BY BRANDON SCHLAGER
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Falls and Grand Island varsity hockey squads didn’t make it to First Niagara Center for the Federation boys championships this year, but there may not be two teams in the league more excited about their future.
The anticipation for next season and beyond has been building for the two programs thanks in large part to the success of their respective junior varsity club teams, which serve as feeders for varsity.
Both the Niagara Falls and Grand Island JV teams find themselves in Ithaca this weekend for the New York State Club Hockey Championships following successful campaigns that ended with Western New York titles and a chance to compete at the state level.
The experiences those underclassmen are taking in during the state tournament can only mean good things for Wolverines and Vikings hockey as the players move up to varsity in the coming years.
“It shows a lot of promise for the future,” said Stan Wojtan, who coaches the Niagara Falls varsity team, which finished 2-11 this year. “Just getting that experience, going down (to Ithaca) to compete at that level, will help a ton. It’s the most prestigious tournament for the kids at this level.”
Establishing a successful feeder program was something Wojtan made a point to accomplish when he took over the varsity team four seasons ago. Niagara Falls did not have a JV team that year because there was not enough interest.
Fast forward to this season and the JV Wolverines have a near perfect 16-0-1 record and a Western New York large school title to show for the efforts of Wojtan and JV coach Gary Krull.
Niagara Falls is the top seed in the large school state tournament this weekend. Grand Island, which finished the regular season with a 10-5-2 record, won the WNY small school tournament and is the No. 2 seed in states. Both team began round robin play yesterday.
“We’ve got a really great team this season,” Krull said. “We’ve had to overcome a lot of different things this season and we just continue to play well. … Obviously it’s a big accomplishment for us to even be where we are now.”
Nearly half of the JV Wolverines roster spent some time with the varsity squad this season, Krull said. They also battled through a number of injuries. But a strong freshman class, which consists of four first-team league all stars, has led the way, offering Wojtan a glimpse of things to come.
“Even beyond the success they’ve had on the ice, this is a group of kids who do very well in the classroom; they’re great teammates and even better friends,” Wojtan said. “It’s a huge stepping stone for us. … Their hard work has translated into something I’m going to reap the benefits of in the future.”
The Wolverines won their opening round robin game, 4-2 over Frontier. Cody Bielec scored a natural hat trick, Mike Olszewski added a goal and Evan Askler had two assists. Morgan Hedaman made 27 saves in the win.Follow contributor Brandon Schlager on Twitter @B_Schlag.