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Monday, June 5, 2023
Sports: With 12 players ‘retiring,’ NOTL U18s qualify for Ontario championships
This is the last hurrah for most of the members of the NOTL Wolves U18 rep team as 12 of the team’s 18 players are “retiring.” Pictured from left: Reese Gordon, Cole Holmes, Ethan Peters, Sam Walker, Jack Marotta, Griffin Dyck, Theo VanderKaay, Will Denham, Alex Reile and Blair Burland. Two players were absent: Noah Ostromecki and Mateo Gruosso, who was in Italy attending an elite-level soccer camp. Below, the coaching staff also is retiring: trainer Jeff Dyck, head coach Tim Marotta and assistant Jim Denham. Kevin Maclean

A dozen core members of the NOTL Wolves U18 rep hockey team are wrapping up their minor hockey careers in the next two weeks – but first they have some unfinished business.

The team starts a best-of-three series Thursday night in Fort Erie, taking on the Meteors in the Niagara District Hockey League finals.

But no matter what happens there, this Wolves team will be in Barrie from March 31 to April 2 to compete against 11 other top teams for the big prize ­– the Ontario Minor Hockey Association championship.

They’re among two Niagara-on-the-Lake teams headed to Barrie to play for provincial titles – the U11 rep Wolves also qualified.

As well, three of the NOTL association’s local league squads are competing in Niagara District finals.

The U11 team is in the B division championship, U13 is contesting the A title and the U18 team will play in the C division for its age group.

“It’s been a very good year for Niagara-on-the-Lake minor hockey teams,” association president Peter Flynn said.

The Barrie-bound U18 team had to knock off Fort Erie in NOTL’s final round-robin playoff game to earn a berth in the championships.

The boys knew, “Win and we’re in,” said head coach Tim Marotta.

Despite finishing the regular season well behind the Meteors in the standings, NOTL pulled together and beat them 3-1 to secure a trip to Barrie. As the top seed out of the round-robin, Fort Erie also qualified.

It was an immensely satisfying way to wrap up the playoffs, said Marotta, especially since 12 of his 18 players effectively will be ending their NOTL minor hockey careers once the season wraps up.

“We’d set a goal of having a shot at getting to the OMHA finals and now we’ve made it.”

Most players likely will go on to recreational leagues, though some could play U21 hockey in other centres, like St. Catharines, he said.

But as of now, there’s no older team in NOTL for them to play on.

In that final March 8 game against Fort Erie, the Wolves “were really focused. They knew what was at stake,” said Marotta, crediting the team’s goaltending tandem of Theo VanderKaay and Mateo Gruosso for being difference-makers in every game.

For now at least, this also is the last hurrah for Marotta, assistant coach Jim Denham (a veteran of more than 60 years of coaching hockey) and trainer Jeff Dyck.

They all have boys in their final year on the U18 team.

“I’m graduating, too. I didn’t put my name forward to coach next year,” Marotta said, adding he’s known most of the boys for years and will miss coaching them.

One of the best parts of his time on the bench has been “watching the boys grow up. When we started, they were very young. Now they’re grown up, young adults. It’s been fun to be a part of that.”

Meanwhile, the players are looking forward to playing Fort Erie again. At practice on Monday night, they were all loose but focused – and proud of what they have accomplished. So far.

As one player said, “We beat them last time, we can do it again.”

The series opens in Fort Erie on Thursday, returns to NOTL on Saturday at 6 p.m. and then back to Fort Erie for game 3, if necessary.

The dozen “retiring” players are: #9 Sam Walker, #19 Blair Burland, #21 Jack Marotta, #27 Reese Gordon, #35 Theo VanderKaay, #39 Mateo Gruosso, #61 Ethan Peters, #71 Will Denham, #91 Griffin Dyck, #93 Cole Holmes, #94 Alex Reile and #97 Noah Ostromecki.

Those eligible to play U18 again next season are: #25 Kieran Necakov-Waller, #65 Nick Munera, #66 Tyler Jarrett, #87 Marco Gruosso, #88 Lucas Roberts-Ramos and #89 Logan Smythe.

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