By Dominique Claire Shuminova
ough the 2016-17 season, outscoring the opposition 156-27, and defeating Section 10’s St. Lawrence 7-1 at HarborCenter in Buffalo on Sunday, March 12, in their 25th straight victory, taking home the program’s first ever New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) Division II Hockey Championship.
“The best part about winning the State championship was the excitement of the crowd,” 17 year old junior Jack Howard tells The Pelham Post. “The atmosphere was unreal!”
“The fact that hundreds of families with kids drove 7+ hours up to Buffalo and that everyone who couldn’t make it was packing Rockwell’s, that’s just incredible,” Ben Hurd told the crowd after the Parade of Champions on April 2nd. “The fact that we got to play for something so much more than ourselves is something that we’ll never be able to do again.”
The Pelicans had won three consecutive Section 1 titles in the last three years. Expectations were high from the start of the season. After losing their first game, they fought their way back to finish 25-1, the best record of any team in the State. The nine seniors on the team will graduate without ever having lost a section title game.
The team has two senior captains, forward Ben Hurd, and defenseman Gibson “Gib” Smith, and three senior assistant captains, forward Nathaniel “Natty” Heintz, defenseman Russell Mazzaro, and his twin brother Thomas, who plays center.
“My proudest moment during the twins’ varsity hockey careers was when both were named assistant captains of the team and proudly wore their ‘A’s’,” Cathy Mazzaro, the twins’ mother and wife to team manager Vinny Mazzaro, tells The Pelham Post. “All sorts of emotions ran through me when the final buzzer sounded in the championship game against St. Lawrence. I began to cry as I was recording the dogpile on the goalie. I hugged my husband and other parents and fans who were close to me. I thought to myself, ‘What a way to end their varsity hockey high school careers!’”
“The team has an incredibly talented senior class,” hockey mom of 15 years, Amy Dunkin – whose son Jonah Kraftowitz is a junior on the team – shared with The Pelham Post. “Most of these boys have played together since they were Mites. Our motto all year was Unfinished Business because we went to the State Championship in 2016 and lost in the semi-final round, our new motto is Finished Business!”
“We’ve had a thrilling ride this season and clinching the title in Buffalo was the icing on the cake,” she adds. “We are elated that our players were able to bring home the trophy for Pelham. I love, love the boys on this team – they’re talented, hard working, polite – just all-around really great kids.”
“This was an incredibly special team,” says Cathy Mazzaro. “Not one player cared about their own individual stats, but rather played as a team every game.”
Four Pelicans were named to the First Team All-State:- Hurd, Smith, junior forward Stefan “Stef” Miklakos, and senior defenseman Will Case, while Natty Heintz made Second Team All-State, and earned All-Section second team honors. Miklakos was joined by Hurd, Heintz and Smith on the All-Tournament Team, and was also named tournament MVP. Hurd received the All-Metro Player of the Year award, and was awarded the prestigious Con Edison Scholastic Sports Award for the week of January 18th, and Heintz – who opened the scoring for the Pelicans in the championship game – received the prize for the week of March 22nd. Gib Smith – who is going to Georgetown next year on a lacrosse scholarship – was named State Player of the Year.
“Much love to the Pelham community for making all of this possible. We have the best fans in NY State! Unreal support since Day 1,” tweeted Gib Smith after the winning game. “Thank you to Dr. Giarrizzo, Mr. Rothstein, Mrs. Clark, Mr. Luciana, Dr. Callahan and all the PMHS faculty for the support this season! We want to give special thanks to the best coach we could have asked for, Ed Witz. No one deserved this victory more than him.”
“I have been a hockey mom for 12 years with all five of my kids having played for the Pelham hockey program,” said Cathy Mazzaro, noting that this was her 7th straight season as a varsity hockey parent. “Coach Witz and the coaching staff are top shelf. Their passion for the game was felt by every player, parent and fan.”
After the parade honoring the NYS champions, after all politicians and school officials had spoken, Smith took the mic, beaming. “I want to talk about Coach Witz for a second. He’s a real role model, a father figure for all of us. He is always asking us how we’re feeling, always taking care of us, and we can’t thank you enough for that. He’s done so much for us and the only way we could repay him was to bring him a ring.”
Legendary head coach Ed Witz has had a jaw-dropping 445 career wins.
Once upon a time, he played varsity ice hockey at Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx and at Mount Vernon High in 1974-75. He is a lifetime Yankees fan who prefers watching World Cup soccer to NHL hockey. He agreed to be interviewed at his comfort zone, the bar at Villaggio, where he is on a first-name basis with all of the staff.
Have you had your sights on the NYSPHSAA championship for 31 years?
I think everyone has it in their head what the pinnacle of their success would be, and winning the State championship is mine. I’m planning on coaching another 15 years, and every year the goal is to win the State championship, which is very difficult because we have 35 teams in Section 1 – which is Rockland, Westchester, and Dutchess counties – and over the last 80 or 90 years that the league has been around there have only been four state championships won by teams from our Section, and we are the only Division II team to have ever won a championship. It’s a pretty big deal.
How did it feel to win?
