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When the Niagara-Wheatfield Falcons clinched a spot in the state semifinals on Saturday night by defeating the Syracuse Cougars 3-1, it felt like just another day at the office.

Not that the team didn’t feel any excitement from reaching this stage of the postseason, of course. But for a powerhouse of a hockey program within the Western New York high school community, it was a win that was both exhilarating and expected.

“When it gets to this point in the season, it all comes down to grit, heart and doing all the little things and playing the right way,” coach Rick Wrazin said. “Getting sticks on sticks, taking the body, playing hard in front of the net and along the walls – all that little stuff, we did, and that was a big difference.

“We’ve been there before, but we know that to win, you have to play the right way and leave everything on the ice. We plan on doing that this upcoming weekend.”

The game started off with each team deadlocked at zero goals apiece until Nick Peters – the Falcons’ second-leading scorer – lit the lamp by crashing the crease and putting a rebound past the Cougars’ goaltender with 3:54 left in the first period. Midway through the second stanza, Hugh White tied the score at one, but Peters stepped up again shortly thereafter with his second goal of the night.

“At this point in the season, every team you’re going to face is going to be strong, and there’s going to be ups and downs. You’re not going to run over everybody,” Peters said. “After they tied it, it was basically a question of who’s going to respond next, and by getting that second goal we now know that we can respond in those type of situations.”

24 seconds after Peters notched the eventual game-winning tally, Michael Lotempio increased his team’s lead by two with a score of his own. The goal was especially sweet for him, especially after recently suffering through the death of his mother and sustaining a career-threatening injury last year.

“Winning today, and possibly winning next weekend, would mean a lot to me,” Lotempio said. “Losing my mom last year – if she’s looking down on me, I think she’d be very happy right now.

“Midway through last year, I got a concussion and I thought I couldn’t play hockey anymore. My doctor told me not to play, but I couldn’t let my buddies down. I had to play for them.”

Wrazin said that everything that has come Lotempio’s way this season has been earned.

“Before this season started, he asked me what I thought he should do and I told him it was up to him and his family,” Wrazin said. “I told him whatever decision he made would be the right one. When we beat Williamsville North a few nights back, he told me ‘I’m so glad I played this year.'”

“He makes us a better hockey team, he’s a good player and it’s good to see him accomplish something that’s well-deserved.”

During the third period, the Falcons found themselves down by two men twice, giving the Cougars two separate chances to get back into the game on power plays. Both times, however, the team was able to kill off the five-on-three advantages the opposition had.

“If they scored on either of those five-on-threes, it would have given them a ton of momentum,” Wrazin said. “It was huge to kill them off, and our units did a great job in those situations.”

The Falcons will take on North Rockland in the New York State Division 1 Semifinals next Saturday morning at the HarborCenter. Should they win, it would be a dream come true for the program, according to Lotempio.

“We’ve had one goal as a team all year long, and that’s to go all the way,” Lotempio said. “We’re slowly getting there, and if I’m an opposing team, I’d be scared to play against us right now. Every game we’re getting better and better, and it’s almost like we’re a snowball rolling down a mountain – just getting bigger and bigger.

“If we can pull this out, it would honestly be a miracle. My older brother used to play here, and he reached the state final a few years back but didn’t win. Winning a title would be really great for me, my family and my teammates.”

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