Four-year varsity players looking for third championship
By David Yarger
For four years, seniors Zack Belter, Nick Peters and Chris Tobey have suited up for the Niagara-Wheatfield Falcons hockey team. On Monday evening, they'll play in their third sectional championship and look to bring Niagara-Wheatfield its sixth title.
The trio has combined for 70 points on the season, as they helped guide the Falcons to a 16-2-3-1 season and back to the Section VI large schools finals after two years.
Standing in the way of the trio's second title together is a familiar foe: the Williamsville North Spartans.
The matchup has become a rivalry, as the teams have faced off in the finals seven times in 11 years. The last time the two faced in the finals was 2016, where the Spartans defeated the Falcons, 1-0. The Falcons also played Williamsville North twice in the regular season this year, tying once and losing once.
The trio all agreed that there is a different vibe in the building when they play the Spartans.
"I think everyone gets up for it," Peters said. "You think each of us want to beat each other and it's just a rivalry that goes back; it's that history thing. Everyone wants to come out on top."
Tobey said, "Even in school other students, teachers, everyone's up for the game. It's always a big game versus North."
The game will be at the KeyBank Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres. Playing at a professional rink brought joy to the trio.
"It's a great atmosphere. Just stepping on the rink it's cool to think it's always a good opportunity to play in an atmosphere like this," Peters said.
"Growing up watching the Sabres, you dream of playing on this ice," Tobey said. "Once you are finally able to it's surreal."
Belter said, "It's definitely an honor to be here and play on the ice. It's even cooler when you get to win on it."
The trio's championship experience has helped guide the team in the right direction, and they all had words of wisdom for the upcoming feud with North.
Peters, who's enjoyed a 34 point season, said, "You gotta play confident. It's just like any other hockey game. It's under a big stage, but you just have to be excited and hopefully you come out on the right side of it."
Tobey, who has 11 goals and assists, said, "We talk about the past a lot and it being a tradition. You know past guys still come to the games and they actually come into the locker room and they come to our practices, they talk to us. We wanna keep the tradition going."
"It's just another hockey rink and we try to keep everyone confident going into the game and we know what we're capable of, we know of the tradition here, so we're looking forward to getting a win Monday," Belter, the defensive anchor for the Falcons, said.
Coach Rick Wrazin also credited the trio, saying each of them has taken time during the year and leading up to the game to say their piece to the team.
"Chris is the quietest and Belter is probably the most outspoken and certainly the most intense and Nick is in the middle; he's the voice of reason for them," Wrazin said. "It's good because they all come from different roots. ... They know what needs to be said in there and it's great to have that experience."
Wrazin added that the trio had asked the coaches before for time with the team before games like against Orchard Park to spark the team up and get them ready to play.
Speaking of tradition, sometimes it can be difficult to play for a program with such a storied history. The trio didn't seem to let the past bother their present.
"Honestly, I think it's more of a comfort," Peters said. "It's good to have high expectations. We learn a lot here with a great coach in Wrazin and it's just keeping the legacy going. A lot of us had family come through the program and we're all excited to play for the team."
Peters brother, Matt, played in the Falcons program until 2013 and won sectional titles.
Belter said, "We try to honor those that came before and also leave a legacy behind for the next generation.
"There's no pressure, but you know what you're coming into when you tryout for this tam and know what you're playing for when you throw on the jersey," Tobey said.
Wrazin recognized that pressure might be present, but he said he tries to keep his players calm in all circumstances.
"We certainly try to tell them there's not," Wrazin said. "To me I don't really think there is. It's just another hockey game. Ultimately, that's what we look for all year is consistency and try to impress upon them that it doesn't matter who you're playing, doesn't matter what the score is, you do the right thing right all the time."
The team has all grown up together and the trio said the bond they have has led to sufficient chemistry amongst them all.
"We all love playing together," Peters said. "We're all best friends now and I we're trying to make one last run together. I think having good, strong seniors is great for a team."
Belter added, "We've all been playing in the road in front of our houses since we were 5-6 years old and it's cool to see how far we've come and looking to go out on a high note."
"A lot of us are on the same travel teams. We hang out a lot outside of school, outside of hockey. We do a lot of team bonding activities, so it keeps the chemistry high and it's a good example for the younger guys," Tobey said.
Referring to team bonding, the team took a unique approach to get closer in the playoffs. Majority of the team died their hair blonde for the playoff run and the trio said it's been a fun way to come together as a team.
"I think it was more of something to get the team together," Peters said. "It's something to bond us all together. A lot of us, this is our last go, so one day we'll look back and laugh."
Tobey, who decided not to dye his head blonde, still had his own way of fitting into the Falcons' makeover.
"Everyone wanted to do something with their hair, so I figured I'll just get a mohawk. I'm not participating, but it's funny. It brings the team closer," Tobey said.
Belter said, "As crazy as it sounds, definitely blonde hair brings us together. We all look good and can't wait to take the helmets off for the National Anthem."
Wrazin laughed about the team's blonde movement, but said it's definitely a way of them coming together.
"They can do what they want," Wrazin chuckled. "They ask me to do it and that's not happening."
The trio will look to continue their season at 4 p.m. today at the KeyBank Center in the large schools championship versus Williamsville North.