Weekly Feature



2017-07-13 / Sports

Iroquois field hockey dubbed Bee’s top team

Perfection is hard to come by in virtually any sport, regardless of the level, which makes what Iroquois’ field hockey team accomplished during the fall all the more impressive.

The Lady Chiefs completed their regular season without so much as a tie — a feat coach Pete Tonsoline acknowledged at the time as virtually impossible at the varsity level” — for the first time that Tonsoline could recall in his 34 years at the school on Oct. 19 with shutout win over West Seneca West. Only a perennial powerhouse in eight-time reigning state Class B champion Lakeland had what it took to solve the Lady Chiefs this year, which led to their selection as The East Aurora Bee’s 2016-17 Team of the Year.

“This team from 2016 will be used as the benchmark years from now when I’m gone,” said Tonsoline, who was The Bee’s Coach of the Year for the 2011-12 school year. “We strung 21 wins in a row this year, and that’s such a rarity. The fortitude of these girls was huge; they put their minds to it that they wouldn’t lose a game this year. Teams like this certainly don’t come along very often, and I still treasure every moment of this year.”

Iroquois’ season technically began, as it has for the past few years, with the team’s participation in multiple tournaments over the summer in Rochester. Section V has always given Section VI’s representatives fits in the Far West Regional, so the Lady Chiefs have been using their tournament appearances as an early measuring stick for their upcoming season.

Needless to say, Tonsoline and the Lady Chiefs were pleased with what they saw this past summer.

“Playing in the summer tournaments that we played in this summer was so important for what we accomplished this year because not only did it improve our game, but it demystified the Section V dominance,” Tonsolin said. “Getting that experience was huge for us down the road — probably more so on the psychological side. I experienced how important it was to get out of the area, back when I was involved in the Empire State Games. It’s a different world when you get to state level; you have to be willing to put the time in, both as coach and players, and as parents, too.”

Some of putting the time in for Iroquois included focusing on the offensive side of the ball, since one of Tonsoline’s many coaching philosophies is that the best defense is a good offense. Scoring turned out to be something the Lady Chiefs were extremely good at this season, as they wound up topping many of their foes by four or more goals.

Part of Iroquois’ success in its opponents’ end was the play of the midfield, an area that boasted multiple players who had been up on varsity since their freshmen seasons. Among them were First Team All-WNY all-star Taylor Abraszek, Second Team All-WNY all-star Mia D’Amato and Honorable Mention All-WNY all-star Chantel Gauthier, all of whom are going to continue their careers at the collegiate level in the fall.

“Taylor, Mia and Chantel were probably the heart of our team, the solidifying factor,” Tonsoline said. “I had two other First Team All-WNYers in Hayley Fonfara, who was a dominant factor with her ability to score, and Holly Stiller, who’ll be back on defense for us next year. I was definitely blessed with incredible talent this year, with a balance I hadn’t had in a number of years. It was probably the finest leadership I’ve had collectively, too; what Chantel and Taylor did off the field with the girls was fantastic. They were magicians; they did it all. They were there for one purpose, and this group showed how far that takes you.”

Iroquois’ leadership definitely played a role in its 1-0 win Oct. 5 over Williamsville North — a team Tonsoline noted at the time had been “our Achilles heel” for the past decade. Abraszek scored Iroquois’ only goal off a corner play about 10 minutes into the second half, while Abigale Greier stopped all 10 of the shots she faced to earn the win — Iroquois’ 11th straight to open the season — on North’s new turf field.

“That was probably the closest we came to losing or at least tying,” Tonsoline recalled. “We played well against them, but they played extremely well, too; they brought their A+ game that day. North was a good test for us, because we knew we’d encounter those kinds of games the further we went into the season. Beating them gave us the confidence that we could win those kinds of games.”

