AUBURN — This time of year, it's all about peaking at the right time.
While Auburn hockey is playing at a high level, the hope is that the best hockey is still ahead.
The Maroons, after dispatching of Ogdensburg Free Academy in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Division II regionals, take on Section VI's Sweet Home in the state semifinal on Saturday at the HarborCenter in Buffalo.
The key to advancement has been simple: The Maroons have gotten better every day.
"We knew we had the potential, we knew we had the pieces and you always wonder when it's going to click," Auburn coach Mike Lowe said. "We've been getting better the last four or so weeks. Goaltending is hot, defensively we're playing well, we're getting the offensive production that we're looking for, our role players are doing their job. Everything is coming together at the right time."
Auburn has never played in a state championship game, its closest try coming in 2014 when the Maroons were knocked out in the state semifinal. Leading scorer Jake Morin hopes the fun continues to Sunday's state final.
"It's been exciting," Morin said. "We have fun every day in practice. A full week of practice to prepare is huge for us, just to recover and get prepared for that state semifinal game."
THE FINAL FOUR
Still alive for the state title, along with Auburn, is Section I's John Jay, Section VI champion West Seneca West and the state's at-large bid in Sweet Home.
Division II hasn't always had at-large teams for the state tournament — the concept comes and goes depending on how many sections field hockey teams, but the current format has been in place since 2015.
While Sweet Home (19-4-1) may not be a sectional champion, the Maroons know better than to take them lightly. At-large bids have had varied levels of success in the Division II state tournament, but it was only three years ago that Route 20 rival Skaneateles took Section III's at-large bid and rode it to the state title.
Last season, Section X's St. Lawrence owned the at-large bid and the Larries won two games in the state tournament before bowing out to Pelham in the championship.
"Like we've been saying every week, we've got to put our best foot forward and play our best game of the year to advance on Saturday," Lowe said. "It's not like (Sweet Home is) unbeatable, but they're certainly good. The boys are confident, but we think we can win on Saturday if we have our best performance of the year. I'm confident the kids will come through."
If there's one blemish to Auburn's run through sectionals and now the state tournament, it's been how the Maroons have performed coming out of the gates.
In three of four playoff games, the opposing team has opened the scoring against Auburn within the first four minutes — Oswego in the section quarterfinals (38 seconds), Clinton in the section final (3:54) and Ogdensburg Free Academy in the state regional (1:24) all put the Maroons in an early hole.
Each of those times, Auburn avoided a two-goal deficit by scoring the next one.
Auburn has also dominated in every period other than the first — take away the opening period and the Maroons are outscoring their opponents 18-4 so far this postseason.
"We just trust in our systems and know we have the ability to outwork another team and they're not going to last as long as we are," Morin said. "If it comes down to it and we're tied at the end of the game, we're confident we're going to be able to run away with it in the end."
Auburn's roster possesses only three seniors and three juniors. With a team lacking in upperclassmen, younger players have stepped up and played important minutes.
The underclassmen filling in includes the second line of RJ Szakalski, Hunter Tubbert and Nick Pipher (all sophomores), as well as defensemen Ross Burgmaster (sophomore) and Austin Black (freshman). Burgmaster provides a steady but physical presence on the back end while Black mans the point on the power play.
"Everyone has come a long way since the beginning of the season," junior Johnny Malandruccolo said. "Like coach (Lowe) says all the time, we've increasingly gotten better every day. A lot of younger guys have been stepping up."
Most importantly, the underclassmen have stood their ground in their own end — while Morin, Malandruccolo and Brendan Williams have contributed most of the scoring, everyone else has held up defensively. Lowe is especially keen on the importance of his depth players playing responsibly.
"Without them we wouldn't be here," Lowe said. "You know about the guys who put up the points, but you need a lot more than two guys. We've given up seven goals in four playoff games. ... Less than two goals a game. It's a total team effort in that regard."