It’s the hardest ticket to get in town this weekend, mostly because of the size of the venue.
But those lucky enough to have purchased tickets in advance for Saturday’s sold-out clash-of-the-titans game between Canisius and Park School will witness something that rarely happens in these parts: A showdown between reigning state boys basketball champions from Western New York.
The last time it happened? Go back to Dec. 19, 2010, at the Reilly Center in Olean. Defending Class C champion Middle College got the better of reigning state Federation Class A champion Nichols that day in the first round of the IAABO Tournament, 56-45. But those defending champions were shadows of the squads that captured titles the season prior due to graduation losses.
Saturday’s 3 p.m. gathering at Park between 2015 Federation Class A champion Canisius and Federation B champion Pioneers is a different story. The Crusaders (11-1) are ranked first in the News’ Large School poll, Park (12-0) second. The Pioneers are ranked first in Class A in the state sportswriters’ poll while Canisius is third.
Both squads return players who were vital to last season’s championship runs including All-Western New York first team selections Stafford Trueheart of the Crusaders and Jordan Nwora of Park.
The two teams seem to have the talent and depth to make another state championship run, but only one – and that’s only if everything falls into place in the ever-competitive Monsignor Martin Association for that team – will get to experience that feeling since the league moved the Pioneers into the Class A division this season.
Things could get really intense Saturday in Snyder. The winner? The fans.
“The place is going to be electric,” Crusaders coach Kyle Husband said. “Too bad it’s a smaller venue. We probably could’ve sold out Canisius (College), but it’s going to be great basketball. It’s going to be a lot of fun. The kids are excited to play.”
Canisius, which has not lost to a Western New York opponent since dropping a 57-50 decision to Nichols on Feb. 26, 2014, has been idle since crushing then-News No. 3 Large School McKinley last Saturday, 72-46, at the MLK Classic at City Honors.
In that contest, the Crusaders’ size and athleticism overwhelmed one of Western New York’s signature programs. Their three 6-foot-7 seniors – Trueheart, Madut Ayiy and Charles Hart – combined for 12 of the team’s 14 blocks. Canisius’ nimble guards also did an exceptional job of preventing McKinley from trying to get to the basket via penetration.
Husband said the defensive game plan will remain the same.
“That’s who we are ... we’re long and athletic,” he said. “We have to use those advantages as positives.”
Park also has size and athleticism. The Pioneers, who created a flap earlier in the week for opting to leave a tournament in Erie, Pa., instead of risking dealing with nasty weather during a forecasted snowstorm Sunday, have welcomed 6-foot-11 sophomore Joe Jones back to the lineup.
In addition to being a good passing big man on offense, he blocked seven shots in Tuesday’s win at Bishop Timon-St. Jude.
His return gives coach Mike Battaglia more lineup flexibility because he now has the option of moving the sweet-shooting Nwora to the perimeter or having the 6-7 senior play closer to the basket along with Jones.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Battaglia said. “We’re going to have fun. We don’t feel any pressure on us because Canisius is No. 1 and we’re No. 2. We’re supposed to lose. We’re going to go in and play our hardest and let the chips fall where they may.”
Park dropped a 70-62 decision at Canisius last season when both were ranked No. 1 in the large and small school polls in Western New York. The Crusaders, winners of 24 straight against Buffalo-area opponents, ended that game on an 8-0 run during the final minute.
The teams will meet again at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 3 at Canisius.
For now, this contest isn’t just for bragging rights. It’s for first place and it’s a chance to send an early message because these teams will cross paths again, and the stakes could be greater.
“This is the first chance against each other to see where we stack up,” Husband said. “It’s going to be a fun challenge.”