2016 postseason champions: Canisius (Class A, Manhattan Cup and New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association), Olean (Class B, Section VI and New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association), Middle Early College (Class C, Section VI and NYSPHSAA), Niagara Falls (Section VI Class AA), Williamsville South (Section VI Class A, state final four), Panama (Section VI Class D, state final four), Nichols (Manhattan Cup Class B).
All-WNY returnees: First team – Dominick Welch (Cheektowaga), Greg Dolan (Williamsville South). Third team – James Rojas (Jamestown). Fourth team – Tavien Kemp (Archbishop Walsh). Honorable Mention – Devin Pope (Chautauqua Lake), Willard Anderson (East), Elliot Bowen (Ellicottville), Nate Brawdy (Gowanda), Devonte Gaines (Health Sciences), Ray Blackwell (Maryvale), Jalin Cooper (Medina), Marcellus Cooper (Amherst), Will Johnson (Nichols), Naseer Jackson (St. Joe’s), Chris Robson (Sherman), Shakur Harris (South Park).
He’s gone: Second-team All-WNY pick Ben Eckstrom, who helped Olean win a state title during a 28-1 season, opted to take his talents to prep school for his senior season.
Familiar faces, different places: Several players shuffled to different schools since the end of last season. The talented group includes Master Radford (from Class C-2 champion Olmsted to Bishop Timon-St. Jude), Ryan Bradley (Wilson to Canisius), Dan Scott (Christian Central to Park), Marcellus Cooper (Nichols to Amherst) and Dakota Wiley (Lockport to Williamsville South).
Are you related to …? Canisius gained a transfer from Charlotte, N.C., in junior guard Austin James, who’s the son of former Turner/Carroll and Canisius College star Damone James. The younger James is averaging 13 points but scored 21 in his Crusaders debut (a win over Cheektowaga) and added 17 during last Saturday’s win over Jamestown at the ADPRO Public/Private Schools Challenge.
Chasing Canisius: With the Crusaders graduating several key players who have helped them win back-to-back state Catholic titles, is the door open for another Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association team to foil their bid to win a third straight Class A Manhattan Cup and seventh title in nine seasons?
That’s why they play the games.
The cupboard isn’t totally bare for Canisius as key contributors Jayce Johnson and Colby Moultrie return, joining forces with the aforementioned transfers. The Crusaders also reminded folks during their ADPRO win over perennial Section VI Class AA power Jamestown that their strength remains their commitment to defense.
Catholic contenders: There are no weak sisters in this league.
In Class A, Park has the size and athleticism to go a long way. The Pioneers are off to a 3-0 start with third-year 6-foot-9 player Joe Jones, Noah Hutchins and newcomer Daniel Scott shining during the early going. Bishop Timon-St. Jude (2-0) has a strong roster determined to capture the program’s first Cup title since 2001 with Davion Warren picking up where he left off at the end of 2016 by getting off to a strong start that includes 27- and 17-point efforts. A lineup that includes Joe Harrison, Juston Johnson and transfer Master Radford will be further bolstered when the injured William Lamar, who averaged around 14 points last year, returns. St. Francis has a big three with skills in Bo Sireika, Roburt Welch and Julian Cunningham, and St. Joe’s figures to be in the mix, too, with Naseer Jackson, Jack Capen, Caleb Cockrell and Michael Motley leading the charge.
The Class B Division should be quite competitive as teams look to end Nichols’ reign as champions. Justin Hemphill returns for Cardinal O’Hara after averaging a double-double as a freshman, while Nasir Benton can guard multiple positions and shoot the three. Last year’s regular-season champion Archbishop Walsh has small numbers but features one of the area’s top talents in Tavien Kemp, who averaged 20.8 as a junior. St. Mary’s is off to a 2-0 start and should contend as usual under veteran coach Paul Rath. Christian Central may be new to the scene, making the jump from IAC, but should be scrappy as Josh Tyson, Ben Lekeuneu and Zach Miller lead the Sil Dan-coached Crusaders.
In good Health: A year after reaching the Section VI Class B-2 final, Health Sciences seems to have potential to make a return trip to Buffalo State. The Falcons should be a determined group, considering they return several key members from last year in Gaines, Tyron Lott, Kameron Briggs and Wize Threat. Threat is the lone senior among the four.
Health Sciences as a team has not only matured physically but mentally, too, according to coach Tyree Parker. The Falcons are taking better shots and showing more patience in the half-court offense than they did a year ago.
“They’re trusting the process. Now they’re playing for each other,” Parker said. “They’re playing the game the right way. … Last year we weren’t playing for the name on the front of the jersey. This year we are.”
