As the hockey sticks, helmets and gloves flew through the air and fell to decorate the ice February 28 at West Point’s Tate Rink, all was right once again in Rye’s world.
One year after relinquishing the Section 1 championship to Pelham, the top-seeded Garnets reclaimed the Division II title – their third in four years – and advanced to the State tournament with a thorough 7-1 defeat of No. 7 Yorktown.
“It feels great,” said a beaming Jason Friesen, Rye’s head coach, outside the locker room. “It always feels good, but we wondered what it would be like to come back here and win after having lost last year.”
The Garnets didn’t hesitate to take command of the game. They raced out to a 3-0 lead after one period, which Friesen thought was exactly the jump his notoriously slow-starting team needed. Like the day before in the Section semifinals, when sophomore Ryan Rogers netted a pair of first period goals, the Garnets initial score came from an unlikely source. Freshman third-liner Michael Benincasa – with four goals to show on the year – put Rye on the board 7:21 into the first by punching in a rebound at close range, surrounded by Huskers.
Senior captain Paul Mundinger gave his team a two-goal advantage three minutes later on a pretty wraparound. It was the winger’s 27th goal of his prolific season. The Garnets weren’t done with their first period barrage, however, as junior forward Nick Rosenfield cashed in with 17.6 seconds left.
“We came in knowing that we were the favorites, but still understood we would have to match the intensity of a team with 15 seniors,” said Mundinger, one of just three senior Garnets.
Yorktown proved resilient in the second period, just when it looked like they might roll over. Despite being outshot by more than a 2:1 ratio, the Huskers battled back and cut the lead to two 4:28 into the period. The seventh-seeded squad from upcounty continued to attack Rye’s goal throughout the second, but junior netminder Aaron Rix never allowed another puck to slip past. Rix finished with 23 saves and allowed just one goal in each Section tournament game.
“Rix was unbelievable,” said senior captain Taka Katsuta. “If it weren’t for him we could have lost that game. Another goal in the second and they might have taken all of the momentum.”
Katsuta delivered what both he and Friesen felt was the backbreaker 4:22 into the third period on an assist from Mundinger. “That fourth goal shut them up,” said Katsuta of a Yorktown team that gained bravado after the second period.
Less than three minutes later, Katsuta paid back Mundinger with an assist – one of his four on the day – while on bended knee in front of the goal. Mundinger knew exactly what to do with it, and – in his own words – “put the nail in the coffin” by giving Rye a commanding 5-1 lead. It was a fitting series of events for a pair of players who have combined for 114 points so far this season and love being on the ice together.
“We’ve been great friends for years, and we talk about hockey all the time,” said Mundinger. “Our ultimate goal has always been to win a State championship, but first we had to take care of business here. All we had been thinking about leading up was the disappointment of last year.”
Staked to a four-goal lead, Rye didn’t let up. Freshman Chris Lipari pumped in a goal with 3:09 to go, and junior Robert Holmes gave the Garnets their seventh moments later.
Behind Katsuta’s four assists, junior Alfredo Holguin had two, and Mundinger, Rogers, junior Matt Moran and senior Brian Powers each had one.
The 15-5-3 Garnets’ NYS Regional championship foe is a familiar one. On March 6 at 8 p.m. in the Playland Ice Casino Rye will host Section 2’s Queensbury, a team they split a pair of early regular season contests with. The Garnets defeated Queensbury 5-4 November 28 at Lake George, but were upended by the same Spartans a month later in Rome, 4-2. Queensbury was able to get off 47 shots on Rix in the second affair, 16 more than the first time around.
If the Garnets are to win, they’ll advance to the NYS championships – the Frozen Four – March 13 and 14 in Utica. The last time they made it that far was in 2007, when Jordan Eck, T.J. Smith, Matt Donahue and a cast of talented players propelled Rye all the way to the State semifinals.