BY AARON GARLAND email@example.com
Niagara Gazette — Early in 2013, it looked as if the Niagara-Wheatfield boys lacrosse team, coming off a sectional title two seasons prior and a runner-up finish in 2012, was going to take a year off from making another deep playoff run.
The Falcons were 1-3, prompting coach Vince Schiffert to adjust the whole style and dynamic of the team. The offense was different. Same with the defense.
And the team bought into it all, culminating with the Falcons reaching their third consecutive Section VI Class B final against archrival Hamburg. It was the grudge match to settle the previous two finals, and the Bulldogs came out the victor, 18-7.
N-W, which finished 11-7 a year ago, has the tools to carry the momentum from that strong finish into 2014. Which would also indicate it is poised for revenge against Hamburg in the postseason. It’s a rivalry that has budded to a blossom thanks to the Falcons joining Hamburg as a premier program in Western New York.
Half the team’s starters are seniors with an abundance of both experience and skill. Brennen Ferguson, who is signed to play at Division I power Syracuse next year, heads that list. He’s a tri-captain and one of three senior starters on attack.
The season is in its infancy, but Schiffert can already decipher a difference in his team when compared with this point a year ago. His veterans, he thinks, look more prepared to play just as well in April as they have in sectionals.
“Last year a couple of our guys weren’t ready to play,” Schiffert said. “It’s a whole different attitude with the guys now. They were always hard workers, but now they know they can play, and you can just see the confidence. They want the ball, they want to be there, and it’s a big difference.”
Joining Brennen Ferguson, who pushes 6-foot-3, as an integral component is his brother, junior midfielder Seth Ferguson. He’s a versatile player who can just as easily play long pole. Schiffert pins him as a candidate for having a breakout year.
Joining Brennen Ferguson up front is a pair of returning senior starters, Ryan Koch and Mitch Pittman. They have move up to attack positions to replace voids left by graduated standouts Rob McMicking and Zach Dubuc.
Senior Joe Kelly is a co-captain and is slated to start at midfield. Junior defenseman James Stenzel makes up the other third of the captaincy and is plenty dependable on the back end. As is the fifth and final senior in the lineup, defender Cory Gatto.
There are young guys ready to complement the strong core of upperclassmen, too. Schiffert expects sophomore Kyler Kilgour to make some plays from his midfield position, and the same goes for Dan Bissell, a sophomore long pole player.
With the Falcons possessing a surplus of competence on the defensive side, John Anderson has been moved up to midfield after starting at long pole in 2013.
The move delivers even more roster balance to a team that holds, almost exclusively, players who have played in at least one of the finals versus Hamburg. Schiffert is leaning on that familiarity winning out as the season progresses.
“Just the idea that we’ve been there, we’ve been in big games. We have a senior-laden team that’s played a lot of lacrosse,” Schiffert said. “That helps. It has to help psychologically. Hopefully there’s no cracking under pressure. You hope that’s going to maintain and hold true.”
Lakemen coach Kris Brayley knows the importance of utilizing available resources.
For him, that’s meant tapping into the rich lacrosse culture at Niagara-Wheatfield. He was an assistant there before coming to Wilson, where he has spent 12 years on the coaching staff, the last eight as the head man.
Along the way he’s plucked coaches who have N-W ties to assemble a strong staff to assist him. There is Ed Schiffert, who has coached with Brayley for the last 15 years and is the brother of the Falcons’ coach, and also former N-W player and coach John Gansworth.
“You don’t have to do a whole lot of thinking to realize success breeds success,” said Brayley, who also receives coaching help from Brian Peck and Hank Smith. “So we’re trying to create that winning culture at Wilson.”
The Lakemen are still developing, entering their ninth year in federation, but their philosophy is showing promising signs. Wilson, which play in Class C, had a team-record-setting 13-5 2012 before regressing to 2-15 last season.
The decline had much to do with being young, which they are no longer. Wilson boasts 14 seniors and returns most of its starters, making Brayley enthusiastic.
“With more mature players, we have the opportunity this year to dictate the pace to other teams instead of having them dictate what they want to run,” Brayley said. “We’re encouraged by that.”
The roster as a whole is front and back heavy. Brayley likes the goal-scorers and defenders he has. He said it’s just a matter of finding the guys who can capably transition the ball between those two strengths.
Senior Tim Walch, the 2013 first-team All-Class C defender, will co-captain the squad with senior midfielder Kevin Daunce. Walch is do-everything player — he led the team with 86 ground balls last year and can move up as the power-play quarterback — while Daunce is defensive-minded gritty player who outworks everyone on the field.
Senior Justin Westmorland is a 6-foot-2, 220-pound hard-nosed competitor who will side with Daunce to add punch at midfield. He led the Lakemen in takeaways in 2013. Brayley sees the scoring potential at midfield coming from sophomore Jacob Rice.
All three starting attack players are back, too. Jacob Farmer, who was an All-Class C athlete as a freshman, scoring 48 goals, will be leaned on most for offensive output. Zach Russell and Chase Feely join Farmer up front.
“I think they’re hungry,” Brayley said. “They want to show that (2012) wasn’t just a flash in the pan. And I think this team wants to prove that we belong right in the pack in Class C.”
Ted Lee takes over as coach of the Vikings, and he has plenty of tasks this season.
He has been handed a young roster from Chaz Bulera, under whom Lee served as an assistant for the past two years.
Lee foresees six sophomores receiving significant playing time. They, along with senior co-captains Brock Tetreault and Jack Gorman, face the challenge of replacing the production left behind by five seniors who were the core of a five-win team in Class B a season ago.
Gone are Danny Blocho and Codie Thomas, who provided a majority of the point production in 2013. Adam Heftka, the man-up specialist, leading defenseman Ty Gallagher and starting midfielder Chris Connors also graduated, paving the way for a new nucleus.
Tetreault and Gorman, a defensive midfielder, will be looked upon to help guide the squad during what Lee called a “learning season.” Defenseman Adam Bahgat and Tanner Morrow, who is on faceoffs, are two of the sophomore expected to contribute.
There is experience in goal, with Tyler Pyc taking the crease after starting as a sophomore.
“It’s going to be more balance,” Lee said. “We can’t rely on individual players as much. It has to be more team-oriented with numerous players contributing in many different places.”
The Vikings are 1-2 thus far.
The Lancers have a change at the coaching position, as well.
Jason Lesh is the new coach, replacing Dan Helms, after leading the JV team the previous three years. It’s the Lancers’ fourth season in federation, as they look to keep progressing forward. Lew-Port lost to Amherst in the first round of the Class C playoffs in 2013.
Experience is certainly on the side of Lew-Port in 2014, with 14 seniors on a squad that strives for stability up and down the roster.
“We rotate the players all around,” Lesh said. “Everybody gets in. We’re looking for balance at every position, and hopefully it leads to success.”
Follow contributing reporter Aaron Garland on Twitter @AA_Garland.