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State-favorite Jr. Sabres 16-U taking nothing for granted

JUNIOR SABRES GUIDED BY VETERAN LEADERS — The Buffalo Junior Sabres U-16 captain David Baskerville of Eden (left) and assistant captain Mike Bevilacqua of Hamburg have been the guiding force of leadership for a team ranked 10th in the nation going into this weekend’s state tournament. Photos by David Marino.

As Jake Brozyna put it, he and his Junior Sabres 16-and-under players are all thrilled about being ranked nationally in the Top 10, at one point this season the team reaching as high as No. 6.

But rankings will mean very little if the Junior Sabres are unable to take care of business this weekend at the NYSAHA Tier I 16-U Tournament March 14 – 16 at the Northtown Center in Amherst. A title at this tournament qualifies the champion for nationals in a few weeks (April 2-6) in Green Bay.

The Junior Sabres had similar success last season, but it was somewhat minimized by losing to the Rochester Junior Americans 3 – 2 in overtime in the final at last year’s state tournament, resulting in the team falling short of its goal to play at nationals.

“Our ultimate goal is to get to nationals and make some noise there – we can compete with the teams at nationals; we already have this year,” said Brozyna, the team’s head coach.

“We should be the favorite at states but we were last year and a team still got us in overtime. I’m hoping we can learn from it. They’ve got it in the back of their mind and are using it to push forward. We’ve got to find that edge and do what it takes to be on the winning end.”

Heading into state competition, the Junior Sabres stand at 43 – 16 – 1 on the season. Brozyna said that the team features an array of goal scorers, a good mix of stay-at-home and offensively-gifted defensemen and two capable goalies.

Still, that doesn’t mean the Junior Sabres have not experienced some turbulence along the way. One of the team’s top scorers is out for the state tournament, another moved up to a higher-level Juniors team, while the defense has been banged up down the regular season stretch.

That’s where having experienced players and leaders from last year’s team — those that were taught valuable lessons, through some disappointments — is most valuable. David Baskerville of Eden, who Brozyna calls a great leader, and assistant Mike Bevilacqua of Hamburg, a gritty defenseman, have helped pave the way for this group.

‘We’re going to lose games and not everything is always going to go our way, we know that, but we’re just trying to keep the guys together,” said Baskerville, before an intra-squad game with the Junior Sabres U-18 team March 8 at Riverside Rink. “Even when kids get hurt or we lose players, we’ve got to keep moving forward. One guy doesn’t make a team. It’s got to be everyone pitching in to play their role.”

“[Baskerville is] the one that does most of the talking and I try to do as much as I can on the ice to show the guys,” added Bevilacqua, a student at St. Francis High School, who’s nursing a broken elbow, but expects to be back in time for this weekend. “Whenever someone’s down, we always try to keep them up and get them going.”

Baskerville, also known as “Buzz,” noted that while players are proud of what they’ve accomplished this season, they’re mostly focused on staying positive, no matter the situation, with the end-goal of a national berth in mind. He likes this year’s close-knit feeling and believes there’s even more chemistry here with this team than in past years.

The Junior Sabres have put themselves in position to be feeling good heading into states thanks to an offense that Brozyna said is quick and explosive and receives scoring from any of three to four lines.

Leading the way this season has been first-year U-16 player Collin Rutherford of Tonawanda, who’s put up 88 points with a team-leading 39 goals and 49 assists.

The right winger, who plays alongside Matt Mazza of West Seneca and Chris Berger of Williamsville, said unselfish play and chemistry have been the crux of their success. Mazza has added 42 points, with 18 goals and 24 assists, and Berger, 50 points (27 – 23).
SOUTHTOWN SKATERS BIG PART OF JR. SABRES U-16 — Among the many Buffalo southtowns player representing the Junior Sabres 16-and-under Juniors hockey team is Hamburg’s Matthew D’amico, who here skates during a scrimmage over the weekend at Riverside Rink.

“Our team has done pretty well this year but we’ve just got to keep listening to what our coaches tell us [going into states],” said Rutherford, who moved up after playing for the 15-U Regals last season. “I think passing has been important to this team, and beneficial to our line, and so has speed.”

Also among a talented group of forwards, Brozyna pointed to the production of Owen Green of Williamsville, who’s second on the team with 66 points (22 – 44). Brendan Miller of North Tonawanda has racked up 60 points (24 – 26), but will miss the state competition with a broken collarbone.

Also productive for the Junior Sabres have been Josh Biasillo of Orchard Park, who has racked up 48 points, on 21 goals and 27 assists, Matt D’amico of Hamburg, with 38 points (14 – 24), Matt Novo of Tonawanda, 34 points (17 – 17), and Ryan Peters of Clarence, 29 points (15 – 14).

“We’re very talented up front. We may not have the size but we’ve got a lot of crafty guys with good hands,” Baskerville noted.

Bevilacqua has been the consummate leader of a defensive unit that’s gone through its share of ups and downs but is what Brozyna calls a nice mix of big and strong and offensively-gifted talent. Bevilacqua has recorded 7 goals and 15 assists but its been his toughness that’s made him even more of an integral force for the team. Other top contributors on the blue line include Ryan Wheeler of Lancaster (26 points) and Mitchell Spring of Amherst (21 points).

“I like to get a little physical,” Bevilacqua said with a grin. “Get the team going...On the D-side, you can basically play with anybody on your shift — power play, penalty kill, everyone contributes.”

Adding to the defensive end of late has been Baskerville, who Brozyna said unselfishly moved to the blue line when the team needed some help there. Baskerville has put up 30 points this season. He’s also gone as far as reaching out to teammates and even opponents in times of need.

“We made the right choice when he was named captain,” said Brozyna, who noted that Baskerville even sent a message of remorse to an opponent upon hearing of that person’s family member passing away. “The kids look to him as a leader and he does everything asked of him. He’s a classy kid, in his actions on and off the ice. He leads in all situations.”

In goal, Trevor Micucci of Hamburg, who’s the team’s returner from last season, has split time with Bobby Dugan. Micucci is 20-11-1 with a 2.43 goals against and .910 save percentage, while the rookie Dugan, who travels from Brunswick to play with the team, is 22-5 with a 1.82 GAA and .920 save percentage. Both have been “tremendous,” according to their coach.

The goals of the veteran players have not been lost on the team’s rookies. Rutherford said: “Last year at states they lost in the final so those guys who were here really want to win it, and so do I. It’s always the goal to win states and get to nationals.”

Brozyna believes his team certainly has the talent but he said winning states will take execution and playing intelligently. He wants this group to mind its own zone and players to perform their assignments properly. Bevilacqua thinks it’s a matter of not playing down to any of the competition.

“We’ve just been working really hard to get to nationals,” Bevilacqua said. “We have to stay focused.”

As motivated as the Junior Sabres seem to be, it shouldn’t be difficult to get up for the first of three pool play games, even if it is 9:40 a.m. on Friday morning. All opening games start by 10 a.m. It’s the first of two games that day for all eight teams competing. Night games on Friday begin around 7 p.m.

The tournament continues with one game for each team on Saturday, two of them at 1:35 and two more at 3:10 p.m., before Sunday’s semifinals and final. The semifinal games begin around 11:30 a.m. with the championship game on the Feature Rink at 6 p.m.

“We’re looking forward to trying to get redemption this year,” Baskerville noted.

Also among the teams competing are Buffalo-area squads the Hamburg Hawks and Amherst Knights, along with the No. 19-ranked Long Island Gulls.

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