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H.S. Ice Hockey Preview: Hamburg hoping to make move up

Junior Alex Peters is part of an up-and-coming Hamburg group that is beginning to create a more experienced team. (Photo courtesy of Ron Larson)

This will be the most experienced Hamburg hockey team since the first year the program became an official varsity joining the Western New York Federation during the 2009-10 season.

But with only six wins over the past two seasons, this group must learn to win before it can truly show off its ability.

After a full offseason of work and a solid month of preseason practices, the Bulldogs are excited for what lies ahead. In fact, it’s as excited as they’ve been in a few seasons, according to Hamburg head coach John McFall.

“A lot of kids have been playing in youth leagues in the fall and have been saying they can’t wait to play high school hockey and they’re having fun with it,” said the fourth-year head coach. “To come off two- and four-win seasons, it’s good to see them excited. We hit the ice Oct. 30 and knew what we had to work on. We just need to learn how to win and I think our fortunes will be different.”

McFall admits things haven’t worked out as the team hoped the past two seasons. Hamburg has enjoyed the luxury of reliable goaltending but been very young at many positions during that time.

With many of those players now having two seasons under their belts, confidence is beginning to build for this season and because many of them are still juniors, for next season as well, according to McFall.

The core of the team is back from last season and they’ve shown growth in not only their play but also size. Nobody has shown that more than physical scoring forward Brett Ross, an all-division second team selection in 2011-12. The strong forward can drive to the net to score the ugly goals and has shown the ability to put the puck in the net with a pinpoint shot.

Ross is again being joined on the same line by classmates Colin Coppola and Brendan McFall. Coppola, a third-year varsity player, brings quite a bit of desire to the line, while McFall, one of two sons of the head coach on the team, can deliver a good shot when given the time and space. He broke out late last season with a four-goal game.

Hamburg also got a shot in the arm when senior Chris Moses decided to play for the high school after competing for the Buffalo Stars in years past. Coach McFall said Moses brings the type of hockey experience and know-how that has been missing in previous years.

He’s scored the team’s first four of five goals in consecutive losses to Timon to open the regular season. McFall has the other Bulldogs’ goal. Hamburg fell 5-2 on Nov. 23 in a non-league game then 7-3 on Saturday (Dec. 1) playing against the physical fellow small school.

“He brings some great hockey experience and we’ll look to him to help the others learn to win,” McFall said of Moses. “He’s already shown that age and ability as a leader.”

Moses has been playing alongside a pair of juniors in Alex Peters and Ethan Sachse. Peters also has the ability to put the puck in the net, while Sachese has helped the chemistry on the line.

Fourth-year varsity senior Tyler Bellitto brings his smooth-skating and two-way play to another solid Hamburg forward line. He’s been joined on the line by his younger brother, junior Jordan Bellitto, and Cole Beale, who’s rounding into hockey shape after a big soccer season.

Hamburg’s defense welcomes in a new goaltender and features a nice mix of more stay-at-home blue-liners.

The unit will be led by hard-nosed juniors Jake Wittmeyer and John Liberatore, who both pack a punch when they deliver hits on opponents. Senior Andrew Beiter made one of the biggest leaps in the offseason in his skill and strength, while classmate Liam McFall will be a key player heading the power play on the blueline.

A pair of sophomores round out the defense as Tyler Scull returns after playing up on the varsity last year and Eric Shearer adds to the unit with his skating and puck handling ability.

For the first time since McFall became the head coach, Hamburg will not have a clear-cut No. 1 goalie. After the graduation of Grant Karlson, who kept Hamburg in many games over two difficult seasons, the team will turn to junior Brendan Bartoo and sophomore Zach Sortisio.

Bartoo will be in goal in the immediate future after Sortisio injured his knee in Saturday’s loss to Timon. Coach McFall is not yet sure of the seriousness of the injury.

“This year, we’re younger in goal than we’re used to,” the head coach said. “It’s a position that’s open for competition so we’ll see who steps forward and stakes claim to it.”

When Hamburg rolls out a fourth line of forwards it will use seniors David Suchan and Josh Palisano and junior newcomer Joe Fentzke. “It’s a very serviceable line,” McFall said. “I feel comfortable putting them out there.”

Coach McFall is also hoping to have Austin Bishop back after he re-injured his knee during the football season. Also a standout lacrosse player, Bishop sat out most of last winter with that knee injury. The senior, who has played some offense and other times as a defenseman since being brought up as a freshman, is expected to come back to the team in January.

After Hamburg upset Lew-Port in the opening round of last year’s playoffs, it fell to eventual state champion Kenmore East in the quarterfinal. McFall hopes to take his team a step further this year but knows the competition at the top of the league should remain stiff.

Although Kenmore East has lost some top players and contender Amherst may be going through the same, McFall sees Williamsville East and Sweet Home stepping forward as the two of the stronger teams among public small schools.

Hamburg is also excited that it will play four times at the Town’s Ice Arena. It’s the most games the Bulldogs will play there since joining the Federation.

“We’re hoping some energy comes with playing there,” McFall said. “I hope we get some good crowds. The kids are proud to be hockey players and want to show off their ability in front of the home crowd.”
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