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Newfane boys, girls basketball squads spark hoopla

Double-doubles are common in basketball.

But for the second year in a row, the Newfane girls and boys basketball teams accomplished a difficult yet eye-catching daily double, winning tournaments hosted by their Niagara County rivals on the same day.

The boys dispatched Section V Rochester-area competitors Lyndonville and Oakfield-Alabama to repeat as Barker Tournament champions, winning one weekend after going 1-1 at the season-opening Niagara Catholic Tournament.

The girls turned some heads once again at the Wilson Tournament. They repeated as champions by beating Maryvale and Niagara-Wheatfield -- two teams expected to contend for their respective league championships, with N-W, a Class AA-size school, a member of the rugged Niagara Frontier League. Newfane's girls also pounded Niagara Frontier League contender and Class AA school Niagara Falls by 33 points to open the season.

"We saw each other in school [last Monday], and everyone was excited," Margo Weber said of the atmosphere at school. "I thought that was really cool. Our senior class is really strong."

The boys rallied to win their opening-round game at Barker, with senior Drew Maines scoring all 11 of his points in the second half, and classmate and co-captain Jose Balseca adding 10 of his 13 in the final 16 minutes of a 59-52 win over Oakfield-Alabama. It was a game in which the Panthers struggled early with their perimeter defense before patching the holes.

>Rally to beat N-W

They came out flat against Lyndonville before throttling the Orleans County-based school for the title, holding the Tigers to a measly 11 second-half points, including four in the third quarter. Both of the Panthers' opponents play in the Genesee Region League with other schools near, or in, Genesee County.

The girls rallied to beat N-W in the final of the Wilson Tournament, 53-48. Tourney Most Valuable Player Laura Hambruch and all-tournament pick Weber each scored 18 points in the win.

Winning in-season tourneys is nice for any program because such feats can be springboards for bigger and better wins throughout the season. The boys and girls rode the momentum from winning the titles at these tournaments last year to capturing Niagara-Orleans League championships. The teams won a combined 35 of 43 games to earn shares of their respective league titles, with Medina (boys) and Albion (girls).

"Everybody still needs a confidence booster, and that's what the tournament was," said Hambruch, who is averaging more than 22 points in the Panthers' first three games -- all wins. "We went in [the Barker Tournament] with high expectations: to win the tournament two years in a row. We found out where we were struggling, and it will help us down the road."

"It's good for both programs," boys coach Scott Fuller said. "We all brought our trophies in. . . . It's unique for the school. It's almost a friendly rivalry [between the teams]. They feed off of each other and enjoy it."

The girls finished 18-4 last season, bowing in the Section VI Class B-1 semifinals to Fredonia. The boys went 17-4, losing their B-1 quarterfinal playoff game, 71-55, to Yale Cup stalwart East -- a quick, sharp-shooting team that pulled away from the Panthers with a late 25-10 run after Newfane pulled within one with five minutes left. The game was tied at halftime.

Last year, the boys and girls made a bet as to who would finish with the better record, with bragging rights being the wager. The girls won the bet, barely, but is there really a loser when both programs win league championships and combine for 35 victories?

"We definitely support each other and go to each other's games as much as we can," senior Rob Linhart said.

>Boys' challenge

Winning the wager this year may be a tall task for the boys, since Newfane is one of five teams expected to contend for the N-O title.

While the Panthers have six players back from last year's team, they're searching for a replacement for lockdown perimeter defender Bob Zehler. Still, they're off to a better start than expected, having won five of their first six games. That's a record more impressive considering that almost half the team didn't start practicing until three days before the Niagara Catholic Tournament.

Six players were busy making history with the boys soccer program -- helping it reach the state semifinals for the first time and becoming just the third Newfane athletic team to reach states (girls basketball and baseball the other two).

For the first 11 basketball practices, the team worked out with seven players who more than got their fill of conditioning, shooting and individual defensive footwork/slide drills, because they didn't have enough bodies to scrimmage or do any 5-on-5 work.

"It got boring because you're running mostly the same drills, and none of it was 5-on-5," Linhart said.

The female Panthers, on the other hand, lost just one starter from last year's team. Three of the four returning have at least three seasons of varsity experience.

Point guard Weber is in her fifth season -- coming off a season in which she averaged nearly 13 points and eight assists per game, while Hambruch is in her fourth season, and fellow senior Melissa Wasik is playing her third.

Besides size and skill, they have a work ethic that has helped them overcome quicker teams. They also have a nice team chemistry.

They genuinely like each other, said coach Ken Woodring, who added that this is the easiest team he has had to coach because all he has to do is worry about basketball and not managing personalities. Weber said the team even goes shopping together and has sleepovers.

>Good finishers

"In my nine years, this is by far the most talented team I've ever had as far as all-around depth [and] the strength of each position," said Woodring, who guided the program to its first N-O title since 1996.

Weber also agreed with her coach's assessment that sometimes they're a little too nice on the court -- in that they are not mean enough against their opponents. While the Panthers have been successful, they still have to learn how to bury their opponents when the opportunity presents itself.

They also like to come from behind, just as they did in the regular-season finale last February at Albion, when they rallied from an 8-point halftime deficit to win by 10 to clinch a share of the league title.

"We like to keep close," Weber quipped. "We don't do it on purpose."

"Sometimes," Woodring said, "they settle for being good, and they can be a lot better, and that's what we're trying to focus on, to take them to the next level."

While the goal of both programs is to repeat as N-O champs, both dream of capturing Section VI titles on the same weekend -- perhaps even on the same day. That dream may still be alive and well at the end of the season, but it won't be easy.

The boys and girls B-1 brackets are loaded this season.

The boys' includes defending state champion Lackawanna, which returns most of last year's team, and former Class A school Olean. Girls B-1 champion East Aurora figures to be the hunted, while Olean's girls won the Section VI Class A title last year.

Still, nobody expected Newfane's boys soccer team to do anything special during the fall, and they did.

"It's hard, it'll take a lot of work," said Balseca, a first-team All-State soccer player. "But everyone would like to get as far as the soccer teams did."


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