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Olean’s title tradition kept safe in new hands

Didn’t Olean lose all five of its starters? Haven’t the Huskies moved up in class?

Yes they did, and yes they have.

And yes, that was Olean winning another Section VI championship at Buffalo State.

Olean, with an entirely different lineup than the one that dominated Class B for the last three years, made it four straight sectional titles with a 58-49 Class A-2 championship victory over top-seeded Amherst.

“We graduated the five seniors who were here for so many years in the program – I said the thing that separates you guys from everyone else is that you guys play with heart,” Olean coach Jeff Anastasia said of his team. “They’re just a bunch of blue-collar kids who work really hard. Each year is a new year. Last year it was expected. This year is was not. What a great group of kids. They proved a lot of people wrong.”

Many of the estimated 2,000 at Buffalo State Sports Arena on Saturday afternoon have been used to seeing Olean win overall titles in Class B (and advance to the state final four in Glens Falls in two of those three years) behind the 2014 class of Wil Bathurst, Sam Eckstrom, Nick Schmidt, Luke Hennessy and Dante Tarr.

This year, a change in enrollment numbers led to Olean moving up to Class A-2 and competition against larger schools, which also led to expectations being quite different for this year’s group of Huskies.

“It feels amazing,” said 5-8 junior guard Jacob Cavana. “Everyone – right when the old five left, they didn’t think we’d come so far. Now we have a sectional championship and it feels good to keep the tradition going. We used it as motivation to prove the doubters wrong.”

On Saturday, sixth-seeded Olean, which had tied with B-1 finalist Fredonia for the CCAA I title, took on an Amherst team that was ranked in the top five of The News large school poll almost all season long (Olean was among others receiving votes this week).

The Huskies (18-4) prevailed thanks to 10 three-pointers and double-digit performances from 6-4 senior Chucky Martin (16 points), 6-3 sophomore Ben Eckstrom (16 points, four three-pointers) and Cavana (15 points on five threes). They also displayed the kind of well-drilled play and outstanding execution fans have seen at Buffalo State in past postseasons – just with different players.

The Tigers (19-3) bolted to a 17-9 first-quarter lead as junior standout TC Brown (16 points) hit a hanging jumper in the final seconds. Olean heated up in the second quarter, winning the period, 17-9, and tying the game at halftime at 26-26 thanks in large part to four three-pointers, including three by Cavana.

Cavana kept up his shooting to open the third, as he hit two threes to go along with three Martin baskets inside as a 12-0 quarter-opening run put Olean up, 38-26. Amherst battled back, with Darian Lowe’s three-pointer pulling the Tigers to within 38-36 at the end of the third.

Olean started the fourth with 7-2 run off an Eckstrom three, two Eckstrom free throws and a Martin inside basket off a Derek Schmidt feed for 45-38 lead. Olean’s advantage reached 10 before Amherst sliced it to 51-45. At that point, Olean executed excellently against Amherst pressure, with teammates finding Martin for two straight runouts that put Olean up, 55-45, with 1:23 to play.

“We just set up our pressbreaker. They had their big man come up on me, we just had them throw it out long and it worked out,” Martin said. “Nobody expected us to be here. We didn’t really get the recognition that Olean usually gets at the beginning of the year, and it feels good to be back here and get a championship.”

Connor Prizel, a senior co-captain who was one of only two players who saw significant action last season as he shared sixth-man duties with Martin, went 2 for 2 at the line on a late one-and-one.

Olean will return to Buffalo State at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday to take on Class A-1 champion Williamsville South for the overall A title.

“People doubted us and didn’t think we’d win the league. We tied for first, and no one ever thought we would be here,” said Eckstrom, younger brother of Sam. “But we always knew every day in practice that we could win a sectional championship.”