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High School Ice Hockey: Hamburg ices past to reemerge

Brendan McFall scored two more times in Hamburg’s 5-2 win over Lew-Port on Jan. 21. He’s now second among small school players in goals. (Photo courtesy of Ron Larson)

A resurgence in Hamburg hockey was on the way. It just happened to take two seasons of gaining experience the hard way to get there.

Fourth-year head coach John McFall and his players would admit that it wasn’t always pleasant along the way, but patience has certainly paid off. Hamburg is now the one delivering many of the hard knocks to its opponents, instead of being the one on the receiving end.

The Bulldogs are on top of their game and in a much better mood these days, even if the league hasn’t fully caught on just yet to their level of talent.

With a 5-2 win over Lew-Port in a MLK Day matinee on Monday (Jan. 21) at the Town of Hamburg Ice Arena, Hamburg improved to 7-1-1-1 in Western New York Federation league play and with 16 points is just one game behind first-place West Seneca West. The Bulldogs’ seven wins already exceed the six they combined to win the prior two seasons.

“The kids are playing well and are enjoying this,” McFall said. “ The core group of kids have known that they’re better than their record. They’ve grown into it. It’s surprising but we are still surprising teams. They still haven’t earned the respect that they feel they deserve so they’re playing with a little chip (on their shoulders) and that’s alright.”

Hamburg is hoping it hasn’t yet scratched the surface for this season and the next one ahead. Still with only eight seniors, the Bulldogs have a large group of contributing juniors, most of whom have been playing for two to three years now at the varsity level.

“We knew we had the potential to be good and end up having a good season, we just had to follow through,” said junior forward Brendan McFall, the coach’s son, who continues to show off his scoring touch, finding the back of the net twice against Lew-Port to move into second in small school play with 14 goals. He trails only senior teammate Chris Moses (16 goals) for the lead.

“We all trust each other this year and trust all four lines and both of our goaltenders,” he added. “There’s no yelling at each other from the bench anymore. We’re playing with the lead now and we know exactly what to expect when we go out there. It helps that last year we had 10 sophomores and now that’s 10 juniors.”

Versatile senior defenseman Austin Bishop knows a little something about patience, making the team captain one of the finer role models for this group. Bishop didn’t return to the ice until last month after missing about half of his sophomore season, all of his junior campaign and the beginning of this year with a knee injury.

Now happy to be back and feeling healthy, he has provided Hamburg with a wealth of positive energy and hockey knowledge, according to coach McFall. He actually also scored his first goal since coming back, depositing an empty netter to put away the game against Lew-Port.

“The last couple of years, we have all had a negative attitude at times. Then we realized what we have in front of us and what we can do,” said Bishop, also a lacrosse standout who re-injured himself early in the football season while playing tailback . “It was a very young team the last few years. Everyone seems to have grown up, gotten bigger. We’ve been building up to get here.”

Winning can go a long way in changing a team’s attitude. Hamburg won a title in its last season as a Southtowns League club team and was loaded with senior talent when it first became an official varsity team in the Federation four seasons ago.

But competing in a tougher league, losing a few key players to other sports and being in need of a rebuilding stretch left its mark the past two seasons.

However, this group felt ready to emerge this season and with the help of Moses, a high-level club competitor who decided to play for the high school this year, the Bulldogs have emerged as a legitimate threat among small schools.

After starting the season with consecutive losses to private school power Timon, only once has Hamburg fallen into a losing streak and that was a three-game stretch, which included two one-goal games and a pair of contests against large school opponents.

“We’ve had a couple of losing streaks this season and we came back from them winning,” coach McFall said. “We’re winning the ones that count. We have seven league wins already and this one (the Lew-Port victory) guarantees us a winning season but we’re not resting on our laurels here.”

The Bulldogs also proved they don’t solely rely on one or two players. The group got many contributions against Lew-Port while playing without Moses, junior standout Jordan Bellitto and a few other forwards after they were each assessed major penalties in a 5-0 loss to Orchard Park on Jan. 17, forcing them to miss a game.

“We all worked together as a team,” Bishop said. “We knew the consequences we had to face (from the OP game) and we went out there, did what we had to do and worked as a team.”

Also delivering goals for Hamburg were senior Andrew Beiter, which put the team up 2-0 in the second period, and junior Colin Coppola, who answered a Lew-Port goal to stretch the lead back to two, 4-2, with 1:15 left in the game.

Coppola added two assists, including a pretty pass from the circle to McFall in front to put Hamburg up 3-1 early in the third. Coach McFall was also happy to see Coppola stand up for his goalie, Brendan Bartoo (13 saves) — after the junior was contacted by the opposition — but in a way that delivered a message while not costing the team.

His teammates voted Coppola Player of the Game afterward and his coach admired the “old-time hockey” style of play.

“We certainly missed Moses but it shows what a well-rounded team we are,” coach McFall said. “We can’t just rely on the big guy and the team played it that way. It was a good solid game all-around.”

Senior Tyler Bellitto, who also added a pair of assists, both in the third period, was praised by his coach for moving back to defense after the first several games of this season to help that unit on a team with many fine forwards. Bellitto faked a shot from the point and perfectly hit Coppola for the tip-in on one of Hamburg’s two power play goals in the period.

“He’s given us a competitive advantage,” coach McFall said of Bellitto’s move to defense. “He’s so smooth back there and controls the play. Our strength is up front and we needed a little more of that on defense.”

With all of the missing forwards, coach McFall put together a third line of role players Josh Palisano, Ethan Sachse and Joe Fenske and they exhibited the team’s depth with their performance. Hamburg outshot Lew-Port 34-15 for the game.

“Some guys really stepped up to the plate today, including the third line, and played different roles for us,” noted Brendan McFall, whose brother, senior defenseman Liam McFall, and junior blue-liner Jacob Wittmeyer each added an assist for Hamburg.

Bishop said while he feels encouraged and confident in this group, he thinks the team should take a game-by-game approach to the final six regular season contests and then possibly in making a playoff push.

Hamburg will play a stretch of three games in as many days which may determine a division title and positioning for the playoffs. After taking on rival St. Francis on Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Hamburg Town Arena, the Bulldogs travel to Buffalo State the next day to take on Williamsville South, then play division front-runner West Seneca West on Jan. 28 in West Seneca.

“We can’t get a cocky attitude but we also have to have some confidence,” Brendan McFall noted.

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