With each year, Greg Grosskopf has seen milestones crossed off.
In only a five-year span, Niagara County went from a winless 0-14 season in 2018-19 to winning 14 games and competing for a Section VI championship against Kenmore/Grand Island/Lockport on Feb. 13 at Cornerstone Arena in Lockport. A five-on-three opportunity to score was killed off and KenGI-Port walked away with its seventh sectional title in a 4-0 win but Grosskopf and the Warriors didn’t view it as a lost season.
In fact, going into year six, it proved to them they were good enough to take on the best in the Western New York Girls Hockey Federation. Through the first two months of the season, Niagara County (Starpoint/Niagara Wheatfield/Lewiston-Porter) jumped out of the gate with an unblemished 9-0 record, with seven of those wins coming in Federation play.
With 12 players who felt the pain of coming close but not finishing one year ago, Grosskopf said the Warriors were “hungry” this season and credited moving the puck and playing together as reasons behind the strong start.
The result is Niagara County, as of Friday, scoring 54 total goals (39 in Federation play) and having a Federation-leading six players in the top-10 in points, including the overall leader, Starpoint senior Madison Mallone (26). The scoring, Grosskopf said, has complimented the play of sophomore goaltender Kennedy Ruest (Lew-Port), who has won all nine games along with a 1.33 GAA and two shutouts.
“I think that goes to show you how we’ve been playing as a group and it’s not just one person every single night,” said Grosskopf, also a teacher in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District. “Our first few years, we had to kind of rely on one or two players, but, this year, it’s been a collective effort.”
With the collective effort, Grosskopf said, there has been a shift in the Warriors play with “a little bit more speed,” thus having an increased presence in front of the net for opportunities. With the experience of players like Mallone and Sam Latini (Lew-Port) along with Abby Zimmerman (Niagara Wheatfield) and Marina Mansfield (Starpoint), Niagara County has scored five or more goals four times, including a 10-goal game against Section V’s Webster on Dec. 15 and 11 goals in the season-opener against Williamsville on Nov. 28.
A member of the Warriors since the inaugural season as a seventh-grader, Mallone said the connection on the ice has never been stronger this year, with an increased trust with and without the puck while on the ice.
“I know (Abby’s) on the boards or sometimes she knows I can see her, she won’t even look, she knows I’m there,” said Mallone, who scored her 50th career goal (insert game). “Also, if I’m on the boards, I remember the one time she was coming down the middle of the ice, I didn’t even see her. I just knew she was going to be there. Just playing with these girls for so many years, you learn their habits and where they’re going to be and it helps so much.”
Along with the scoring, the overall team morale has boosted for the Warriors. Even as the team went through the postseason one year ago, Grosskopf said allowing a goal or making a mistake would affect the entire team.
But through the first two months of games and practices, the Warriors have played looser, with Grosskopf adding the team is now in “the right frame of mind.” Grosskopf hopes the fun energy will carry over into the second half of the season and the postseason.
“We’re all enjoying the laughing on the bench,” Grosskopf said. “And even when we give up a goal, we still laugh about it. We don’t take anything too serious this year. And it’s really helped our team kind of get over that hump. And if we get down a goal or get down, we have a bad period, we’re pretty good at snapping out of it pretty quick so far. Regrouping and having each other’s backs, it’s really made a difference.”
Niagara County will continue its season at 4:40 p.m. Dec. 28 when it faces Monsignor Martin at North Buffalo Ice Rink, its last game of the calendar year.