Big Wheels

Trailing 5-3 with three minutes left in the Keystone Games’ roller-hockey championship, 12-year-old Nick Droszcz tells his coach, "I promise you we will not lose this game."

With one second left in regulation, Droszcz’s Burke Jr. Ottakringer team still trails the Pittsburgh Bandits 5-4. But Droszcz makes good on his confident promise when he takes a pass from teammate Alicia Klevecka and scores the game-tying goal.

The local squad, playing in its first-ever state championship match, gets goals from Droszcz and Klevecka in the overtime shootout, winning the game 7-6.

"As soon as I scored the goal, I fell on the ground and my teammates picked me up and carried me around the ring," Klevecka said.

She was one of many to burst into tears of joy after the hard-fought victory.

But Droszcz never doubted that his teammates would come home with gold medals hanging from their necks.

"We were pumped to play that game," he said. "We were better than the other team."

The Keystone State Summer Games XXI is Pennsylvania’s largest multisport festival, with at least 12,000 participants. All athletes must have amateur status and a Pennsylvania residence established 30 days prior to participating in tryouts. One of the many purposes behind the event is to prepare athletes to enter national and international competitions.

The tournament served its purpose for the Burke squad, based at Second and Jackson streets. The win qualified the team for the 2003 State Games of America in Hartford, Conn.

Before the Keystone Games, the Ottakringer competed in a host of regional tournaments all over South Jersey. Coach Bill Koslosky, who plays professional roller hockey for the New Jersey Ottakringer, said the Keystone Games committee approached him about entering teams into this year’s competition.

The coach, who started the Burke Ottakringer program in 1996, sent the 10-and-under and 12-and-under squads to the event. The younger team finished the Keystone Games with a 2-2 record. The local squad faced some of the best all-star teams from around the state, and proved it belonged.

"We played our game," Koslosky said. "They’ve been playing with each other so long that they should be able to play with blindfolds."

The coach started the in-house roller-hockey program at Burke with the help of his brothers, Jack and Mike. A resident of Front and Mifflin streets, Koslosky spent a lot of time at the nearby rec center and always saw kids playing the sport. Once he formed the squad and the players started competing in tournaments, they lost quite a few, but persevered.

"I’d rather them play the best competition and lose than beat lesser teams," Koslosky said.

The squad stood up to the test earlier this month by finishing the Keystone Games with a 5-0 record. Jim French and Joe Meenan led Burke’s offense in the round-robin tournament with seven goals apiece, while Nick Davidson contributed strong passes. Ace goaltender Colon McGarrigle finished the tournament with three shutouts and allowed just 10 goals in five games. When the gold medal was on the line, the goalie didn’t allow his nerves to take over.

"I had real good defense," he said.

When his team was trailing by two goals in the championship game, McGarrigle said he knew the South Philly squad needed a strong defensive stand.

"I just came out and challenged more," he said. "My eyes were on the puck at all times."

These champions might be just 12, but they approach their sport with the maturity of professionals. When the game is on the line, each player knows his or her role, and shares the credit.

"The offense was great," said defenseman Chris Delesandro. "They took a lot of pressure off the defense and the goalies. It was a big help."

Teammates Mike Shinn, Mike Barishek and Jordan Katchok also contributed a strong defensive effort in the championship game. Tink Haines, Sean Castineira and Nick Amicone played key roles as well.

Regular practices at Burke’s rink have helped build the team’s skills. In 1999, local councilmen James Kenney and Frank DiCicco joined forces with the Philadelphia Department of Recreation to build a new roller-hockey rink at the rec center. The rink is 146 feet by 80 feet, which is close to the regulation size of 200 feet by 85 feet. Playground director Mark Squilla developed a weeknight in-house league to give local youths an opportunity to play more games.

Some of the players have spent so much time at the rink, they feel like family. Klevecka, the only girl on the Ottakringer squad, said her 12 male teammates are like brothers. More importantly, she has become confident in her role as a key player.

"When I score, [the other teams] say, ‘This girl is good,’" she said.

Soon, the Burke "family" may be spending a lot more time on the road together. Koslosky, who shares coaching duties with brother Jack and Jim French Sr., plans to take his team to Downingtown, Williamsport and Long Island, N.Y., over the next few months.

The coach said he hopes to line up community sponsorships to help cover the cost of tournament fees, hotels and food. The trip to the Keystone Games cost the team $3,000-$4,000, which included extra gas after driving 100 miles too far west on the way home. It seems the group got a bit too caught up in its golden moment.

As long as the South Philly squad sticks to its team motto — "We lead, others follow" — the gold may just keep coming.