Ask Jamestown boys basketball coach Ben Drake about the success of his team, and he uses a sports cliche.
"It's like that old motto, 'It's amazing what can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit,' " Drake said.
Then go ask his players.
"Basically we've got five guys who don't really care who puts the ball in the basket," senior Mike Maisto said. "As long as we get it done, that's what matters, and that's how we've been playing all year."
"Just like he said," adds senior Francisco Lantigua.
Watch the Red Raiders play, and you'll see a cliche come to life. Thanks to a balanced, unselfish offense and down-and-dirty defense, the Red Raiders are undefeated through 13 games and at No. 4 in the large school poll after a perfect start in what has been an extremely competitive ECIC I. Jamestown isn't the only team with serious upside from down south. The Raiders are part of a significant Southern Tier surge this season that includes unbeaten Olean and CCIAC I league rival Falconer as well as independent Franklinville.
Jamestown has won five ECIC I championships in Drake's previous seven seasons, but after last year's 11-10 season, a handful of graduation losses and two transfers, even the coach didn't see this kind of play developing.
"A lot of it is just chemistry," Drake said. "This is a real close group and they care about winning. That's the only number they really care about."
Here's a number that helped start it all: 50. As in 50 games -- in the summer. Between camps, leagues and tournaments, this group of Red Raiders has been jelling since the end of last season. They've also spent significant time in the weight room to build up their strength, which has helped them play strong inside even though they pretty much have five guards on the floor. And man, can these guys shoot.
In a tough 57-54 victory at Williamsville North on Friday, the Raiders hit six three-pointers in the first quarter. They finished with 10 threes, which came from all five starters: do-it-all seniors Maisto (6-foot-4), Lantigua (6-0) and Nat Barone (6-3), 5-10 junior Dominique Kendrick and 5-3 super-quick sophomore point man Marcus McAffee. It wasn't just that they were hitting threes, it's that nearly all of them came from kick-out passes from a teammate's penetration.
"Each one of us can have a big game -- he can put up 20, I can put up 20," said Maisto, with his arm on the shoulder of Lantigua. "But it's not about that. It's a five-person team. We look for each other. There's always a better look. If you get doubled, there's always someone else that can do it."
Maisto (14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds), Lantigua (15.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 5.2 assists, 2.5 steals, .590 field goal percentage) and Kendrick (12 ppg, team-high 26 three-pointers) each have gone for 20-plus points this season. Barone averages 11 while McAffee (8 ppg) averages 4.1 assists to 1.5 turnovers. The team has hit 86 of 258 three-pointers (33.3 percent). That's 6.6 per game, with each starter averaging at least one three per game.
Maisto and Lantigua are the leaders, and both showed it against North, which towered above the Raiders with monstrous 6-5, 235-pound Robert Gronkowski and 6-7 Max Lipsitz. Lantigua continually drove on the North big men -- including a huge basket in the lane in the final seconds. Maisto tirelessly banged with Gronkowski down low, bouncing his way from behind Gronkowski to fronting him and then back again.
"All season long we've been real committed at the defensive end," Drake said. "When you've got five guys that really care about getting stops, that means a lot."
Jamestown was boosted by its ECIC I start, which included big home wins over Williamsville North and West Seneca West followed by a victory at Sweet Home. Over the holidays the Raiders won a tournament at Elmira in which they beat previously undefeated Horseheads, one of Section IV's best Class AA schools, 58-49, before a crowd of about 2,000. Maisto was named the tournament MVP, scoring 58 points in three games, while Lantigua had 49 points in three games.
Jamestown will be further toughened up this weekend. On Friday, it plays at surging West Seneca West (which just beat Sweet Home) and on Sunday it takes on Rochester power East High during the Image Capital Shootout at Rochester's Blue Cross Arena.
"We believe we can go the distance," Maisto said. "We're just trying to keep the run going."
Moore wins for Olean: Head a few exits east along I-86 and you'll find another unbeaten team climbing up the large school poll.
Olean is 12-0, atop CCIAC I at 6-0 and tied for seventh with Canisius in the large school poll. The Huskies are led by do-it-all 6-3 junior Zach Moore and have a balanced starting lineup in 6-1 guard A.J. McFadden (who transferred from Jamestown), 6-4 senior post man Brian Shoup, 6-foot senior Matt Ewings ("a hustler and a half," said coach Jeff Anastasia) and 6-foot point guard and tough defender Jared Parks. The Huskies' depth is a huge key with 5-10 junior Josh Malick, 6-3 sophomore Sam Moore (Zach's brother) and 6-4 senior Derrick Howard.
