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High School Ice Hockey: Frontier/Hamburg rivalry game may be best one yet

Senior Cooper Soto has been a workhorse for Frontier in goal during a 13-5 season. (Photo courtesy of Ron Larson)

Frontier and Hamburg are each so busy jockeying for one of the top spots in the Western New York Federation’s upcoming large and small school playoffs that the rivalry game between the two has fallen slightly in between the cracks.

It certainly shouldn’t. This will be the third year the two programs will be playing this game as a regular season contest between official Federation varsity teams, and the game Saturday, Feb. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Hamburg Town Arena has all of the makings of being the best yet.

The Hamburg and Frontier rivalry in ice hockey has not yet seen a match-up pitting two evenly-matched teams. Hamburg has spent the past two seasons rebuilding, while Frontier has enjoyed two of the best seasons in the program’s 13-year history. This year’s game will match more even teams, though it may not feel that way until Hamburg is able to exhibit it can play with Frontier.

“You look at it on paper and they’re a large school and one of the top ones and we’ve been down the past few years,” Hamburg head coach John McFall said. “I know for our boys this is a game for respectability. We’re still trying to earn that respect.”

The first two years of the five Hamburg has been a Federation team, the two teams only played against one another in scrimmages. The Bulldogs won 13 games as a first-year WNY Federation team but would total only 13 victories over the next three seasons. Meanwhile, Frontier advanced to Super Sunday two seasons ago and enjoyed the program’s first divisional title last year.

This season, Hamburg is having its best year since 2008-09, playing the role of an upstart with an 8-3-1-1 mark among small schools. Frontier has been no slouch itself, coming into the season with high hopes and coming through with a 13-4 overall mark as it fights for a possible top seed in the large school playoffs.

“Hamburg has some guys that have some skill, something that they have been lacking the last few years because of youth,” said Frontier head coach Bob Klimowicz, whose program has twice played in championship games on Super Sunday. “They’re going to pose a big challenge for us and I expect it will be a physical game.”
First-year starting goalie Brendan Bartoo has defended the net well for Hamburg during a resurgent season. (Photo courtesy of Ron Larson)

It’s hard to argue that the game won’t carry a little more weight on the side of Hamburg, which has endured consecutive rebuilding seasons of two and four wins, respectively. The Bulldogs have also fallen hard to Frontier, 7-0 and 5-1, the first two times the teams met.

“We’ve had it on our calendar,” McFall said. “We may talk about a big rivalry with St. Francis and be focused on our league schedule but it doesn’t rival what goes on with Frontier, and that’s in every sport. The Frontier game carries a little extra, it always does. Like any hockey game, it gets intense, and these games have.”

Hamburg has not fared well, though, in out-of-league games against large schools like Frontier. Three days later, the Bulldogs will also play Clarence, a team also competing for one of the top spots in the playoffs.

“Some of our big games are league games coming up but for our credibility, we need to play well against the large school teams and some of the top ones like Frontier,” McFall noted. “That’s the kind of game that’s perfect to get us ready for the playoffs.”

McFall says he likes the fact that Hamburg found the Challenge Cup trophy and his players are already talking about the game now having even more meaning than just a neighboring rivalry with a point in the schools’ competition on the line.

He and assistant Brian Dehlinger have coached many of the same kids who will be on the other bench at the youth level. He said he had a few of Frontier’s athletes play under him in Mini Mites at ages 4 to 6.

Already a game packed with emotion, this round with Hamburg will be the last for nine Frontier seniors, many of whom helped build the program over the past three seasons.

“It’s going to be an emotional game for me and the seniors; I expect a really tough battle from those guys,” Klimowicz said.

“We’ve got some big games left and we’ve got to win out to secure one of the top two seeds like we want. We’d love the first seed and there’s always a chance for that,” said Nick Ortiz, one of those seniors. “But we’re definitely looking forward to the rivalry game with Hamburg, too. We love the competition so we’re pretty excited.”
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