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Senior-led Hamburg hockey edged in semis

Alex Peters and Hamburg fell 4-3 to Kenmore East in the WNY Federation small school semifinals. It was the final game for 11 Hamburg seniors, including Peters. File photo by Ron Larson.
It was an emotional end to the hockey season for Hamburg.

Head coach John McFall pointed out, after a season-ending loss, that the Bulldogs weren’t just close to a championship appearance at the First Niagara Center, on the ice, they were just as close, if not more, as a group.

Despite outshooting Kenmore East 39 – 20, the Bulldogs fell to an opportunistic opponent, which used a three-goal spurt in the first period to earn a 4 – 3 win in the Western New York Federation small school semifinals on Feb. 19 at Northtown Center in Amherst.

The loss ended the high school careers of 11 seniors that were so integral in the revival of the program over the past few seasons. Hamburg’s season ended in a semifinal for a second straight year, after some difficult seasons for the program.

“They’ve been an amazing group of boys, and we’ve known that for a while now — I’ve known many of those guys since they were 4 years old,” McFall said, fighting back his own emotions. “The locker room after losing totally surprised me, with the seniors. That was a rough one. They have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of because they left it out there. That was an intense game — one of the best of the year.”

East’s Robert McNamara scored his second goal of the game, with 5:19 left in the third, which turned out to be the game-winner. The tally was a quick response after Hamburg had worked its way back into a tie less than a minute prior.

“Hamburg is a good club and we have respect for them,” East coach Kyle Pray said. “They’re a little physically stronger than us so we had to capitalize on opportunities more, which we did. I give our guys credit. Even after they scored that tying goal, we battled back and got an opportunistic goal off the back boards.”

The close score should have been to no one’s surprise, as the two teams played to a pair of 2 – 2 ties, during the regular season. Kenmore East beat out Hamburg by a tiebreaker for the two seed in the playoffs.

“They got the bounce at the end and that made the difference in the game,” McFall said. “What better way after two ties to settle it than in the playoffs. The only better way is if the two of us played in the final.”

Alex Peters scored the game-tying goal in the third, deflecting a Jon Liberatore shot off a face-off win by Hamburg. Colin Coppola struck on the power play about midway through the second to get the Bulldogs back in the game, at 3 – 2. Assists went to linemates Brendan McFall and Jordyn Bellitto.

McFall, the coach’s son, who was a force throughout the game and almost scored on a few occasions himself, fed Bellitto from behind the net for that first goal, before East took over the first period. Ethan Sachse was also credited with an assist. All of the Hamburg points were recorded by seniors on the team.

East was dominant the rest of the first, as David Christopher tied the game on a goal assisted by Anthony Tulipane, which was followed by McNamara tallying, with a helper to Christopher. Brandon Smith took a feed from AJ Marinelli off a draw and added a power play goal. Hamburg called a timeout to regroup with two minutes left in the period.

“I think we had a little case of the nerves there. They just didn’t have that step,” coach McFall said. “They were watching their linemate do it, instead of helping and supporting. We called that timeout and it kind of woke them up a little.”

So much so that Hamburg outshot East 14 – 2 in the second period and then 18 – 6 in the third. “We knew all year long that we had a team to reckon with,” coach McFall noted. “But against top competition, that’s how games are going to go.”

Other seniors on this team included captain Brett Ross, along with Joe Fentzke, Jake Wittmeyer, David Held and goalie Brendan Bartoo, who was injured the last half of the season, giving way to junior Vinny Goodrich, but was still always present at practice.

“Even though he couldn’t skate, he’d come to practice just to be with the boys,” coach McFall said. ‘That’s how this team was. They just love being together, whether they’re playing hockey or not. They just happen to be good hockey players, too.”


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