On Friday morning, less than one hour before his team hit the ice for practice, Section I Pelham Memorial High School hockey coach Ed Witz was on the phone with his mother.
She didn’t pull any punches when she told Ed what was on her mind.
“She said, ‘I’m 82 years old. Win a state title before I die!” Witz said with a laugh.
Pelham is just two wins away from making that dream come true.
Pelham will take on Brockport at 9:30am Saturday in the opening game of the NYSPHSAA championship tournament that will be held at HarborCenter this weekend.
The winner will face the winner of Beekmantown/St.Lawrence on Sunday at noon.
Defeating John Jay High School to win the Section I title, the 10th under Witz, the Pelicans defeated Queensbury High School in regionals to earn a return trip to Buffalo. The only team from last year’s Division II Final Four to make it back.
“We worked super hard to get back here with the mentality that we’re gonna win it all this year,” senior captain Gibson Smith said.
“Last year was awesome to be here and just kind of see what it’s all about. Now we’re here to win this year.”
To say that Pelham is driven is, at best, an understatement.
In last year’s Division II state semifinals the Pelicans had taken a 1-0 lead over Section III Skaneateles, but ultimately fell to the Lakers by a score of 3-1.
Returning the bulk of that team the Pelicans said the sting of that loss has served as motivation for the 2016-17 season.
“This group, the seniors, have won three sectional titles in a row and last year obviously came up short and I think it was in the back of their heads that anything short of getting here would be a failure, which is a lot of pressure,” Witz said.
And what a season it has been for Pelham. After losing to rival Suffern, 2-0, on opening night the Pelicans have since run off an incredible streak of 23 straight wins.
“Yeah knock on wood,” senior goalie Justin Ming said with a smile. “I don’t think we’re obsessed with (the steak). I think it’s something we definitely look at as a team as an achievement. It’s something we don’t want to end until it ends on the right note (with a state title). Our motto in our locker room, at some point, is keep the streak. We have our game and that if we play as a team our streak will be fine, but it’s not something we really focus on.”
An impressive body of work, the Pelicans winning streak includes wins over some of the premiere teams in the state; Section VI Niagara Wheatfield (4-3), Section VI Williamsville-East (3-0), Section V McQuaid (4-1) and defending Division I state champion Mamaroneck, 4-2. They also defeated Catholic state runners-up St.Anthony’s,7-4, in a highly competitive exhibition game.
Witz said that at the start of the season, given how tough their schedule was, a .500 record and coming out more battled tested was the expectation. Winning 23 in a row shows Witz just how much his boys want it.
“I think it’ been building and I think the kids are looking at it like they gotta get this done,” he said.
Built around a strong defense the Pelican’s will lean on seniors Will Case (6-foot-4) and Gibson Smith (6-foot-1).
Pelham’s top line features senior Nate Heintz, junior Stefan Miklakos and senior captain Ben Hurd who enters the weekend with 202 career points. And, according to Witz, is the best all-around player he has seen in his 31 years coaching at Pelham.
Hurd said that with so many kids back from last year’s team they have the key components for success already in place from Day One of training camp.
“The two basic things with all of these kids coming back is the experience and the chemistry,” Hurd said.
“I think this is the best chemistry I’ve had with any team because everyone has been playing for the last two-three years together. And also, since we’ve been here, we know how it is to play on the state level. We kind of understand what needs to be done. So that kinda helps, too.”
While the Pelicans feels they have the right mix to win, they know they still have to get the job done on the ice. Witz said now it’s up to the coaches to make sure the guys have the right mix of confidence and focus when they hit the ice.
“My attitude for this weekend is hey, we’ve got the talent. We’ve got the ability. We know what has to be done. It’s just a question of going out and relaxing,” Witz said. “Staying loose and getting it done.”
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