The fourth weekend of November tends to be an exciting one around these parts. We’ll enjoy our turkey dinners and the official start of the holiday season on Thursday, crown our state football champions at the Carrier Dome this weekend, and high school hockey is back. Local rivalries will be renewed right off the bat this weekend as RFA, Whitesboro, New Hartford, and the Mohawk Valley Raiders duke it out at the annual Bobby Ciccotti tournament in Rome, and as the puck drops, many questions about our local teams will begin to be answered.
Where does Whitesboro go from here after one of their best seasons in recent years?
Do the Mohawk Valley Raiders capitalize on their experience and qualify for the playoffs?
How does a talented New Hartford team go forward after a season that didn’t always reflect how strong they were?
Can a retooled RFA roster challenge in Division I?
Can Clinton be more consistent?
While nobody except father time, and the players and coaches themselves has an answer to these questions, what we can do is break down the players and moments that could make all the difference for the upcoming season.
Rome Free Academy Black Knights
Head Coach: Jason Nowicki
Last Year: 12-9, 8-5 League, 3rd place Division I National. (Lost in Sectional Semis to West Genesee, 8-0)
Key Players Lost: F Gino DiBlassis (27g-28a-55pts), F Ethan Bielby (13g-24a-37pts), F Derrick Miller (25g-30a-55pts) D Anton Russell(2g-6a-8pts)
Important Dates: December 12th vs. Syracuse, February 1st vs. Syracuse, January 26th vs. West Genesee, December 18th vs. Cicero-North Syracuse
The Scoop: Sure, the playoff loss to West Genesee ended the season on a sour note for the Black Knights, but what can’t be denied is that last year was a vastly progressive year for RFA after winning just five games the season before. The re-introduction of star forwards Gino DiBlassis and Ethan Bielby to the mix alongside Derrick Miller was a shot in the arm that enabled the Knights to hold top line leverage against most of their opposition as they surged back over the .500 mark. However, the Knights are going to get considerably younger now with that entire line graduating, and that removes 66 of the team’s 2016-17 total of 76 goals from this year’s lineup. Making matters considerably more unsettled is that of the ten remaining goals scored, eight of them were scored by remaining members of the team’s Class of 2017, with defenseman Michael Haag holding the remaining two among returners.It’s generally atypical to replicate the team’s top line production instantaneously, so the mold may shift to employing a greater degree of balance in ice time and production as the next generation grows into their roles. The active strength of this team may lie in in its own end. Honorable mention all league goaltender Ethan Siderine does return after playing in 20 games last season, and that experience is going to hold a lot of weight as the Knights may have to get into some low scoring, margin type games to fit into their competitive wheelhouse. Seasoned veterans Haag and Tom Yoxall have been on the varsity roster since they were freshmen, and they’ll be counted on to eat up a large share of the blue line minutes along with juniors Aaron Simons and Michael Bostwick.Up front, the Knights will have to re-tool their forward lines, and may offer a fair amount of ice time to underclassmen with Ryan Pohorenec and Lucas Crofford as the only returning seniors up front.Mohawk Valley Raiders
Head Coach: Ben Vennero
Last Year: 5-14, 2-11 Division I American, 5th, Missed Playoffs
Key Players Lost: F Noah Lamie (8g-7a-15pts), F Trevor Mastro (1g-2a-3pts)
Important Dates: Ciccotti Tournament, 11/24-25, at Fayetteville-Manlius, 12/15
The Scoop: In so many ways, the presence of this program remains a win for the area, as it has given so many local players an opportunity to play High School Hockey that they may never have had otherwise. However, the Raiders are still looking to start a winning tradition in their relatively short modern existence. Fifth place finishes for the Raiders have been the norm in each of the last three seasons, but Mohawk Valley has to be hopeful that this is the year that they begin to truly turn the tide and start climbing the table in the Division I American. The loss of Noah Lamie hurts, to be sure, but the Raiders are otherwise completely intact in key spots and could be one of the better teams in the area this winter.
The attack will be spearheaded by seniors Henry Froass (15g-9a-24pts), of Oneida and Hunter Mazur(11g-9a-20pts), of Oriskany. Mazur was a 2nd team all-league pick last season, and Froass is not only a productive skater, but the type of collectively productive athlete that seems to thrive regardless of the sport or season. Uticans Marcus Allen and Daniel Deal will be the center of attention for a blue line that has room to grow after giving up over 40 shots a game and close to five goals per game, but that pairing alone is battle tested while also providing some offensive juice with six goals in the team’s 19 games last winter. Helping to mitigate any additional concerns in the back will be veteran goaltender Mike Eastman of Vernon-Verona Sherrill, who turned aside 88 percent of the barrage he occasionally faced last winter. He has won six games in his career as he enters his third and final year as starter.
