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High School Girls Hockey: Frontier/OP in comfort zone as playoffs loom

Sophomore Tatum Walber steps around a Lancaster defender in Frontier/Orchard Park’s latest Federation victory. (Photo by Michael J. Petro)
Frontier/Orchard Park finished this regular season in just about the same position it has the previous two years.

And although that’s not one of the top spots in the Western New York Girls Federation, that’s OK with head coach Jim McCarthy and company.

Coming from the fourth seed, Frontier/O.P. won the league’s first sectional title in 2010-11 and last year as the five seed, pulled off another opening round upset before losing a competitively played semifinal to a dominant West Seneca team.

So, the fact that the team will again be a No. 4 seed does not at all take Frontier/O.P. out of its comfort zone. Plus, McCarthy said his girls happen to be playing some of their best hockey these days.

“I think the last three or four games we’ve been playing the best hockey we played all year,” McCarthy said after a 9-0 win over Lancaster on Thursday at West Seneca Town Rink. “They’re doing everything we’ve been teaching. I think it’s a good indicator of what we’re capable of doing.

“I’m really hoping when playoff time comes around that we continue to work hard and do the things that have made us successful in the playoffs,” he added.

That hot stretch of play does include two losses, but both were games in which Frontier/O.P. looked the part of a team about to be a tough out for any opponent in the playoffs. The team fell 4-3 to Amherst/Sweet Home on Jan. 29 and then two days later, lost to unbeaten MMAA, 5-3, which included a late-game empty netter.

The loss to Amherst/Sweet Home was a tough one for players to swallow as Frontier/Orchard Park did not take advantage of a dominant effort playing what McCarthy called some phenomenal hockey. They fell by a goal but significantly outshot Amherst/Sweet Home, peppering its net with almost 45 shots.

“The girls were so upset after that game and I told them, ‘I’m standing here right now smiling because you’re learning how to play hockey,’” said McCarthy, whose team had just beat the same opponent 5-1 on Jan. 18. “It’s about making hockey plays and they did — the give and goes and just good defensive zone coverage.”

McCarthy has been developing the many underclassmen on the team and getting them used to the system used by Frontier/O.P. The most experienced part of the team is on defense, which has remained the cornerstone of the program this season.

The unit has been led by five very consistent players in seniors Nadine Denijs and Alexa Ditonto, sophomores Olivia Jacobs and Jessica Urbank and seventh grader Sirena Fitzery.

He’s rolled three balanced forward lines this season, but has counted heavily on the contributions of the team’s top two scorers in senior Bernadette O’Connell, a three-year fixture on the team, and junior Stephanie Pickard. McCarthy said just like the past two seasons, it’s been somewhat of a struggle at times to score goals.

To this point, Frontier/O.P. has made it through the entire season with just one goaltender, sophomore Mikaela Ditonto, who’s played through some nicks and sickness and still been solid throughout.

“It’s hard to be focused in practice when you’re the only goalie and she’s still stood on her head,” McCarthy said. “She’s done everything we needed her to do.”

The team missed by one spot being able to compete for the Section VI championship, a title game which was played Feb. 6 for the right to compete in a four-section state tournament this weekend.

Williamsville and Kenmore played in that game after they finished in second and third, respectively behind MMAA during the regular season.

Frontier/O.P. will need to continue to play at its best and maybe get in touch with some of that past playoff magic as the Federation postseason promises yet again to present a difficult path.

Despite top-seeded MMAA looming in a potential semifinal, Frontier/O.P. would first have to get past Amherst/Sweet Home, which won the season series between the two teams, 2-1.

The Federation playoffs will start Monday, Feb. 11 with play-in games and continue two days later with semifinals and then a final on Friday, Feb. 15, all at the Northtown Center in Amherst.

“The theme has always been with our girls that they’re a tight knit group that gets along and has good practices,” McCarthy said. “Win or loss, whatever happens in the playoffs, it’s been another great year. I can’t complain at all.”

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