The message from head coach Kyle Pray is simple. He is going to challenge each and every player to be better than they were last season. And he wants the players to challenge themselves, too.
The Kenmore East Bulldogs hockey team comes into the 2016-17 season riding the wave of momentum as the defending NYSPHSAA Division II champions. But with success comes expectations. And Pray said the best expectations come from within.
“I’ve had to challenge these guys on who is going to be the next one to fill these voids,” Pray said, “step up and be ready to take on the role.”
After graduating 10 seniors, most notably NYSPHSAA DII Player of the Year Trevor Pray, there is definitely the need for last year’s support players to step up and fill those roles of leadership.
Not only losing Trevor Pray, a captain, the Bulldogs also graduated co-captain forwards Cullen Smyth and Anthony Tulipane.
Also gone is forward AJ Marinelli, who formed a 1-2 combo with Pray that accounted for some of the team’s biggest goals; including the overtime winner when they defeated Section VII Skaneateles, 3-2, to claim the state title at the Harbor Center.
Ken-East has also lost three of its top four defenseman in JP Giordano, Joey Spataro and Gage Holler, as well as starting goalie Brad Hermann.
But the well is far from dry as they return a core of talent in senior defenseman Sam Balesteri, forwards Justin Watson (senior) and Russ Riggio (junior), and senior goalie Chase Ford.
Though the Bulldogs rode Hermann’s hot hand in net to the state championship, Ford was responsible for some big wins along the way during the regular season. Ford went 5-0 last season and his 1.61 goals against average ranked third in the Federation.
“Those four guys actually played a very big role last year,” Pray said. “Russ and Watson were on our second line and that line was key for us in winning many games. Sammy was one of our main four (on defense) last year. It was Cullen, Joey, Sammy and JP. Chase played almost half of our games last season and held up very well against large schools. So I have the utmost confidence in those four guys. They’re gonna be our leaders this year.”
Ready to accept the coach’s challenge to step up, Sam Balesteri said one of the things they will try to do is maintain the same togetherness that was such a big part of last year’s success.
Though they compete in the Division II/Small School playoffs, the WNY Varsity Hockey Federation is still in the alignment that divides teams based on their recent success. So the Bulldogs will be in the Division I & II bracket that will see them playing large schools such as Orchard Park and Williamsville North. Having lost so many players to graduation bodes the question how do the Bulldogs look at this year. Do they see it as a new lineup ready to write its own chapter? Or as a team defending its state title?
“I think it’s more so defending the title,” Sam Balesteri said. “Right now that’s our title, but we’ve still got to earn it. It’s not gonna be easy this year. It’s gonna be a lot tougher than it was last year, but playing in Division I again this year will help us when we go back to Division II for playoffs.”
Senior Jacob Kluge (D), senior Adam Smith (F), senior David Hahn (GK), sophomore Ryan Hahn (D) and junior Dan Spors (F) are also back for the Bulldogs, though an injury will likely keep Spors sidelined until January. Newcomers include defenseman Frank Cengo and forward Dave Uptegrove.
Beating Section X St. Lawrence, 6-1, in the Far West Regionals the Bulldogs went on to crush Section VII Lake Placid 11-0 in the NYSPHSAA semifinals.
Also, winning the state title in 2012, one of the biggest reasons for the Bulldogs success has been the stability behind the bench with Pray and his assistants Mike Kluge, Jim Kluge and Tom Diehl.
But Diehl is unable to be with the team this season as he continues to fight through a challenging medical issue. A beloved person in the Ken-Ton community, Diehl’s value to the Bulldogs program cannot be put into words.
“It’s been hard for us,” Pray said. “We’ve all been very close for 10 years. He’s a very important part of our program. So it’s gonna be a loss.”