February 25, 2013
Quite a Saturday, wasn't it?
From the emotion and intensity on a sheet of ice in Utica to the history carved out on wrestling mats in Albany, the Section III ice hockey and state wrestling championships featured enough excitement to last for two months, much less two days.
We'll start at the Times Union Center with Phoenix's Nick Tighe. We must. Because really, how many three-time state champions do you know?
None in this section, unless your name is Dan Hunt and, from 1972 to '74, you roamed the mats for West Genesee and beat all comers to grab a state three-peat long before Pat Riley came up with that term.
Granted, Hunt did it in a single-division format, not the two-division (large school, small school) set-up we've got now. So Nick Tighe didn't have to face a host of terrific wrestlers in his weight class when his state championship run commenced in 2011.
But that's really nit-picking at this point. Tighe not only won more than 250 matches in his Firebirds career, he pinned more than 150, a staggering number, including two more in the opening rounds of the 138-pound state Division II meet in Albany.
Then it got tough. A 4-1 semifinal battle with Albany Academy's Sean Romanski led to a tense final against Lansing's Connor Lapresi that was in doubt all the way until the final minute, when Tighe got the takedown he needed for the 3-1 victory and his own place alongside Hunt in the absolute pantheon of Section III wrestling.
Not far behind is Canastota's Zack Zupan, who finished a two-time state champion (joining early 1990s star Terry Showalter as Raiders who pulled it off) with his 3-2 win over Warsaw's Tim Schaefer in the Division II 182-pound final.
Adirondack freshman Derek Spann won it all in Division II at 99 pounds by topping Mateo Devincenzo (Port Jefferson) 9-4 in the finals, while Carthage's Shayne Brady made history as the first-ever Comets wrestler to gain a state title, getting it in dramatic fashion with an overtime takedown to beat Wantagh's James Corbett 5-3 for Division I honors at 182.
Phoenix nearly had two state champs, but Rowdy Prior, the much-tattooed cult hero at 152 pounds, dropped an exciting 6-5 title match to Unatego's Kevin Thayer. Dolgeville's Danny Fox got to the 106-pound final in Division II before a 3-1 defeat to Hoosick Falls' Luis Weierbach.
A few hours earlier, they were on the ice at Utica Aud deciding the sectional ice hockey championships. One had a familiar ending, though it was not expected the way it was in seasons past, and the other was just plain stunning on all levels.
Division I was West Genesee against Rome Free Academy again, a third straight title clash. And it was the Wildcats winning again, an astonishing sixth consecutive title earned in 3-2 fashion.
This was not supposed to happen in 2013. WG was too young (just three seniors), didn't have any scary talent on the offensive end, and the two sides who shared the top state rankings, RFA and Cicero-North Syracuse, were all set to assume the throne, having beaten the Wildcats in the regular season.
So much for that idea. WG used a pair of short-handed goals to oust C-NS 2-1 in the semifinal at Shove Park. Then it went to Utica Saturday and jumped on RFA 3-0, getting yet another short-handed goal, plus tallies on the power play and even strength, just to add variety.
Then the Wildcats had to hang on. RFA, playing with desperate emotion after the near-misses in 2011 and '12, closed the gap, and may have caught up were it not for Henry Burns, who kept making big saves in front of the usual tough and stingy WG defense.
It almost got out of hand, with a near-fight at the end of the second period and a near-brawl as they shook hands at game's end - pure frustration on the Black Knights' part, and who can blame them? As with lacrosse, WG has become omnipotent, and beating them at the end has turned into the Holy Grail.
Speaking of holy, the last time CBA/J-D's ice hockey team was a sectional champion was 1981, so long ago that CBA was still all-male. And it wasn't supposed to change this time, with a no. 5 playoff seed and the prospect of three road wins needed to grab the banner.
Which only made the Brothers' run to the title so stunning. Playing with high emotion after the passing of coach Mike McKie's father, CBA/J-D went to Auburn, where no visitor had won all season, and won. Then it did the same thing in the semfinals at Skaneateles, needing triple overtime.
Finally, the Brothers had to conquer defending champ Oswego in the title game, and did so. Naturally, it was a 4-3, tension-filled classic that turned on Scott Firman's short-handed goal right at the second-period horn and featured five tallies in the last four minutes.
How CBA/J-D kept its poise, after the Bucs scored to go ahead 2-1, was as much a story as anything else. All the Brothers did was tie it on the power play, move ahead with Ryan Durkin's goal less than 30 seconds later, and add a Firman empty-netter that was needed because Oswego converted seconds later and got a chance at the end, but was turned away.
Now both CBA/J-D and West Genesee head to tough regional games this weekend - the Brothers in Buffalo, the Wildcats in Rochester - hoping to get at least one more game in Utica as part of the state final four March 9-10. Big stuff, and though they might never accomplish as much as Nick Tighe did, it's still pretty special.