Totally mixed emotions. I wasn’t completely sure until we had about 3 minutes left in the game, even though we were winning handily 7-1. It’s something that I’ve been chasing and it seems almost like it’s not real. And then I felt a bunch of different emotions. I felt happiness and joy for the parents, especially of seniors, happiness that the seniors could go out as state champs knowing that they won their last game of their career, and for the underclassmen to experience that and have the chance to do it again maybe. Long shot but you never know. And then the community. The other part of it for me personally was relief because I thought we were the best team in the state and if we didn’t win I would have looked in the mirror and I would have said, “it’s that guy’s fault, that guy in the mirror.” I take full responsibility – even though I know that I’m not skating – that’s my job.
You have coached more than 300 players over the years...
That is a lot of influence. And a lot of responsibility. Because everything you say and do is recorded by those kids mentally. You gotta do the right things, or try.
Had you come close to the State championship before?
We’ve won the Sectionals seven times out the last eight. Then you go to the Regional game. If you win the Regionals then you go to the State finals. We’ve been to State Finals eight or nine times and each of those were heartbreaking because we were so close.
We had a team in 2011, that I thought had a shot, Collin Reilly, Matt Landis, that group. In the Semi-finals, there was a goal that was scored in double overtime that never went into the net. It hit the left post, rode across the crossbar, hit the right post, and ended up in the far corner of the rink. The referee called it a goal and it couldn’t be overturned. As much as I wanted to go absolutely insane and let them have it, I realized that the players are watching how I act under these conditions and I took the high road.
Bottom line is the minute we won the championship, that was the first thing that went through my head: vindication for that team.
How has coaching ice hockey in Pelham changed over the years?
I was an assistant coach to Ralph Marigliano for a couple years. When he retired I took over, and my first full season as head coach was ‘85-’86. It was a youth hockey club team before then, must have been at least 50-60 years old. It was an older group of kids. Eventually we got the high school to sponsor it and take it over. Our colors were red and white and I got approval to switch it to school colors.
Back then, we didn’t have the Ice Hutch. We would practice 3 days a week, Wednesday at Playland at 9.30pm on a school night – and we had to take bus. We didn’t get home until after midnight – Friday night at 10.30pm in Mamaroneck and Saturday at 10pm at Rye Country Day. All our home games were at Playland. We had to be a little more creative back then. We had to do a lot of off-ice practice on roller blades. And there was a lot more traveling. The bus was a killer. We weren’t as good as we are now but we were still very good back then and very competitive.
I moved here in ‘93 from Mamaroneck. I was coaching baseball and football at Mamaroneck, and ice hockey for Pelham. And then Joe DelVecchio hired me to coach baseball and football here too.
Then when the rink came in ‘96-’97, we got locker rooms, and since then we’ve been able to practice pretty much every day like a good strong program should, and play home games.
Tell us a little bit about the team.
Ben Hurd and Gib Smith are probably the two best captains I have ever had – and that says a lot because I’ve had some good ones – very mature, very serious, driven, competitive. They put their team and their teammates first. Great athletes, great students, great people. The rest of the team are great kids, dedicated, bought in to what we want to do. We have a few All-State caliber players who carry a lot of the weight but there is also a supporting cast without whom we wouldn’t have won. As much as it’s a cliché, it was a total team effort. You can’t win at that level and dominate teams like we did unless you have everybody doing something. The parents are great people too, very loyal, and respectful, and supportive. When you have the example being set at home it creates the perfect storm for success.
Tell us a little bit about your assistant coaching staff.
Assistant Coaches Mike Cambria, Doc Minoff and Bob Kelly are three totally different guys, with three totally different personalities, and three totally different views on how the game should be played, and that’s what makes it good to have their input and ideas. Mike Cambria has an amazing amount of potential to be a head coach at some point in time. As a coach he is the complete package. He’s organized, he’s disciplined, he knows the game, he’s played the game at a high level, and he has a good understanding of what’s going on.
Tell us a little bit about the Ice Hutch.
I was working there for the first eight or ten years and then I became a partner and when my partner passed away I bought out his family. Since 2010 I’ve owned it on my own. I run the rink. We have a batting cage, concession stand, locker rooms, our programs starts at 4pm but we have public skating on Tuesdays from 3-5pm and Saturdays from 1-2:30pm all year round. Full service. We do skate rentals too. The whole entrepreneur thing suits me well. I like the fact that if things aren’t going well it’s not the other people, it’s me.
Any words of advice for the team, especially the graduating seniors?
They’ve got to realize that everybody is responsible for their happiness and their place in life, and if you don’t like your job, or your don’t like your life, or the way things are going, you have to do it yourself. You can’t look at outside things and say, “that’s why things aren’t going well for me.” I think you have to be totally reliant upon yourself. There’s nothing worse than somebody who is not happy with their job, their life, their position on the team, their position at work, their social standing, and then wants to blame somebody else.
Where do you go from here?
The ultimate would be to win it again, as many times as possible. Next season we are losing a tremendous amount of talent and skill, but on the other hand we’ve got a team coming back that has experienced a state championship. I would like to at least be able to make it back to the finals next year to defend our title. When I retire I will sit back and say, “Wow! Look what we did!” but right now...
To order Pelican ice hockey merchandise including t-shirts, hoodies, and hockey jerseys, email Coach Witz at firstname.lastname@example.org
@edwitz15 on Twitter
@pmhsvarsitypuck on Twitter