by Matt Gajtka
It’s worth remembering, when considering all that the BK Selects hockey-development program has accomplished, it hasn’t even been six years since the first player took the ice wearing the Bishop Kearney crest.
Backed by benefactor Tom Golisano, the 16U girls team began play in the fall of 2016, capping a multi-year effort spearheaded by Bishop Kearney board of trustees chair and Class of 1982 alum Rich Spencer.
When he spoke to me earlier this year, Spencer said the objective — first sketched out on a restaurant placemat during a meal with Golisano — was to create the “best girls hockey program in the world.”
Of course, Bishop Kearney now supports four boys teams in addition to two girls teams, but that initial ambition continues to drive all who have a hand in guiding the hockey effort.
“It’s a lofty goal,” Spencer said, “but as I sit here, I’d say we’re not far off.”
In case you think that’s hyperbole, consider the results: All six BK Selects teams finished in the top 10 of the USA Hockey rankings this spring — capped by the 16U boys, who became the first BK team to win the national postseason championship.
So, what’s made BK Selects such a success in its short history? Let’s hear it from the folks who’ve helped make it happen:
‘DO YOU THINK THERE’S A NEED?’
SPENCER: The academy was approached by a youth sports organization that conducted a girls hockey tournament. Their intention to start a girls hockey academy. They stopped in Rochester for an event and asked if there’s an academy in the area. They cold-called the school and the president reached out to me. He knew I was a hockey person.
He said, “I’ve gotta ask you a crazy question: Do you think there’s a need for a girls hockey program?” The need was great, because in girls youth hockey, she’s playing with a travel program that’s not afflicted with a school, because she wants to play at a high enough level to get exposure to Division I schools.
With no clear formula for combining hockey and school, you arrive at college ill-prepared for the academic rigors that you’re going to face. It was clear there was a dearth of opportunities for girls to prepare for the challenges of college.
CHRIS COLLINS, director of boys hockey/15O head coach: I give a lot of credit to the girls program. They were here five years before we started. They figured out a lot of the kinks that come up with a new program, with the relationship with the school as well.
SPENCER: There are certain prep schools where the teachers are not at all enamored by the fact that you’re an athlete. Maybe they take a dim view of the teacher having to bend over backwards because you’re a great athlete. I’ve heard from student-athletes (at other schools) who succeeded in spite of their instructors.
The BK teachers understand that the hockey program has helped the school to survive. They feel it’s incumbent to help the players. They’ll make themselves available so the players can get their assignments completed. They want to be a help, not throw obstacles in the way.
PAUL COLONTINO, VP of hockey/19U girls head coach: Something that stands out, especially when you have young programs like this, is the mentality of the staff and players is all hands on deck for anything. With new programs, adversity pops up every day in many different shapes and forms.
The mentality of the staff is simple: Adapt and overcome. They just find a way to get it done at the level they want.
SPENCER: If it were easy to start a prep hockey program, everyone would do it. It’s fraught with issues, from food service, to discipline, to dormitories. In order for us to get to the next level, we realize and we understand that we have the very best personnel possible to achieve greater heights.
Hiring someone like Paul Colontino (in 2021) in his role was a real coup. It brought decades of experience that we simply did not have. Having him in the room in any discussion, from hockey jerseys to dinner plans to tournaments to conditioning, every discussion is made better by having Paul in those conversations.
COLONTINO: You move forward a bit every year, but every year it seemed like they raised the bar and the benchmark of the type of student-athletes BK is evolving towards. The rate of growth is exponential.
SPENCER: I’m blown away by the level of success we’ve achieved. It’s blown past any expectations I had several years ago. We want to maintain our current level, but improve some things that sometimes fall through the cracks, the bread and butter of our daily lives.
It’s a dream to have a field house facility that will have both indoor turf fields and rinks. I’m hopeful we’ll get that; it’s a natural progression, especially with six teams. You don’t just wave a magic wand. You have to have the right people in place. Now we really have to shore up some of the things that’ll make us better.
There were many dark days, trying to get funding for construction. It seems when we need an answer, we get one.
CONFRONTING COVID AND OTHER CHALLENGES
COLONTINO: Last season was the first for the boys program, in the COVID year. Like everybody in this world, it was difficult, but they were able to do some tremendous things.
RYAN CONMY, forward, Class of 2023: Coming here was definitely a bit of a risk for everyone, not knowing exactly what to expect with COVID and it being only the second year of the organization.
SPENCER: Last season, there were prep schools that played almost no games. We made a decision that we were going to support the coaches and play as many games and practices as we could. We exposed ourselves to risk, but we put our faith in our coaches and said we’ll do what we can to play a full season.
