The Syracuse Cougars ice hockey team won its first state championship when it defeated Suffern 4-2 in Sunday's state Division I final at Buffalo's HarborCenter.
Seven years ago, several ice hockey programs from the city of Syracuse and its western suburbs were brought together under the banner of the Syracuse Cougars.
Now it has reached its pinnacle as state Division I champions, the Cougars earning it Sunday at Buffalo’s HarborCenter with a 4-2 victory over Suffern.
“It was a long journey to get here,” said head coach Neal Purcell. “But the stage was never too bright for these guys. They wanted to win it so badly.”
“I’m beyond excited,” said senior Philip Zollo. “From the beginning of the season, we knew that this was our year, and we put in the hard work for it.”
And that work required going all the way to the wire against Suffern. Fortunately, Syracuse had state Division I Player of the Year Ryan Eccles on hand to provide the closing touches.
The Cougars and Mountied traded second-period goals after a scoreless opening frame, Steve Matro finding the net for Syracuse off a two-on-one break assisted by Nate Frye. Then Zollo scored to put Syracuse ahead 2-1 late in the period.
It was still that way, with the Cougars clinging to a one-goal advantage, when, just past the midway point of the third period, Eccles took the puck deep in his own end.
“I saw an opening and took it down the ice,” said Eccles.
In fact, Eccles carried it end to end, finishing with a wrist shot from the right circle that eluded Suffern goalie Mike Halper and doubled the Cougars’ lead to 3-1.
“Ryan is an unreal hockey player,” said Zollo.
That goal loomed even more when Suffern’s Ryan Schelling scored off an odd angle with 3:05 left. Twice before in the state tournament, the Mounties had erased two-goal deficits, but the Cougars were not rattled.
“There was no nerves,” said Eccles. “We knew this was our game.
So Syracuse proceeded to burn off the remaining clock, mostly keeping the puck in Suffern’s end, and Eccles, fittingly, clinched it with an empty-net goal with 20.3 seconds to play.
Eccles was named state tournament MVP, as he and fellow senior Hugh White anchored a Cougars’ defense that never allowed more than two goals in any post-season game. Goalie Alex Moreno was strong, too, especially in the first period, where he stopped all 10 Suffern shots to keep his team from falling behind.
A day earlier, it took the same kind of persistence and patience for Syracuse to prevail – but once it did get on the board in the state semifinal against Orchard Park, the rest proved rather routine as Zollo netted a hat trick and Syracuse won, 5-1, over the Quakers.
Orchard Park did hold a slight home-ice advantage, the Section VI champions playing just a few miles from its home in the suburbs south of Buffalo.
Yet right from the opening face-off, the Quakers were overwhelmed by the Cougars’ speed and depth, Syracuse spending lots of time in Orchard Park’s end during the first period.
All told, the Cougars took 14 shots, but none of them got past Orchard Park goalie Ryan Albert, so it remained 0-0, Syracuse reminding itself to just continue the pressure and wait for a breakthrough.
It came 3:13 into the second period, and Zollo beat Albert on a goal assisted by Eccles and Zach Delaney, but the real getaway occurred midway through the period.
Moments after Moreno stopped the Quakers’ Bryson Miller on a breakaway, Frye, off a feed from Matro, made it 2-0, and 31 seconds later the margin grew further with Eccles finding the net.
Even after Orchard Park got on the board on Jack Kinsman’s power-play goal, Zollo answered it with 2:17 left in the period to make it 4-1, and less than three minutes into the third period Zollo returned to get his hat trick, the third goal assisted by Durand.
One more game remained – and one more victory, as it turned out.
Purcell said the leadership of 12 seniors on the Syracuse roster was evident throughout the season, but especially at the end, when skill and poise produced a landmark title.