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H.S. Ice Hockey Preview: Frontier/O.P. girls look for another strong finish

She may only be a sophomore and one of the smallest players on the ice, but Frontier/Orchard Park’s Grace Page will have an impact on many games. (Photo by Michael J. Petro)

For a team that finished in the middle of the pack during the first two regular seasons of Western New York Federations girls hockey, the Frontier/Orchard Park co-op squad can still laud a pair of very successful campaigns.

After buying its time learning the system and getting comfortable playing among each other as a team, Frontier-O.P. saved its best for last during both years, following up a sectional title in 2010-11 with a trip to the semifinals and nearly another upset to get into the championship game last season.

Frontier-O.P. head coach Jim McCarthy is looking for his team to hang around the middle of the pack once again and then peak down the stretch. He’s got much of the core from last year’s team back to do it. But this group should no longer be taking anyone by surprise.

“The expectations in practice are a little different now,” McCarthy said. “The honeymoon phase is over and the challenge is to repeat our success and that’s difficult. We’re trying to get them to pay attention to detail.”

If anything has been learned over the first two seasons of the new league, it’s that the talent level is high throughout all seven teams — some more than others, of course, and what a team does in the regular season assures it nothing in the playoffs.

Two seasons ago, the Monsignor Martin combined team rolled through the regular season just to get beat by fourth-seeded Frontier-O.P. in the semifinals, then third-seeded Williamsville experienced the same fate last year in the quarterfinal. It took second-seeded West Seneca East all it had to finally knock off No. 6 Frontier-O.P. in last year’s 2-1 semifinal. MMAA went on to win the Federation last season.

“There’s no shame in losing to a team like Monsignor Martin, which may have faster skaters, are better on their edges and shoot harder,” McCarthy said. “But what we have to do is our part to be prepared and the girls have to think their way through these type of games. I expect us to keep our lulls to a minimum. We can’t have bad periods at a time.”

McCarthy expects that his team won’t have that problem with five of six defensive players returning, including three seniors, along with having two solid forward lines and a three-year varsity goalie. He sees this group being even smarter and faster than last year’s team, but it like last season, it may at times have some trouble putting the puck in the net.

“The girls who have been here know what to expect,” McCarthy said. “It’s about working hard, learning and having all 20 girls in our locker room contribute. I like what this group can do.”

Leading the team will be the defensive core, which includes senior Nadine Denijs, Katie Page and Alexa Ditonto. Denijs is a strong and smart player and Page and Ditonto are major competitors. All three have been with the program since the beginning and McCarthy hopes what they bring spreads to the youngsters.

Sophomore Olivia Jacobs and Jessica Urbank also return to the defense, while seventh grader Sirena Fitzery gets her first taste of varsity this season.

A group of small but quick forwards will rely heavily on the team’s returning top scorer from last year in senior Bernadette O’Connell, who has grown into one of the league’s top players. She scored the overtime game-winner in the team’s playoff win over Williamsville last season.

“I would put her skill up against anyone in the league,” McCarthy noted. “We’re asking her to shoulder a lot of the offensive load.”

Joining O’Connell on the top line is junior Grace Page, the smallest girl on the team but the one who plays with the biggest heart, according to her coach, and sophomore Tatum Walber, who is also expected to contribute as a scorer.

McCarthy is looking to his second line to help neutralize opponents’ top scoring groups. He said junior Stephanie Pickard and sophomores Lauren Jankowski and Meg Urbank are all solid in their own zone, along with having offensive capabilities.

Despite being only a sophomore, Mikaela Ditonto will enter her third year as Frontier-O.P.’s primary goaltender. Ditonto stood on her head two seasons ago during the team’s playoff run and she’ll be counted on heavily this year with the graduation of Danielle Glinski, who shared the goalie duties last year.

After opening the season with a win over Lancaster, Frontier/O.P. entered a tough week ahead on Tuesday (Dec. 4) with games slated against improving Kenmore and Amherst/Sweet Home programs and Monsignor Martin. McCarthy said a number of teams lost some key players to graduation but the league remains strong.

“People see the quality of this game. I’ve heard fans coming to a game for the first time say, ‘wow, this is good hockey,’” McCarthy said. “We could play in a 5-4 game one day and then lose 10-0 the next day. There’s a lot of very talented teams in this league. I’m loving every minute of it.”

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