Niagara County Community College’s basketball teams aren’t resting on the success of recent years, even though they’ve had a lot of it.
The men’s team is in the midst of its fifth 20-win season in the past eight years under the direction of Bill Beilein, the nephew of Michigan head coach John Beilein. The women’s team is heading to the National Junior College Athletic Association Region III Final Four for the fifth straight season since Nate Beutel took charge.
Still, one thing has eluded the Thunderwolves: championships.
The men have been seeking their fifth Region III title since winning the last one in 1979. The women have never won a Region III championship, but made it to the final for the first time in program history last season.
The Thunderwolves have been close, and both teams are once again in contention with the playoffs right around the corner on March 4 and 5.
A strong returning contingent of eight sophomores has had Beilein’s squad ranked as high as No. 6 in the NJCAA Division II poll this season. They’re currently ranked 19th and own the top seed for the Region III playoffs, which means the Thunderwolves (22-5, 8-2) get the added bonus of hosting next weekend’s postseason action.
Sophomores such as scoring guard Jamal Pollydore and lanky forward Fausto Pichardo have been key contributors in the success this season, which features a 16-game winning streak, the longest in Beilein’s tenure, after starting the year 3-2.
“The defensive side of the ball is kind of what led us to easier field goals because we were getting stops, and you’re not playing a five vs. five game at that point if you’re getting stops,” said Beilein, who surpassed the 150-win plateau this season. “That’s been a huge part of it.”
Another part has been Beilein’s emphasis on recruiting players based on pure athleticism rather than finished products skill-wise.
“Some of our difference between this year and last year is we went after taller, more athletic kids to get the length,” Beilein said. “In getting those guys at this level, they didn’t come in as skilled as what we normally have. But our goal is once we coach these guys up skill-wise, hopefully we can reap the rewards from it.”
Eight of NCCC’s 12 players hail from New York City, including Pollydore and Pichardo. It doesn’t take as much convincing as one might think to get kids from the Big Apple to sign with a program all the way across the state.
“A lot of the New York City kids are looking to come up here,” Beilein said. “The dorms are terrific for the basketball program and in general it gives them that campus feel.
“I think coming up this way some of the guys are looking to get away from some of the distractions of home and kind of be in a place where the gym is right across from the dorms. They can get here on a daily basis and put focused work in.”
While Pollydore leads the team in scoring at about 17 points per game, local signees Donel Cathcart (Cardinal O’Hara), LaTerrance Reed (Canisius) and Adam McNeill (North Tonawanda) have also played big roles on the team.
Cathcart, a 6-foot-5 guard, has particularly seen a big jump in play after redshirting last year. He came into the program after leading Western New York in scoring as a senior in 2015 and put in a lot of work in the weight room over the course of the past year. He’s now the second-leading scorer on the Thunderwolves as a freshman, averaging almost 14 ppg.
“He gained a year of maturity,” Beilein said. “He put about 10-12 pounds on and came in here really, really confident. He has a really high ceiling right now.”
That seems to be the case with the majority of Beilein’s roster. The coach said that all eight of the sophomores have been contacted and have interest from programs at the next level.
When it comes to Beutel’s roster, it’s mostly comprised of homegrown talent. It’s one of the things he’s most proud of about the program.
“The women’s side is a bit different,” Beutel said. “We make it a point to try to keep as many local kids home and utilize our program as a stepping stone to the next level. ... I like to keep the local talent home, give them an opportunity to excel here and hopefully help them beat and achieve some of their goals before they move on to a four-year school.”
The Lady Thunderwolves play with a great deal of interchangeability and versatility from the top of the lineup all the way down. Each player averages between 11 and 23 minutes per game.
Not every team is blessed with that.
“For us to have the depth that we do, and the quality of depth, I think that does set us apart,” Beutel said. “More times than not we have a larger number of athletes than the opposing team, so we like to take our defense and turn it into easy offense.”
Sophomore guards Taliyah Hopkins (Cheektowaga) and Alliyah Gillespie (Troy) are the leading scorers at about 14 ppg for an offense that doesn't necessarily need to run sets in order to score. Beutel likes to see the team get out on the break and let the athleticism and playmaking take over.
Other locals Neraelyn Trueheart (Sweet Home), Diamond Fedrick (Southwestern) and Peyton Butts (Jamestown) average about nine, eight and seven ppg, respectively. Sophomores Jenna Faulkner (Starpoint) and Courtney Kaczor (Mount Mercy) have expanded their games this season and do the little things that don’t always appear on the stat sheet.
The 5-foot-11 Hopkins has had to sit out the past few games due to a broken hand, so a possible return to the lineup would provide a huge boost for the Thunderwolves as the postseason approaches.
“Taliyah’s an incredibly gifted athlete,” Beutel said. “She’s a great kid and it’s a shame that she’s got to sit right now. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we can get her back for the playoffs. There’s an outside chance of that happening still.”
The Thunderwolves (25-4, 8-2) started the season 12-0 and have been ranked as high as 18th in the D-II poll. They’re currently honorable mention and locked in as the No. 2 seed for the playoffs behind top-seeded Monroe Community College, which will host the tournament next weekend.
MCC’s been the main barrier standing in the way for NCCC. The Tribunes won the Region III title last season, 75-50, after the Thunderwolves held a 17-16 lead after the first quarter. NCCC let a 19-point third quarter lead slip away this season by giving up 36 points in the fourth quarter to lose, 80-75.
While Beutel’s team is certainly motivated by the loss to Monroe last year, he says that it’s been tough at times to keep them focused on the task directly in front of them. But as the season has gone on, he thinks his team has finally embraced the process that it’ll take to get back to where they want to go.
“I do think we’re starting to finally understand that you have to take it one at a time,” Beutel said. “You do have to get to that game before you can accomplish what we set out to do. That’s what we’re focused on now, just getting ourselves to that opportunity on March 5.
“You never know what can happen in a one-game situation.”