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SPARTANS TOPPLE TITANS, WILL PLAY FOR STATE TITLE

Buffalo, NY- Just five years ago the Starpoint Spartans were a club hockey team. Nowadays they’re on the verge of winning a state championship.

That was made possible after the Spartans (19-5-1) took down the Webster Thomas Titans by a 2-1 score on Saturday at the LeCom Harborcenter. The team’s fast progress, however, doesn’t surprise coach Clayton Wilson.

“It’s awesome to be here,” Wilson said. “We’ve went to three Section VI championships in the last three years. There’s been some coaches who I’ve gone against who haven’t had one opportunity to do that.

“But it’s not about me, it’s about the kids in the locker room that make it happen. It’s their work ethic, putting in the extra time and playing hard. That’s the type of players we have on this team and they just love playing the game.”

Junior Alec Kirk, who scored both goals for the winning school, was excited for the opportunity.

“It’s everything, man,” Kirk said. “It’s the first time in Starpoint history that we’ve come this far. We’re looking to come away with a win.”

The game was set up to be a classic right from the opening puck drop. A chippy first period with plenty of penalties heightened the tension, yet Starpoint dominated the pace of play with an 8-2 advantage in shots on goal. Despite the penalties, Wilson was pleased with his squad’s defensive play.

“We preach blocking shots, controlling the puck and moving it up to our forwards,” Wilson said. “In that sense, our defense played one of their best games of the year. Controlling the defensive zone, getting that puck. If the shot got to the goalie they would clear the rebound, get it up in transition and go the other way.”

Heading into the second period having peppered Titans goaltender Jackson Gruttadaria with multiple shots on goal, the Spartans caught a break. Kirk got on the board when a strong forecheck caused a Titans defender to lose the puck behind his own net, and he took advantage of it by roofing the loose puck over Gruttadaria on a backhanded shot with less than four minutes remaining.

“Alec is a special player and I’m glad he’s on my team,” Wilson said. “He had two defensemen and contained both of them, and then the puck just hit him and next thing you know, he backhands it under the bar. It was a beautiful goal.”

“That was just a hard forecheck there,” Kirk said. “I followed the guy behind the net and he was kind of moving slow up the ice. I was just able to lift his stick, get the puck and flicked the puck in off my backhand.”

Midway through the third stanza of play the Spartans continued to keep the pressure on the Titans but couldn’t manage to increase their lead – even possessing a shots-on-goal advantage of 21-5 at one point. Then the Titans caught a break. A wrist shot from the point by Sam Nesbitt beat Starpoint goalie Rich Gareau’s glove side to tie the game at one apiece.

Unfazed, the Spartans pressed on. Both sides appeared to be heading to overtime until fortune decided to smile upon Starpoint in the form of a power play with 2:18 to go in regulation (Joe Cressimanni was whistled for crosschecking). Taking their time while working the puck around the Titans’ zone, fellow junior Justin Bull threaded a pass to Kirk across the ice and Kirk buried it behind Gruttadaria for the game-winning goal with just 48 seconds to spare.

“Justin Bull has some of the best vision out there,” Kirk said. “He just threw a pass over three defenders and all I had to do was tap it in back-door, so it was a really easy goal.”

“We work on that all the time,” Wilson said. “Justin and Alec usually go back and forth working the backdoor pass. This time Alec didn’t one-time it – because (Gruttadaria) is really good going from side to side, he let him drop down and he just went bar-down on him.”

Starpoint’s opponent on Sunday will be Pelham Memorial, who are coming off a 7-1 demolition of Queensbury in the other Division II semifinal on Saturday. Wilson knew that he and his team will have their hands full while trying to win a championship.

“I knew going in that Pelham was the team to beat,” Wilson said. “It’s special to be able to play tomorrow and it’s going to be a special day. I just hope the kids get a good rest and hydrate, and we’ll be ready to go.

“Pelham’s a little bigger than us, so we’re just going to have to work that much harder. It’s just going to come down to heart and who wants it more.”

Images Courtesy of Matt Tyree/WNYAthletics

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