The returning presence will help a great deal against one of the tougher schedules among area teams. After playing a pair of quasi home games at Kennedy Arena in the Ciccotti Tournament, which has become an important annual tradition, the Raiders have games against defending Division I league champions West Genesee and Syracuse, along with Cicero-North Syracuse, Fayetteville-Manlius and Baldwinsville all before Christmas. An early start will be key, and the Raiders could also benefit greatly from scooping up some wins in the month of January, where they went 0-7 last year. If everything holds up well for the Raiders, they reasonably should be at least a playoff team for this campaign, which would be a great step towards establishing the tradition they’ve been chasing.
Head Coach: Todd Manley
Last Year: 12-7-2, 9-2-2 League, 2nd Place, Division II American.
Key Players Lost: F Jake Hyer (18g-24a-42pts), F Nick Welch (20g-13a-33pts), F Matt Hajdasz (6g-6a-12pts)
Important Dates: 11/24 vs. New Hartford (Ciccotti Tournament), 12/12 vs. Skaneateles, 1/12 vs. Cortland-Homer
The Scoop: Last year’s turnaround by the Warriors was one of the best local sports stories of the winter season, as Whitesboro’s promising 6-14-1 team from two years ago was able to find a competitive stride and a 2nd place league finish behind eventual Section III champion Skaneateles. That effort was recognized in presenting head coach Todd Manley with the Section III Division II Coach of the Year award. About the only thing that wasn’t palatable about Whitesboro’s season was that it ended too early under tough circumstances. On February 2nd, the Warriors lost top scorer Jake Hyer for the remainder of the year in a close win over Auburn. The offense didn’t immediately suffer, as they dropped four on Skaneateles and pumped in three for a 3-1 win over Cazenovia, but a shutout loss to Cortland-Homer in the first round of playoffs left many supporters of the program wondering about what could have been last winter.
No doubt none of this will be easy, but with both sectional finalists in Division II losing many core players, the Warriors count themselves among the many teams licking their chops at the prospect of a Section III title.
New Hartford Spartans
Last Year: 8-8-4, 5-5-3 League, 2nd Place, Division II National.
Key Players Lost: F Jack Engdahl (25 goals), D Andrew Mish, D Jack Barr, F Evan Strassberger(6g-9a-15pts)
Important Dates: 11/24 vs. Whitesboro (Ciccotti Tournament), 1/12 vs. CBA, 2/6-2/7 vs. Auburn.
The Scoop: The Spartans were closer to greatness last season than their 8-8-4 record would have ever told you. Difficulty pulling out wins in close games put a team that could have been a league champion at the .500 mark instead, as four ties and five one goal losses cost the Spartans a fair number of their opportunities to win. The toughest one goal loss to take may have been the one they took in the playoffs, as CBA/JD came from behind with a three goal third period to advance 4-3, and they would get all the way to the Section final as a result.
Last Year: 8-11, 5-8 League, 4th Place, Division II National
Key Players Lost: F John Conway (10g-7a-17pts)
Important Dates: 12/7 at Auburn, 12/12 vs. New Hartford, 12/19 at Whitesboro, 12/22 vs. Christian Brothers Academy, 12/28-29 Clinton Christmas Tournament
The Scoop: The Warriors won eight games last season, but an erratic campaign mixed the good, with the not-so-good last season. Clinton did have some quality wins peppered across its schedule, including a January win over New Hartford and a shutout win against CBA, but also took their bumps against Oswego and Whitesboro, and were a goal away from finishing the year unbeaten against the Brothers as well. For a team that scored about as many goals as it allowed last season, finding serviceable scoring contributions will be huge for a team that loses all-league pick John Conway. Defenseman Danny Burke (5g-7a-12pts) will be a major asset offensively, and the Warriors will also turn to the services of junior TJ Elsenbeck, who had 11 points last year. Experience in goal is expected to be a plus, as sophomore Josh Trask played much of the season’s first half, before Brian Saunders returned home from Northwood School to play in seven games in the latter half of the season. Trask and Saunders will have the services of a rearguard corps that brings back three seniors, including Burke, Connor Frank, and Garrett Frank.