Winning for one of the leaders of The Buffalo News’ girls basketball polls was business as usual. For the other, it was all a delightful, slightly unexpected ride.
That’s the season in a nutshell for Cardinal O’Hara, voted as the area’s top large school, and Olean, the pick as the best small school. They spent much of the season on top of the weekly voting, and they captured the end-of-the-season honors as well.
Cardinal O’Hara has had trouble finding teams in the area that can keep up with it in recent years. The Hawks have won 46 straight games against Western New York competition dating back to 2013, and were a local powerhouse before that.
“I’ve got a good group of girls,” coach Nick O’Neil said. “I think I have an advantage over every school we play. I’ve got 10 players, and basketball is their first passion. For other schools, basketball is just another sport. But here it’s their first love. They want to play in college.”
Cardinal O’Hara knows a little bit what the University of Connecticut’s women’s team goes through. The Huskies just completed a run to a fourth straight NCAA championship, and they almost always are too good for the competition. They know it, and the other team knows it.
O’Neil makes sure that overconfidence is not a problem with his players.
“What they have found out is that we get everyone’s best game,” he said. “There’s a target on our backs. When schools come to play us, we’ll get their best offense and best defense. They’ll have some great game plans.
“I don’t have to motivate them. Our motivation is to win the league, and then win the state Catholic title.”
O’Hara stumbled in the postseason playoffs, perhaps in part because it was ordered to play a step up above its normal classification because of its run of success. That’s an unusual circumstance, and O’Neil is trying to make the best of it.
“I wish we’d just stick with one set of rules,” he said. “We’re just scheduling the best teams we can play. We have no idea where we’ll be next year. It’s a mystery.
“But I like the challenge. If you get to AA and win it, it would be legendary for girls basketball. When I first got here, getting girls to come here wasn’t as easy as it is now. We get five calls a week now from girls who want to come here and play basketball and get an education.”
O’Neil only says farewell to a couple of seniors from this year’s team, including UB-bound Summer Hemphill. Don’t expect much change in the Hawks’ record in 2016-17.
“We should be very tough next year,” he said. “We loaded our schedule up. We’re halfway through it, and we’ll play teams like Ossining, Long Island Lutheran, Jamesville-Dewitt and Villa Maria.
“We hope other schools try to pick up their schedules and bring some schools in. We’re trying to make girls basketball better.”
Williamsville North, which made it to the state championships, finished second in the poll, while Sacred Heart – a Catholic state champion – was third. Lake Shore’s thrilling win in the Class A Section VI final over Williamsville South was good to put the Eagles in fourth, a notch ahead of the Billies.
If Cardinal O’Hara has gotten used to great seasons, Olean’s experience this season was fresh and exciting.
“We had some expectations, but we won 16 in a row,” coach Randy Samuelson said. “I didn’t think we’d do that.
“We had some success and the players bought into that. It snowballed into something of a great season. ... It was a rewarding season for the whole community. They got behind the team. People looked forward to reading about the girls.”
The Huskies lost eight seniors from last season’s team, and there was no way of knowing how everything would come together. The team didn’t have a traditional look to it, relying on outside shooting for much of its offense.
“That was our strength,” Samuelson said. “Courtney Martin was a very capable post player, but she was thin and gave up some weight. But once they got the hang of it in November, they fed off each other. They had the idea of ‘one more pass,’ and that’s hard to get in basketball. Two passes are a good shot, three are a great shot.”
Olean worked its way through the Section VI playoffs, and played Livonia in the Far West Regionals. That one came down to the final seconds, but the Huskies couldn’t score to prolong the game and were eliminated. Livonia went on to win the state championship.
“That hurt,” Samuelson said about the narrow loss. “We had a shot with a few seconds left. We couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Our best rebounder was right where she should have been, but both shots didn’t go in. That’s basketball.”
The challenge to maintain a high level of play arrives next season. There are the usual graduation losses, but there will be an extra wrinkle for the 2016-17 team.
“We have some good kids coming back, but we got bumped up to Class A next year,” Samuelson said. “We’ll be the smallest A school; we’ve been the biggest B. We’ll see if we can keep up.”
East Aurora lost to Olean in the Section VI final by a basket in overtime on a neutral court in a game that probably was the best of the season among small schools. No wonder the Blue Devils are second in the poll. Holland had a nice run to the Far West Regionals, while Panama made it all the way to the state championship game.
The 2015 poll leaders were Williamsville South, which won the Federation championship, and Chautauqua Lake.