Health Sciences lone loss through seven games is a nonleaguer at Class A-sized North Tonawanda, a six-point decision in which it missed 18 free throws.
Class B looks like a bear: The Falcons are among the favorites in this classification, which will be split into B-1 and B-2 during the postseason.
East Aurora, which lost in the B-1 final last season, could make another run to Buffalo State as it has a roster that includes Nick and Joe Montgomery among four starters each in their third seasons. Dunkirk and Depew also look to make some noise in B-1.
The Marauders, who lost to Olean in the sectional semifinals last year, are kind of young but have experience returning in third-year player Devaun Farnham and seniors Evon Hernandez and Tyreek Buchanan Ruiz. Hernandez quarterbacked Dunkirk’s football team to its first Section VI title last month. Basketball is 2-2 but won at Class AA Lancaster. The losses have come against ranked schools (Health Sciences and St. Francis).
Depew began the week with a 4-0 mark, its best start since 2009. Junior Chad Biersbach is among eight returnees on a team with seven seniors. Biersbach has shown the ability to score in bunches – including a 43-point performance in the season opener. His brother Tyler, a senior, leads the Wildcats in rebounding (9.0 ).
Let’s not forget about the teams in the Niagara-Orleans League as they are no strangers to Buffalo State. Defending league champ Medina should get fine play from three-sport star and leading scorer Jalin Cooper, who has a football scholarship offer from Toledo and is just a junior, along with Izaiah Rhim and Johnny Salone. Keep an eye on Wilson, which always seems to make the trip to Buffalo and has eight returnees. Leading scorer Justin Daul returns from a knee injury.
B as in Buffalo: Class B will have a Buffalo flavor to it, too, as 10 Yale Cup schools are scattered throughout. That includes Middle College, which moves up to B-2 after winning the state title in Class C.
Section VI Class C runner-up Olmsted also is a B-2 school. The only Yale Cup teams that aren’t in this classification include McKinley (Class A-1), Hutch-Tech (A-1), South Park (A-2), da Vinci (C-1) and East (C-2).
“That’s crazy,” said Middle College coach Randall Rich on the number of Yale Cup teams in Class B, including four in B-2.
Middle College returnees with some starting experience include Hakeem Dobbins and Nader Ngoopos-Kompany, who missed the postseason run due to injury. Ngoopos-Kompany could be the key as the Kats are 2-0 with him in the lineup, 0-2 without him. Six-foot-2 Shawn Goree is Middle College’s most athletic big man and among two players from the now defunct Bennett athletic program suiting up for the Kats. Derrick Bishop, the other Tiger turned Kat, comes off the bench and does lot of good things, according to Rich. Although the Kats aren’t very big, they have shown the ability to spread the scoring wealth through their lineup.
Different faces, same goal for Rich's team.
“Win them one at a time, try to win sectionals and make it to Binghamton” for states, Rich said. “We’re going to do our best. I have a good group of kids I like working with a lot. It’s kind of re-energized me.”
McKinley update: Speaking of a team with the same goals each season – regardless of cast of players, the Macks return just one starter from last year in Davonti Wardlaw.
Coach Zaire Dorsey said he’s gone from being just one of the guys to being a leader and making sure teammates do the right things on and off the floor. He’s also more than doubled his points average from last season – toting early season totals of 17.0 ppg and 5.0 assists per game.
“He’s gone from being a team to being the big brother of the team, so to speak,” said Dorsey, whose program has won 28 straight Yale Cup games and gone unbeaten in the league four of the last five years.
Nayke Booze is a returnee and the 6-5 senior moves into the starting lineup along with Joe Johnson. Kavon Rogers is a 6-4 junior averaging a double-double.
The Macks’ expectations: “We want to win our league, we want to get to Buffalo State,” Dorsey said. “We want to go as far as we can go.”
More Yale Cup: It should be fun to see how the drama unfolds in Yale Cup I and II as several teams seem to have multiple scoring options who can make an impact.
Included among the dynamic duos/thrilling trios: Willard Anderson and Justin Allen of East; Shakur Harris, David Stroud and Raymond Mushat of South Park; Earl Howard and David Anderson of MST-Seneca; Daniel Reid and Naseem Baynes of Olmsted and Amir Radford and Talon Moody of City Honors.
Stars of ECIC III: There’s a good chance teams in this division are going to have to score more than 45 points a game to earn a win over an ECIC III rival. That’s because a few teams have players who can simply light it up on a given night. Maryvale has Ray Blackwell, who scored a career-high 28 points last week in a win over Nichols. Cheektowaga has Dominick Welch, who averaged 29 ppg last season, and has already proven multiple times he can hit the big 4-0. East Aurora has Nick and Joe Montgomery, who combine to average around 27 ppg. Depew has Chad Biersbach.
