According to Nichols boys basketball coach Jim Kramer, the chemistry that led to last year's state Federation Class C championship was built during the holiday season.
Starting tonight, the Vikings hope they can continue to brew a similar mixture.
Nichols is defending its title in the Benedictine Capital City Classic at Richmond, Va. After starting last season slowly, the Vikings beat two Philadelphia-area schools and one from Washington, D.C., to win the tournament and receive the booster shot of confidence that carried them all the way through March Madness at Glens Falls.
"At that time last year, we were struggling," recalled Kramer. "We had lost (6-foot-7) Bob Fitzgibbons to his broken leg and blown a 10-point lead to Niagara Falls (in the NFL Kickoff Invitational consolation game). Then we went down there thinking we might get our heads handed to us.
"To turn it around and win it was a big thing. But last year was last year and I suppose it's more like: What have you done lately?"
Lately, Nichols has done just fine. The Vikings are 3-1 and tied for third among large schools in The News Poll with St. Joe's. They should battle LaSalle and Niagara Falls for the NFL title.
Tonight, they will play Loyola Prep, ranked among Baltimore's top 20. Among the entrants in the 25th edition of the prestigious eight-team event are Gonzaga (D.C.) Prep, Mount Vernon (N.Y.) and Cardinal Leger of Toronto.
"We need to find out our personality," Kramer said. "We have nine kids who play a lot of minutes, so we're still trying out combinations."
Fitzgibbons has been the early workhorse, averaging 20.5 points. Guard Kori Brown is averaging 18.5. Guard Matt Enstice continues to be strong defensively, while Jeff Tamulski, Jack Plunkett and J.J. Siepierski have done the job on the front line.
Nichols won't be the only team out of town this week. Olean left at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday on a 14-hour bus ride to Owensboro, Ky., where it will play tonight in a first-round game of the 12-team Owensboro National Bank Classic. The host city is west of Louisville on the Kentucky-Indiana border.
The Huskies (4-1), No. 1 among small schools until losing to South Park last week, meet Henderson County (Ky.) in their first game.
"I've told our players they have to understand that basketball down there is a heck of a lot different than it is here," Olean coach Jeff Anastasia said. "We're building a new gym that will seat about 800 people. One of the gyms in Kentucky we might play in seats 3,600.
"We never go into a game to lose, but we want to be realistic. We lost to South Park by 14 and the teams down there might be two or three times better."
Olean got the invitation, in part, because of senior star Dean Edwards, an early signee with Butler University. The 6-7 Edwards, averaging almost 25 points per game, earned national recognition for his play in summer camps after his sophomore year, and the tournament often seeks teams with Division I talent.
Seven of the 12 teams are from Kentucky. Also entered are Baltimore Walbrook and teams from Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina. The teams are grouped into four brackets and play a two-game round-robin within those divisions. Survivors for the semifinals are the bracket winners.
Unbeaten Canisius also has a stern test in the Jesuit Classic at Jersey City, N.J. The Crusaders (5-0) play the host team, St. Peter's Prep, tonight. Also entered are Xavier of New York City and Balen of Miami, Fla.
Lancaster (5-1) meets Pittsburgh-area power Monessen in tonight's first round of the Friends of Warren/Kwik Fill Classic at Warren (Pa.) High. It should be a good test for the Redskins, considered by many the favorites to win Division I of the Erie County Interscholastic Conference.
Defending state Class C Catholic champion Turner/Carroll (3-3) also will be in Pennsylvania tonight, playing National Christian Academy (Md.) in the Mercyhurst Prep Tournament at Erie.
Friday night, Grover Cleveland (3-0) will play Corning East at 8 Richmond
p.m. in the first round of the Crystal City Classic at Corning Community College. Owego and Greece-Arcadia play at 6:30 p.m. in the other semfinal. The consolation game will be played Saturday at 3 p.m., followed by the championship at 6:30.
Among area events, the strongest field appears to be at the Wilson Tournament, where Beamsville (Ont.) most likely will play punching bag for three ranked small schools. In an opening-round game at 6:30 tonight, No. 1 Traditional will renew its fierce rivalry with No. 6 Burgard in a meeting of Yale Cup schools. No. 7 Wilson meets Beamsville at 8 and is favored to advance to Friday night's final.
Burgard beat Traditional in last year's Wilson final, 88-83, but lost two later meetings. One was a sectional quarterfinal in which the Bulldogs, up by 11, saw Traditional rally in the final four minutes to win, 74-73, en route to the state public school final.
Two other intriguing matchups are on tonight's schedule. In the Hamburg Sun Tournament, host Hamburg (5-1) meets St. Francis (3-0), which has won its three contests by an average of almost 29 points. Unbeaten Gowanda (5-0) meets Jamestown (4-1) at 8 in the first round of the Cattaraugus IAABO Tournament at St. Bonaventure. Jamestown's last four games have been decided by one point, with the Red Raiders winning three of them.