NINA CHRISTOF, forward, Class of 2022: Everything that comes at me (in college), whether that is challenging academics, physical testing, or having a tough practice, I have already gone through. It showed me that I can overcome anything that life throws at me because I already have.
CARI COEN, director of girls hockey/19U associate head coach: Our first class, they came in second year of the program and made the national championship game at the 16U level. The year after that they got to the national title game, and last year same thing. Then COVID cancelled nationals in 2020, but they were in position again.
They’ve been hit with many adverse situations and they’ve met them head-on with grace and kept pushing forward.
GRETA BREZINSKI, forward, Class of 2024: I think it comes down to the passion of the players. Everyone at BK strives to get better. There are so many girls going the extra mile, not only to help themselves but their team as well. The coaches also know just how hard to push us. Nobody works harder than us or does more because, like coach says, the hungriest dog runs the fastest, and we are starving.
SPENCER: The players immediately rose to the top academically, and they’re up every morning at 6 a.m., many up before that to go into the shooting rooms for 30-45 minutes. Weightlifting, shooting pucks early. They start their academic day — rotating schedule for boys and girls — and go until 2 p.m. or thereabouts. Directly after that, they’re on their way to the rink. On the ice followed by (dry-land training), back to the dorms at 6 p.m., dinner and then study hall. BK has a very high standardized test score for the students, and that speaks to the course load the players are exposed to.
JAKE ANDERSON, girls director of admissions and player placement/16U head coach: The team becomes bigger than the individual. It showed with our willingness to compete, block shots, make some of the plays you don’t get any credit for. When kids have a bad shift, we’re good at picking each other up and getting through the tough moments — the ability to kill penalties and not complain about them being taken.
We gotta go out there and do it for the person next to you. They go from just saying it, to believing it. You just know it when you’re around it.
BUILDING THE #BKBRAND
SPENCER: The story can’t be told without the understanding why our school was there in the first place. An Irish man named Edmund Rice, back in the 1800s, lost his wife and was responsible for a special needs child. He started the Christian Brothers religious order, with a mission to educate the less fortunate. The Christian Brothers went on to found Bishop Kearney High School.
When I talk to the players and the parents in each incoming class, I tell them that I’m all about winning a national championship and getting on the honor roll, but I’m here to educate the less fortunate. If we hold true to that mission, good things happen. Our goal is one that benefits other people, not ourselves. That’s the history behind our school.
BEN MCMANAMA, boys director of admissions and personnel/14U head coach: On the admissions side, it’s becoming a lot easier for me, because a lot of people are reaching out. It’s insane the amount of people who want to come here. Everyone sees what we’re doing. Everyone wants to jump on board. The quality of players reaching out is outstanding. Before it was us trying to get them. The legitimacy of the program is obvious in the hockey world.
LUCIA DIGIROLAMO, forward, Class of 2024: A big thing going around the dorms right now is the ‘BK Brand’ and we don’t have that without all the teams being on board. It’s always exciting to see your teammates’ and friends’ hard work pay off.
DAVID ARDUIN, boys director of logistics and player placement/18U head coach: We just care. We care so much about these kids. We invest so much of our time into their betterment and becoming who they are. These kids are our way of showing that we’ve learned something in our lives and we want to give it back to someone else — a product of being around them all the time. We come to work; we think of them. We go home; we think of them.
CONMY: It has been life-changing. Everyone wants to be at the rink and in the gym every day, which makes it a good group to be around every day. The bond that you get to form with your teammates and even kids on other teams, is amazing. I know that I love my teammates like brothers and we will always be a part of the BK Family.
BREZINSKI: The chemistry and community that BK creates makes it feel like home and helps us get to perform at our best. The work ethic that BK has just attracts the right people to create a powerhouse program.
SPENCER: When parents would show up at the school and look for a place for their child to play hockey, what they come away with is a real sense of community and family. They tell me this. The players need an education to go on, and we can provide that.
The hockey part of it, we just hired the very best people, not necessarily just the best coaches, who would be there for the players. We didn’t want some drill sergeant; we wanted coaches who really cared about the players and would help them grow as young athletes.
COLLINS: The staff and the people we have is huge. They’re elite hockey people and they’re good people. Everyone has different experiences. The No. 1 thing we want to build is culture. You have a good locker room, good kids … it makes winning a lot easier.
We’ve built something here that’s successful and it’s fun. You go to the rink every day and it’s a blast. The players and the parents feel it.
TYLER STERN, forward, Class of 2022: Everything about BK has been beyond special. The most amazing thing, however, is how much of a home the program has been for me. My teammates, my coaches, and members and coaches of the younger teams have become my extended family.
I have made bonds and friendships that will never be broken, and memories that will never be forgotten in my two years here. This is all thanks to the first-class atmosphere and culture at BK. It truly has been home for me.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.