for the team’s success to assistant coach Brian Guise, who is Spencer Guise’s father. On top of doing his own research to learn the basics of the sport, Widman noted that Brian Guise — a former collegiate bowler — was beyond instrumental, as an unpaid volunteer no less, in helping the Indians with the technical aspects of the game.

Nowhere was that coaching collaboration more evident than during the afternoon block at sectionals.

“Our kids were so calm and collected, and for a group that young — we had some eighth-graders in the starting lineup — to be like that is really just a tribute to coach Guise’s influence and my ability to lighten the mood in order to make sure they were not letting the behavior of Niagara Falls dictate what we were doing,” Widman said. “I’m a math teacher so I understand the physics of bowling, so I figured out at least minimally this is what you need to do for a bunch of different scenarios. I’ve definitely come to love the sport over time. It’s just a different atmosphere.

“But coach Guise, he knows pretty much everything there is to know about bowling,” Widman continued. “He’s well-known around the area, and he’s really good with the kids, too. He taught enough to where I can say things to the kids now and be confident I’m helping them. His knowledge has really been the reason why we turned things around and became what we were this year.”

West went on to ultimately finish fourth in the state championships, rallying from a tough start at the Gates AMF Bowling Lanes in suburban Rochester — where the Indians had earlier finished third in a big midseason tournament — to post the afternoon session’s second-highest total.

Burckhalter finished what currently stands as the best career a West male bowler has ever had by recording the highest individual six-game set of the tournament. His 275 to start the afternoon session not only pushed him to his 1,356 pinfall total, but it was also the second-highest individual game rolled at the tournament.

“People in the bowling community might not have thought we’d be as good as we were in the postseason, but taking part in that tournament in Rochester earlier in the year — and doing as well as we did — really did a great thing for our confidence, which is so important with a team as young as ours was,” Widman said. “To be honest, though, we weren’t super surprised that we won the sectional title. We felt we had a legitimate shot to win. These kids all bowl a lot in their off time, and they’ve got an unpaid assistant coach who’s just so dedicated to the team and working with them to make them even better.

“These kids had a great time and loved going to states,” Widman continued. “When I think back to four years ago and we had two or three blind scores every match, I wouldn’t have thought we’d even be sniffing at a sectional title. Now, we’ve got a banner on the wall in the gym. It’s just a really nice way for the kids who started with me as freshmen to cap off their careers.”

email: jnadolinski@beenews.com

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