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Youth Hockey: Jr. Sabres hoping to be state stars this time

The Buffalo Jr. Sabres 16-and-under team includes, from left, first row: Trevor Micucci, Matthew Mazza, Aaron Reinig, Colin Farrell, Travis Hicks, Ryan Hornberger, Jacob Burford and Matt Blattenberger. Second row: Phil Stamer, Michael Bevilacqua, Eric Szczecinski, David Baskerville, Joe Cecconi, Christian Zimmerman, Owen Green, Ryan Fritz, Cameron Radziwon, Josh Biasillo and Matthew Damico. Missing from photo: Eric Benshadle. Coaches include Jacob Brozyna, Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Surdyk and Dan Toole.
When a Pat LaFontaine-coached Long Island Royals 16-and-under hockey team came to town last season for the state championships, they managed to steal the spotlight from the host Buffalo Junior Sabres team.

The Royals pulled out a tough one-goal game in the tournament final at the Northtown Center in Amherst to take a berth to nationals from the clutches of the Jr. Sabres Midgets level team.

Led by the NHL Hall of Famer and former Buffalo Sabre and New York Islander and Ranger, the Long Island team that was chronicled on the NHL Network series, “Making of a Royal,” then went on to win a national title.

This year, the Jr. Sabres 16-and-under team is looking to take back some of that attention with a team that may not garner the same fanfare as the one from Long Island last season but it certainly is one playing with a purpose.

Buffalo will get an opportunity to avenge that loss right off the bat in this weekend’s eight-team state tournament as the two finalists from last season meet each other in the first game of the three-day competition on Friday, March 15.

But the top-seeded team from the West Section of the state is looking to do more than just beat the Royals team it lost to last season; the Jr. Sabres would like to earn the title and berth into nationals that they feel is a year overdue.

“Some of these same kids were on that team and I remind them about the feeling they had last year,” said head coach Jake Brozyna, who coached that same Jr. Sabres team last season. “The Royals were one of the favorites and we outplayed them for two of three periods. I remind them about leaving this time with a better feeling.”

This year’s team fighting for a national berth in the tournament from April 3-7 in Pittsburgh feels well prepared going into this weekend. Buffalo has played above .500 hockey this season competing against some of the most talented teams and players at this age level from throughout the country in front of constant college and Ontario Hockey League scouts.

Buffalo is a young team learning to play at this elite level with a number of skaters who are 15-years-old up against many Tier I level players a year older. Brozyna has seen this campaign as productive and a good stepping stone for those interested in playing at even higher levels.

“We’ve gone through some growing pains but the kids are coming of age,” Brozyna said. “They’re learning how to find room and space on the ice and compete at an extremely high level. They’re all that good at this level. Every game is competitive, win or loss. They’ve learned to play in tight situations.”

The team’s top offensive threats this season have been Eric Szczecinski with 18 goals and 26 assists and Eric Benshadle with 14 goals and 28 assists. Joshua Biasillo leads the team with 19 goals and St. Francis High School’s Cameron Radziwon and Owen Green have each added 33 points.

The Jr. Sabres’s goaltending is an example of a distinct Hamburg-area ingredient that is also part of this team. A Frontier High School combination that’s been impressive in goal includes Matt Blattenberger and Trevor Micucci, Blattenberger is 18-11-3 with a 2.27 goals against average and Micucci is 13-12-1 with a 2.57 GAA. Both have a .910 save percentage.

“I can see them both getting an OHL look at some point,” Brozyna noted.

Among locals on the team, Lake View’s Phil Stamer is the top point scorer with 21 points (18 assists), while Hamburg’s Ryan Hornberger, one of the team’s assistant captains and leaders, has 10 goals and nine assists. Michael Bevilacqua of Hamburg has become a go-to defensemen and a physical force for the team.

The Jr. Sabres are ranked 14th among Tier I Elite Hockey League 16-and-under AAA teams. They rank highest among this weekend’s eight-team field, which also includes the West Seneca Wings, Rochester Stars and Depew Saints in the West and the Westchester Express, Syracuse Nationals, Clifton Park and Long Island from the East.

Since 1997, the Jr. Sabres 16-and-under program, which is now run year-round, has won the state championship on two occasions, including in 2004, when the program earned its only USA Hockey National Championship defeating a powerhouse Shattuck St. Mary’s team in the final.

This weekend’s tournament will start with a three-game divisional round robin followed by semifinal and finals games on Sunday. The Jr. Sabres’ slate will begin against the Royals on Friday, March 15 at 9:40 a.m. and later that day continues against the Rochester Stars at 7:05 p.m. On Saturday, March 16, the Jr. Sabres will play against CP Dynamo at 4:45 p.m. The final three games will be played on Sunday, March 17 with semifinals at 9:25 a.m. and the championship game at 4:10 p.m.

“We’re going up against some very good teams. It will be a tough road but I hope we can come out on top,” said Brozyna, who is looking to start off on a positive note for more than one reason. “That’s some way to start (against the Royals). We hope to take out our frustration from last year.”

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