BY RANDY SCHULTZ –
One of the more amazing stories that came out of the 2021-22 WNYGVIH season involved the Kenmore/Grand Island girls high school hockey team. It was a team that won the Section VI Championship.
But before we take a look at that season, you have to go back a year. The 2020-21 hockey season saw KenGi finish dead last in the Federation standings, winning just one game all season.
A year later KenGi sat atop Section VI as champions. Talk about what a difference a year makes!
How did it happen?
“The players from the year before got better,” said KenGi head coach, Jeff Orlowski. “I’ve always been a firm believer that a team will get better as the year goes on.
“When you take a look at the year that we were really bad, we were in every game as the second half of the season went on. Our last game of the season resulted in the only win of the year.
“So they got better as the season went on. But it was shortened by COVID, so it was really only a half a season.
“We didn’t get a chance to play teams a second time that year. We learned from our first games with teams and we learned from our mistakes.”
Orlowski talked about more than wins and losses with that team.
“This is a hard working team,” continued Orlowski. “We stress effort on the team.
“We can’t talk enough about the leadership on the team. We’ve had great leadership on this team every year.”
Orlowski actually referred back to the first year this team played, leadership played a big role.
“Great leadership started the first year we played with Kate Miller,” recalled Orlowski, who has coached the KenGi team since it’s inception back in 2010. “She broke her arm and didn’t even get to play the few games of the season.
“But I knew she was a good leader and would be back. She took players under her wing and showed them what to do.
“That set the tone for future players and leaders on the team. It seems as though each group of seniors on the team become good leaders in that final year.
“That’s the way it’s been since the beginning.”
Did Orlowski have a feeling about last year’s team being as good as they turned out to be?
“At tryouts,” stated Orlowski. “I told people at that time when I was asked that this team would be in the sectional championships.
“They all laughed at me. I just knew.
“They team worked so hard. You could see it coming together.
“They came back so much better than that year before. Again, all of those players were a year older and that makes a difference.
“Those seventh and eighth graders I had counted on a year before (2020-21) were a year older with more experience under their belts.
“Carissa Buyea was good up front in scoring. Molly Leggett was solid on defense.
“We had Carolyn Bourgeault in goal. She was solid.
“Isabelle Bourgeault was strong in scoring. And the return of Maddie (Madison) Flory was a big difference. She had gone to Boston during the COVID year and came back to Grand Island.
“She wanted to know if she could come back to play again and we welcomed her back. She’s our main scorer on the team. She skates better than anybody.”
And anyone who has ever watched a KenGi game can’t help but notice Orlowski behind the bench.
“I’m a little energetic, to say the least,” said Orlowski laughingly. “I just want to make sure the players know what’s going on during a game.
“I want the girls in the game as well. That doesn’t mean you have to score a goal. You could make a great pass, a great defensive play. Or the goalie could make a big save. Let her know about it.
“I try to keep them motivated.”
Orlowski pointed out that he depends on his assistants, Matt Miller, who has been with Orlowski from the start, and Marc Bourgeault.
“Both have been a big help to me in coaching the team,” remarked Orlowski. “I don’t know what I would do without them.”
Orlowski remembered the championship game from last year as well.
“We were the big underdog,” commented Orlowski, a Kenmore East High School math teacher. “Nobody would believe that we were going to be there. Except for us.
“I put the pressure on the seniors, like I do every year. I tell them that this is going to be their last game, your time to rise, make the most of it.
“And they did.”
So what about this year? KenGi is now the team with the target on their backs as the defending champions.
“I tell the girls the same thing that Sean McDermott tells the Bills each game: ‘Next game up, be humble and hungry.’
“You have to get better every game. You’ve got to earn the championship. They won’t hand it to you.”
(Photos by Janet Schultz Photography/NY Hockey OnLine)