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Spartans Down Ithaca; Advance to State Semis

The Williamsville North Spartans got through two periods of their Far West Regional matchup with the Ithaca Little Red on Saturday thinking that the contest would be a cakewalk.

It didn’t quite go that way, but the Spartans were still able to hang on for a 3-1 win that, according to coach Bob Rosen, could have been much more fruitful.

“We knew what they were going to do gameplan-wise – try and slow us down and keep everything out to the perimeter,” Spartans coach Bob Rosen said. “They did a good job of that, and we got a little selfish in our own zone. They were well-prepared, but all told it was a job well done by us because we didn’t play our best, but we found a way to win.”

Jacob Okulewicz, who notched a pair of goals on the afternoon, agreed.

“It wasn’t pretty, but you’re not going to have a pretty game every game,” Okulewicz said. “You’ve got to be a good team and you’ve got to be able to fight through things. The first two periods we outplayed them and the third period we started to slip. But we got some big saves and ended up coming out on top.”

Neither team scored during the opening period of play, but Ithaca nearly put themselves up 1-0 when captain Sam Hynes-Klempa put a puck past goaltender Henry Braun following a two-on-one opportunity. The puck, however, didn’t cross the goal line, and Rosen and company breathed a sigh of relief.

“The good news about that chance was that we had our forwards back in the zone and they just so happened to get to a loose puck,” Rosen said. “If you can play in your defensive zone and keep pucks out of that area, you don’t get that sort of crazy goal. But when you let pucks stay in that area, a lot of bad things can happen.”

In the second period, the Spartans staked out a 1-0 lead early on when a turnover at the blueline became a two-on-one. Matthew Scott then directed a pass to Okulewicz, who found the back of the net on a one-timer. Nearly ten minutes later, Scott knocked home a rebound on a power play to increase the Spartans’ lead to two.

Through 30 minutes of play, the Spartans controlled the play and easily could have had a 4-0 lead if not for two goals that were waived off. They led in the shot department 30-4 and rarely allowed the opposition to get beyond center ice.

Having dominated Ithaca, it appeared as if the only way the Spartans could let the game slip away would be through self-infliction. That appeared to be the case early in the third, as Tyler Turner was sent to the penalty box for cross-checking and Zach Neely converted on the ensuing power play to cut the lead in half.

According to Okulewicz, Neely’s tally – and a tripping penalty taken soon thereafter by Connor Schwartz – proved to be a wakeup call for the Spartans.

“Emotions can be a good thing to use if they’re under control,” Okulewicz said. “You can’t get too high or too low, if you get too high you get overconfident and if you get too low, you get too hard on yourself. It’s really important to stay even-keeled, and that will help you give the best performance that you can.”

Fortunately for the Spartans, Schwartz’s penalty was killed off and Okulewicz iced the game on an empty-netter with just 26 seconds to go. Goaltender Henry Braun also made 13 saves in the win.

Up next for the Spartans is a chance to advance to their second state championship game in the last four years and to compete for the school’s sixth state title. For that to happen though, Okulewicz said that his team needed to improve in some areas going into next weekend.

“Getting to this point is something I’ve never experienced,” Okulewicz said. “It’s win or go home at this point. The stakes are even higher at this point, and the competition is going to get even better. You have to be on your ‘A’ game or you’re not going to prevail, so we’ll get back to practice, get ready to go for next week and try to win another game.”

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