Wildcats win sixth straight sectional hockey title

By Phil Blackwell.  Camillus — This was supposed to be the year that youth, and the law of averages, finally worked against the West Genesee ice hockey team, and someone else was going to sit atop the Section III Division I ranks. Yet there were the Wildcats, celebrating again on the ice at Utica Memorial Auditorium, Saturday afternoon in the wake of beating Rome Free Academy 3-2 in the Division I title game. That makes it six consecutive sectional championships for WG. Senior captain Robby Michel, who has played on four of those title teams, said he was as amazed as anyone else by the continuation of this dynasty. “You can’t put words to it,” said Michel. “It’s just unbelievable. We just stuck to our system, and we can beat anyone in the state.” Head coach Frank Colabufo, who led a team with just three seniors on its roster to the top again, said his team’s up-and-down nature made the championship sweeter to achieve. “The kids believe in this system and did it together,” he said. “This is a really young team that had to endure a lot. I’m so proud of them.”

One of the things the Wildcats endured was a 4-3 defeat to RFA on Dec. 21 at Kennedy Arena. It gave the Black Knights confidence going into the title-game rematch, the third straight year these budding rivals were battling for the sectional banner. They played through most of the first period 0-0, despite a rash of penalties that gave both teams multiple power plays. WG got an early boost of confidence from killing off a three-minute RFA power play in the early going as goaltender Henry Burns made a series of key stops. Late in the period, the Wildcats got another power play. David Procopio won the face-off and flicked it back to Michel, whose wrist shot flew through a screen set up by Aaron Jones past Black Knights goaltender Andrew Ross at the 13:46 mark.

RFA began the second period a man up, but just like it did twice in the semifinal win over Cicero-North Syracuse, the Wildcats turned a supposed disadvantage into a pivotal goal. Catching the Black Knights on a change, three WG players skated toward Ross, and it was Ryan McDonald going up top for the goal that made it 2-0. “When we see the loose puck, we’re not hesitating,” said Michel. Fired up by that play, the Wildcats made it 3-0 on even strength 6:41 into the period as Derek Farrell pounced on the rebound of a McDonald shot and converted. As it turned out, WG would need that cushion.

Justin Hussey scored on another power play late in the second period to get RFA on the board, and the Black Knights went all-out on the attack the rest of the period. Burns turned everything away, though, earning a large portion of his 27 saves in this sequence. He said the key was not to panic. “You’ve got to stay calm, block everything out and have faith in your defense,” said Burns. Indeed, Michel, Nick Mellen and the rest of WG’s back line had no intention of making things closer. They spent the bulk of the third period blocking shots and turning away other RFA opportunities until Tyler Nicolaus scored off a face-off with 2:36 left to cut the margin to one.

Again, the Wildcats stayed cool, and it was the Black Knights committing a pair of costly penalties with under a minute to play, costing it any chance to pull Ross and attack at the end. High emotions were on display throughout the game. Burns got tangled up with an RFA player after the second period, and tempers flared again during the post-game handshake. Colabufo said it was just a byproduct of the game’s intensity, that no animosity existed between the two programs.  But it’s still the Wildcats on top, heading to the Rochester area next Saturday to play the Section V champion with a berth in the state final four at Utica Auditorium on the line.  “It feels amazing,” said Burns. “We all knew we could pull it off.”