BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Williamsville North Spartans were on the top of the world at the end of last season, taking the second half of the season by storm and commanding opponents throughout the Section VI Fed playoffs. After toppling No. 1 seed Lancaster in triple overtime, the Spartans advanced to Super Sunday where they lit the Key Bank Center on fire with a massive 5-1 win over Orchard Park to become Section VI champions yet again, and hand head coach Bob Rosen his 500th career victory.
In their Regional matchup, Will North outlasted Ithaca 3-1, and punched their ticket to the Frozen Four State Tournament, with North’s semifinal game to be held at the HarborCenter on March 14th, 2020.
As with so many things in 2020, that didn’t go as planned.
While the Spartans were en route to one of their final practices before the semifinals on Thursday, March 12th, the call came down from NYSPHAA that the Winter State Championships would be “postponed indefinitely” due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic.
“At the end of the day, considering all consequences, we heard the news together, and we get another chance at practice today,” North 2020 senior Evan Wolfson said on the day of the Spartans’ final practice. “I think that’s all that matters. We heard it together, we get to hug each other, we get to talk to each other, and that’s something special.”
“A lot of teams really want another shot, just to practice, not even another game. Just being here and getting one more chance with each other and just practicing, whatever. Just being together, that’s what’s important at this point.”
As it would turn out, that final practice that signified the end of the 2019-20 Williamsville North hockey season would also be the final time any high school team in Western New York would step foot on the ice to practice until Monday, February 1st, 2021.
Ten and a half months later, the 2020-21 Spartans are finally back, and they felt as many emotions returning to the ice for that first practice as they did stepping off it for the final time last March.
“For me as a coach, it was a little bittersweet coming back, I was a little nervous with everything going on and my age, but so excited to have that going back to practice,” Williamsville North hockey head coach Bob Rosen said. “The biggest thing I noticed is how everyone’s trying to do the right thing, wearing a mask, social distancing, and how appreciative the kids are that we’re able to do this. The other neat thing is where the intensity level was when we left off last year, we picked up and it was right there. That was really encouraging.”
“For me, it was really exciting, first time seeing all my friends back on the same ice as me, it was really fun for the first few practices then we started getting serious about it again,” Williamsville North senior Jacob Penetrante said. “All the seniors on the team are stepping up and being leaders, showing the kids below us how North hockey is done, how intense you have to be, the mentality that has to be put into it, we’re doing our best right now and I’m looking forward to a great season.”
With only one week of practices after a ten and a half month hiatus to prepare for the season opener, the players had to get ready in hyper-speed, but it takes time to get to playing your best hockey.
“We had six hours of practice before our first game. Where we normally are in six weeks, we had to be in six hours,” Coach Rosen said. “It’s hard, and kids have done a great job of trying to get into place what we need to get into place. It hasn’t been easy.”
“Right now, the hardest thing is hockey endurance. It’s playing 17 minute period compared to 15 minute periods last year, then just getting on the ice,” Penetrante said. “I know a bunch of guys have been going and working out on their own time, but going out on the ice and playing games takes a lot of endurance and brain power to get back to the hockey IQ that you need to be on the top of your game.”
On top of having to physically get back into hockey shape in a short amount of time, not having the six weeks of practice to prepare for the season has also been tough to build and grow team chemistry. After graduating 10 seniors from last season’s Frozen Four team, the Spartans have quite a few newcomers to the varsity squad, and it’s been tough to get to know the new guys so far.
“Over the last two years, it’s been basically the same exact people on the team, so we’ve had a lot of chemistry compared to what’s been going on this year,” Penetrante said. “I had a lot of chemistry with all the seniors from last year for the past two years, and it’s going to be a little different, I’m going to have to bond a lot more with my teammates which is hard in these times. Not like I can just go over to their house and have a huge team get-together every other day or doing something like that. I’m really confident that we’ll pick it up on the ice, because our chemistry is getting better and better.”
“That’s always been our emphasis, we always want to be playing our best hockey at the end of the year and we’ve been fortunate enough to do that and have the kids excel throughout the years and continually get better. The team bonding and the friendships of hockey is really what it’s all about, and this year in particular trying to replicate that, we would do film, and we can’t bring everyone in and do film. You hope as a coach that they get out of hockey the lasting friendships, the bonds, that’s the number one thing. I really hope that the kids this year are able to replicate it some way to be able to look back 20 years from now and be able to pick up if one calls another, they may not have talked in a while but they have those experiences to draw on. Certainly this group of seniors, what they’ve gone through in the last year has been traumatic. Hopefully that will give them the ability to deal with things later in life, because there can’t be much worse than what’s taken place.”