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League rival Park set to root for Canisius in Albany

Teams on a championship run often make new fans along the way, but the Canisius boys basketball team’s latest supporter isn’t the run of the mill groupie.

It’s a fellow champion like the Crusaders and just one of a few teams to push them to the limit on the court in head-to-head action.

As Canisius won its first state Catholic Class A championship at Fordham University on March 14, fellow Monsignor Martin rival and state Catholic Class B champion Park School watched from the stands, cheering them on to victory over Kennedy Catholic.

While it’s not rival St. Joe’s rooting for the enemy or vice versa, it’s an interesting gesture nonetheless, and one that didn’t go unnoticed.

“That showed a lot of class on their part,” Canisius coach Kyle Husband said. “Certainly very appreciative for how much they were cheering for us in New York City.”

Both teams, ranked No. 1 in the Buffalo News’ Large and Small School polls, met during the season with Canisius rallying for a 70-62 win. They met again recently, this time behind closed doors, as they opted to scrimmage each other in an attempt to prepare for the Herculean tasks that await them this weekend at the University at Albany during the New York Federation Tournament of Champions.

Canisius opens the event that brings together the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association, the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association, New York Alliance of Independent Schools Athletic Association and the New York City Public Schools Athletic League champions to determine an overall state champion among boys and girls in Classes AA, A and B.

The Crusaders face defending Federation champion and public school Scotia-Glenville of Section II at 9 a.m. Friday. The winner advances to the Class A final at 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon against either independent Albany Academy or PSAL’s Springfield Gardens.

The 9 a.m. tilt is the first of seven games Friday, but the only one involving the four Western New York entries in the tournament.

Park (21-3) will be there to root for the Crusaders should they make the final. Otherwise, the Pioneers, who depart for Albany on Friday morning, will have their own hands full as they play at 1 p.m. Saturday against defending Federation champion Westhill (20-2) of Syracuse. The winner plays in Sunday’s 4 p.m. final against either PSAL’s Maspeth or independent Dwight School.

The Mount St. Mary Thunder (15-12), the state Catholic Class B champion, make their girls Federation debut at 11 a.m. Saturday against unbeaten PSAL champion Brooklyn College Academy (23-0). The winner plays either independent champ Staten Island Academy or public schools champ Susquehanna Valley at 2 p.m. Sunday for the crown. Susquehanna Valley beat East Aurora in the state semifinals last weekend at Troy.

Meanwhile, state public schools champion Williamsville South received a bye into the Federation girls Class A final and play at noon Sunday against the winner of Friday’s semifinal between state Catholic champion Nazareth and PSAL’s McKee Staten Island Tech.

Last year, Cardinal O’Hara won the Class A Federation title, while a boys team last won the Federation in 2010 when Nichols captured Class A. Prior to that, Niagara Falls won the Class AA crown in 2005.

Should Canisius beat the Tartans (26-0), it’d be a stop-the-presses moment. Scotia-Glenville, the two-time defending state public schools champion, brings in a 53-game winning streak as its all-senior starting lineup looks to end its careers with a bang. Unless, that is, Canisius finds a way to discombobulate them with its relentless man-to-man, which has a tendency to pick up steam the longer the game goes on.

“Anyone that wins 53 in a row is pretty darn good,” Husband said. “They’re doing something right but I think it’s more of what we do” that will determine if we win or lose.

“The last month, our group of guys has not only played well but their heads are in the right spots,” Husband said. “They’re focused. They have a clear objective that they want to achieve and they’re remained focused. All big games this year they’ve kept their focus.”

No one kept their focus better in Canisius’ last win than senior LaTerrance Reed, who drained 6 of 8 from beyond the three-point arc en route to scoring 28 points on just 15 total shots. He wasn’t the only one to contribute to that 65-55 triumph over a Kennedy Catholic team that entered that contest with just one loss. For the second game in a row, senior TJ Wheatley – the News Football Player of the Year who will continue his career at Michigan – came off the bench and grabbed double-digit rebounds while playing tough, physical defense. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Wheatley, who helped Canisius win its first state Catholic football title last fall, had seven points and 10 rebounds in the state Catholic final.

“If he doesn’t get healthy and decide he wants to finish his senior year … I don’t know where we are,” said Husband of Wheatley, who gives the Crusaders another big presence in the paint along with 6-7 Stafford Trueheart and 6-8 Madut Ayiy. “He knows who he is. He’s a big physical presence … he’s a great defender. He’s a leader. The intangibles TJ brings to the floor are big time.”

While Trueheart averages a double-double and has seemingly taken turns shouldering the scoring load with Reed, Husband said the Crusaders will need big games from everyone, not just one or two guys.

“We need all 11 guys regardless of who’s on the floor to be their best,” he said. “I think they all understand that. We have a true team. Certain guys have stepped up. … LaTerrance has stepped up certain games. So has Staff. But we need a collective effort this weekend.”

So too will Western New York’s other teams, including Park, which faces a Westhill squad that won its second straight public schools state championship.

The Warriors are smart, can shoot and have a Division I talent in Jordan Roland and Tyler Reynolds. Roland has committed to George Washington.

Jordan Nwora is averaging around 18 ppg to lead Park, but Hunter Anderson has increased his production to 11.4 ppg from about 7.5 and rebounding close to 10 per game. Randy Golda is a game-time decision with a lower-body injury.

The Pioneers respect what Westhill has done but won’t be in awe of the Warriors come game time.

“My kids don’t expect anything else other than to go down there and win,” Battaglia said. “It really comes down to the same thing as we did against Regis. We have to block out and rebound and we have to find the shooters.”

So too will Mount St. Mary, which has won 11 of its last 13 games to stun everybody. The Thunder are all basketball all the time now under first-year coach Mike McCarthy. They spent the early part of the season focusing on defense and fundamentals and the reward has come during the second half of the season.

The Thunder have the worst record among Fed participants, may be the shortest team in Albany, but …

“We’re still playing,” McCarthy said. “Got to give them credit.”

Julie Fleming helped will Mount into the Federation by posting a triple-double 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 steals in the win versus Good Counsel.

McCarthy said in order to have a shot at the win, his team must protect the ball. Being relentless on defense wouldn’t hurt either as they used their D to erase a 10-point halftime deficit in the state Catholic final. To prepare for the game, Mount scrimmaged an AAU team featuring top talents from the Buffalo area. Mount held its own for a half.

Saturday will be all basketball all the time for the school that has gone basketball crazy this season. The Thunder plan to arrive 2.5 hours before tipoff to watch the first semifinal. After Mount’s done, the team will shuffle off to nearby Times Union Center and watch the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament regional semifinals.

Defending national champion Connecticut will be among the teams participating in the Albany regional, potentially making the Federation experience that much more of a fun, memorable experience for Mount.