"The thing about this group that's great -- people just say, 'The biggest thing we love about your kids is how they play defense and just play really hard,' " Anastasia said. "The key for us has been that we work together, communicate and play good defense."
A good barometer for the Huskies is always huge rival Bradford, Pa. The Huskies got a confidence boost in summer league play by beating Bradford's summer squad without both Moores. In December, Olean knocked off their rival in the finals of the IAABO Tournament at St. Bonaventure, the Huskies' first win over Bradford since the 2002-03 season.
The Huskies are headed toward a top seed in Class A-2, but they're also heading into a very tough stretch. They host Bradford tonight, then are at Gowanda on Thursday, travel to Lockport on Saturday before hosting Southwestern Jan. 30 and playing at league rival Falconer on Feb. 2.
Falcons dynamic duo: Speaking of Falconer, the Class B-2 school located just northeast of Jamestown is led by an outstanding junior inside-outside combination of Mike McGinnis and Jay Card.
The 5-10 McGinnis is a deadly shooter who is averaging 27 points per game and is already at 1,066 points for his career. He can hit the three but also relishes using his quick first step and great handle to drive the lane for the traditional three-point play. The 6-4 Card is averaging a double-double (14 points, 16 rebounds). Card, a righty who has some nifty left-handed moves inside, often gobbles up rebounds and finds McGinnis, who turns them into points.
Six-foot Daren Card (the only senior starter, and Jay's older brother), 5-11 junior Isaac Gatewood and 6-3 junior Matt DePietro round out Falconer's starting five.
"We're a complete team and everyone's doing what we ask night in and night out," coach Chris Scrader said. "It's a real pleasure with these guys."
Kopp climbs charts: Ben Kopp, Franklinville's 6-4 senior with the 25-point scoring average, keeps climbing the scoring charts. At 1,570 he's currently in 41st place on the Western New York all-time scoring list. But all-time scoring lists are popular in the Kopp house.
Kopp's mother, 1983 Franklinville grad Laura Hughes-Kopp, scored 2,196 and is the top scorer in Section VI history. Kopp should also soon pass his coach on the all-time list -- Jeff Haskell scored 1,660 while at Pioneer and is 31st on the all-time list.
Kopp is a pure shooter who put up 40 on Lafayette earlier this season. "He's a shooting guard who handles the ball quite a bit," Haskell said. "He scores the bulk of his points from jump shots. Against Lafayette he was about 16 of 20 from the floor, and that included like one layup."
Franklinville, who is also getting great input from 6-1 sophomore Josh Brooks (14 points per game), lost to Lafayette and Burgard by a combined five points. Kopp had eight three-pointers against Lafayette and seven during a 33-point game against Burgard. The school, located about 15 miles south of the Pioneer district, is hoping to make a playoff run in Class C.
>Around the gyms
* Maryvale (13-1) looks poised to defend its Section VI Class A championship, thanks largely to great play from Santo Lamar and a stunning comeback from a football injury by fellow senior guard Garrett Kensy. Likely the Flyers' toughest remaining test in ECIC III will come next Tuesday at second-place Williamsville South.
* The Yale Cup takes this week off. Grover Cleveland and Riverside will continue their unbeaten quests next Tuesday. While Riverside heads to South Park, Grover leader Cantrel Parrish will take on fellow big man Leon Nelson of host Burgard. If both Grover and Riverside keep winning, the battle of the unbeatens would be at Riverside on Feb. 13.
* At noon Sunday, Lackawanna and senior leader LeSean Braxton will visit a court of horrors. The Steelers play Section V's Palmyra-Macedon at Rochester's Blue Cross Arena, the same place where eventual state champion Pal-Mac routed Lackawanna, 61-34, in last year's Far West Regionals. The Steelers did knock off Pal-Mac at home earlier this season, 66-63. The game is part of the Image Capital Classic; in addition to Jamestown's 2 p.m. game with Rochester's East, Niagara Falls will face Syracuse power Henninger at 6 p.m.