Injuries weaken Canfield ice year
The Mahoning Valley has produced several high school football state champions in recent years (Ursuline in 2000, Poland in 1999, Lisbon in 1995, West Branch in 1994).
And we've sent our share of basketball teams to Columbus to compete in Ohio's version of the Final Four (Poland and Bristol boys in 2002, Canfield girls in 2001, Poland girls in 2000).
In recent years, we've seen locals emerge as track, cross country, golf and tennis champions. We're competitive in baseball and softball, and getting better in soccer and volleyball.
So it's pretty safe to say that a state champion in high school ice hockey would be the most surprising accomplishment we could see.
That's not meant to be a body-check against the children who lace up skates and tape up sticks.
But when you only have one varsity hockey program, it's hard to imagine a pioneer squad growing strong enough to compete with the more established clubs from Cleveland. Bless them for trying.
Those challenges are what makes sports enthralling.
Team on the fringe
Canfield's season this year encapsulates the problems a team on the fringe faces.
Last year in their second varsity season, the Cardinals were picked to finish last and surprised many by finishing third in their division.
Coming off the Canfield's first tournament victory, this year's team took the ice with high expectations.
Injuries took their toll.
"We started right off the bat with a lot of injuries," said Coach Joe Villano, who took over the program from Dave DeJoe. "We're a relatively new program and developing and we're a short-roster team -- we didn't have a lot of players to begin with.
"So when you have a couple of severe injuries to key players, it put us behind," Villano said. "We just didn't have enough legs -- we would be tired in games.
"It's difficult when you don't have three lines or 14-15 guys to maintain your intensity," Villano said. "So when you sag a little bit because you're tired and the other team scores, you're done."
Canfield's player shortage was on display during Saturday's 7-1 tournament loss to North Canton Hoover at the Kent State University Ice Arena.
While the Vikings were jammed on their bench, the Cardinals had just 10 skaters -- seven forwards and three defensemen.
As the game approached the midpoint, Canfield was still in it, trailing just 1-0 thanks to 20-some saves by senior goalie Ryan DeJoe.
But the dam broke when the Vikings exploited a tired Cardinals squad for four goals before the period ended.
The pattern was something the team had seen before, according to senior defenseman Josh Gestosani.
"We get fatigued when half the game is over," Gestosani said. "I think we're one of the better endurance teams."
Numbers caught up
Against a strong opponent like Hoover, the numbers caught up to the Cards (4-16-3).
DeJoe, reflecting on his career as the Cards' top goalie for all three varsity seasons, said, "When we started, we didn't know what to expect.
"Our first year, we were testing the waters a little bit, playing some teams maybe we shouldn't have," DeJoe said. "The next year, we were competitive and won a lot of games.
"This year, we've had injuries to deal with, but we've fought hard with our very, very short bench. These guys go out and play their guts out every day."
DeJoe said the loss of junior Sam Crowe with an anterior cruciate ligament injury hurt the Cards the most.
"He was our leading scorer the past two years and kind of the piece we needed," DeJoe said. "He's got a big shot and he knows where to be and he's the one putting the puck into the net."
Their season over, the returning Cards' next steps are to get healthy, rally around a new number-one backstop and find a way to skate with the state's elite.
XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write to him at email@example.com.