The Lady Chiefs continued to knock off challenger after challenger from that Iroquois’ field hockey team completed its regular season with a flawless 16-0 record to finish undefeated without a tie for the first time in program history. The only loss that the East Aurora Bee’s Team of the Year suffered this past fall was to the now eight-time defending state Class B champions, Lakeland, in the state semifinal round. Members of the team included, from left: first row - Holly Karalus, Lydia Aroune, Maria Tibold, Chantel Gauthier, Taylor Abraszek, Denise Stelmaszyk, Christina Reed, Hailee Wilkinson, Patty McNaulty, Riley DeGrace, Morgan Tucker, Mya Braun, Adriana Reed; second row - assistant coach Denise Reed, trainer Liz Urshay, Abby Greier, Paige Miller, Taylor Quinn, Mia D’Amato, Hayley Fonfara, Livy D’Amato, Sam Gaglio, Alexis Bonafide, Bailey Blair, Lily Fones, Holly Stiller, assistant coach Mel Kinmartin and head coach Pete Tonsoline. Photo courtesy Pete Tonsoline Iroquois’ field hockey team completed its regular season with a flawless 16-0 record to finish undefeated without a tie for the first time in program history. The only loss that the East Aurora Bee’s Team of the Year suffered this past fall was to the now eight-time defending state Class B champions, Lakeland, in the state semifinal round. Members of the team included, from left: first row - Holly Karalus, Lydia Aroune, Maria Tibold, Chantel Gauthier, Taylor Abraszek, Denise Stelmaszyk, Christina Reed, Hailee Wilkinson, Patty McNaulty, Riley DeGrace, Morgan Tucker, Mya Braun, Adriana Reed; second row - assistant coach Denise Reed, trainer Liz Urshay, Abby Greier, Paige Miller, Taylor Quinn, Mia D’Amato, Hayley Fonfara, Livy D’Amato, Sam Gaglio, Alexis Bonafide, Bailey Blair, Lily Fones, Holly Stiller, assistant coach Mel Kinmartin and head coach Pete Tonsoline. Photo courtesy Pete Tonsoline game on to sew up a perfect 16-0-0 for the regular season. They refused to be denied during the sectional tournament, as well, taking down East Aurora (5-0) in the quarterfinals, Williamsville East (3-1) in the semifinals, and Williamsville South (2-0) in the Class B title game.

South was a fresh face in terms of a finals opponent for Iroquois, which had lost to Amherst in one-goal games in each of the three previous Section VI championship games.

“For my girls, I think to get this title, it came down to us beating the teams that are measuring sticks around here,” Tonsoline said. “Their mental drive was remarkable this year. The girls never complained; they did whatever it took. They’d play in somebody’s basement if that’s what it took to get where they wanted to go. I was, and still am, just so proud of what the girls did. It just was a really unique experience.”

Part of the uniqueness to this season’s run, aside from advancing out of the section, was the fact that this year was the Far West Regional winner’s turn to have to play in a super regional game to earn the right to reach the state semifinal round. Knowing that the team’s remaining games would be played on turf, Tonsoline was able to line up some practice time on the fields at Orchard Park and Depew to help prepare for the Lady Chiefs’ games with undefeated Pittsford Mendon (1-0) in the Far West Regional and Section III’s Whitesboro (1-0) in the super regional.

Iroquois, which split games with Pittsford-Mendon during the summer tournament season, hadn’t won a Far West Regional game since 2006. The Lady Chiefs hadn’t even played in a Far West Regional since last winning the section title in 2012.

“Before the Mendon game, I just kept telling the girls that we played them and knew what was out there, that there was no mystery and there should be no fear,” Ton- soline said. “I had confidence in them, but in the back of my mind, I knew we were in their back yard, so it’s like you’re starting at a one-goal disadvantage.”

As challenging as playing in an extra game just to make it to the state semifinal round, Iroquois found out its reward for doing so was a date with Lakeland, which had won seven consecutive titles before this year. Tonsoline knew Lakeland’s coach from his time coaching during the now-defunct Empire State Games, and as such knew his team was in for a challenge.

Rather than wilt under the pressure of playing a powerhouse that state field hockey insiders had all but already awarded the state title to, the Lady Chiefs turned up the intensity defensively and held Lakeland — a team that had outscored its previous opponents by a 44-1 margin — with- out a single goal, much less many opportunities to even get a shot on net. And though the Lady Chiefs did ultimately drop the 1-0 decision when Lakeland scored with eight minutes to play in regulation, Tonsoline couldn’t have been any more proud of how his team played that day.

“I told the girls beforehand that we’d be in a game and a half [against Lakeland], but we more than held our own in the first half,” Tonsoline said. “We were close and we gave them a game. There’s nothing for us to be embarrassed about. Their coach said in their local paper how they underestimated us. I think the girls were truly more disappointed about the season ending and that meaning there was no more field hockey left to play. They just wanted to keep playing.

“It’s still honestly really tough to capture in words a season like we had,” Tonso- line continued. “I was blessed to have gone through this year with this group, from the winter leagues in January through the state semifinal. It was just such a precious moment for me. It wasn’t the winning streak and it wasn’t going to states, it was just working with this wonderful group of girls. A lot of coaches will never get the chance I had this year, and I know these girls are going to be telling their kids stories about this year, too.”

email: jnadolinski@beenews.com

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