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'Dogs find bark on ice, prepare for Atlanta

March 16, 2004|by DAN KAUFFMAN

kauffman@herald-mail.com

When the Hagerstown Bulldogs Bantam 'A' hockey team travels to Atlanta for this weekend's USA Hockey Southeast District Tournament, it will mark the latest accomplishment for a core group of players who, when they started playing together several years ago, could only have dreamed about playing in such a tournament.

"When we started out, we were leaning on our sticks and trying to figure out which way we were going," said Jeremy Martin, a starting defenseman for the Bulldogs, who went 33-2-3 this season and brought a Capital Beltway Hockey League title to Hagerstown.

"Back then, we didn't have a travel team, so we played the same teams over and over again," said Nick Bodnar, the team's starting center. "We started slow, but each year we'd win a couple more games."

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"A couple of them, literally, when they stepped on the ice they'd have a hard time carrying the puck from one end to the other," said Bulldogs first-year head coach Brett Dennis, who has watched the Bulldogs develop while coaching in Virginia and Frederick, Md., over the past seven years. "In the early years, there were only eight or nine kids playing, and they'd have to take twice as many shifts. That made them stronger skaters."

Martin and Bodnar, along with Matthew Higdon, Brandton Holscher, Danny Papperiella, Deano Sefsic and John Weber, have been playing at the Hagerstown Ice and Sports Complex since their days in the Squirt division (ages 9-10), where the wins were few and the shifts were many for the undermanned Bulldogs.

Five years later, with experience translating into victories and new players making the trip to Hagerstown from as far away as Germantown, Md., these Bulldogs have plenty of bite.

"What's nice for us is that these kids are wanting to make the trip here," Dennis said. "That says a lot for where our program is going."

The Bulldogs first entered the CBHL two years ago as a 'B' division team and made the leap to the tougher 'A' league this season. Undaunted, the Bulldogs won both the regular-season and tournament titles to qualify for this weekend's district tournament.

"I'm not nervous, I just want to play down there," Bodnar said. "I had no idea we'd make it this far. We just took it one game at a time."

The Bulldogs will play teams from Palm Beach, Fla., Huntsville, Ala., and Charlotte, N.C., in the four-team tournament.

"We're going to see teams that are faster than we're used to seeing," Dennis said. "We have our work cut out for us, but if we stick to our strategy, we can be competitive. We want to reach the championship game."

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