Talent watch: Impact players can be found throughout the area, including Orleans County.
Those to keep an eye on include: Jalin Cooper (Medina), Devin Pope (Chautauqua Lake), Elliot Bowen (Ellicottville), Sam Erickson (Franklinville), Tyreek Edwards (Emerson), Deamonte Riley (Burgard), Will Johnson (Nichols), Dylan Chase (Pine Valley), Chris Robson (Sherman), Nate Luckman (Barker), Noah Grabar (Lackawanna), Charles Lamar (Niagara Falls), Syquan Ralands (Niagara Falls), Trevor Book (North Tonawanda), Tyler Aquilina (Kenmore West), Tavon Chambers (Lockport), Malik Brooks (Lockport) and Naseer Jackson (St. Joe’s),
What about Olean? The Huskies have two key contributors back their state championship season – three-point threat Monty Shoemaker (77 treys last year) and Mike Schmidt. Longtime coach Jeff Anastasia, who has guided Olean to five straight Section VI titles and nine over the past 10 years, also expects good things from 6-2 senior Tristen Snyder (10.5 ppg) and 6-3 sophomore Matt Droney (8 ppg). The Huskies are guaranteed not to repeat as Class B champions. That’s because they’re part of Class A, bumping up to A-2, for the second time in three seasons.
“We have to stay healthy that’s a big thing,” Anastasia said. “We don’t have a ton of depth and we have to make sure we rebound. … Kids have been working hard. I’m really proud of their work ethic.”
A stands for … : How about "awesome" when filtering through the contenders in Class A.
In addition to Olean, programs looking to dethrone reigning champion Williamsville South (remember the Billies?) include McKinley (A-1), North Tonawanda (A-1), Grand Island (A-1), Amherst (A-2), Cheektowaga (A-2), Maryvale (A-2), South Park (A-2) and Starpoint (A-2).
North Tonawanda has length and athleticism and can frustrate teams with its 2-3 zone as it defeated Niagara Falls earlier this season. However, the Niagara Frontier League is littered with strength as the Lumberjacks discovered recently in losing at home to a Lockport team that lost to Kenmore West by 15, a Ken-West crew that lost to Falls by … 15 points.
Main Street rivals, plus: Williamsville South and Amherst met for the overall Class A title last year and the two will see plenty of each since both are now members of the same division with Amherst moving from ECIC III to ECIC II.
The two wasted little time testing the others’ limits as South rallied to beat the Tigers in overtime on Dec. 12 in a thriller at Daemen College.
Greg Dolan showed he is still Greg Dolan in that win. The junior scored the bulk of his 19 points during the final 12 minutes, showing he can impact the game either as a scorer, distributor or defender. South has shown it’s more than just Dolan. Even though the Billies graduated most of their starting lineup, transfer Dakota Wiley is a solid outside shooter and defender. Sophomore Devin Degree gives South another ball-handler to keep defenses honest.
“Half the people assume we’re going to be just as good (as last year) and the other half think it’ll be a huge fall off,” coach Gabe Michael said. “The guys have to step up and prove they can do it at this level."
Amherst welcomes Nichols transfer Marcellus Cooper to the mix. He joins an athletic, hard-working group that includes three-year starter Da’Shawn Hines and Richard Kay.
What’s up in Class AA: Don’t be fooled by the 3-4 record. Niagara Falls should be more than battle-tested come playoff time as its early schedule has included unbeaten Park, one-loss North Tonawanda and Rochester power Bishop Kearney.
Jamestown, a potential challenger and last year’s runner-up, should be ready, too, as it has already played Canisius and also has McKinley and Section V’s Irondequoit on its nonleague slate. The Red Raiders have one of the top players in the area in James Rojas, who scored 26 of his team’s 42 points last Saturday in a loss to Canisius.
Ken-West can’t be discounted as it has two solid players in Tyler Aquilina and Tal James, while Lockport owns a win over NT and dropped a two-point decision to St. Joe’s. Lancaster, Williamsville North and Orchard Park also have solid teams determined to make it to Championship Week at Buffalo State.
Class C and D update: Quality basketball always has been a hallmark of the Southern Tier teams – not just Olean – and this year should be no different regardless of classification. Chautauqua Lake and Ellicottville could very well be the early favorites in Class C and D. Both showed why recently, playing a thriller in which the unbeaten Thunderbirds edged Ellicottville by two points. Ch. Lake, remember, took down East in the semifinals and returns four starters, led by Devin Pope, from its crew that lost by three in the sectional final to Olmsted.
The Eagles, meanwhile, followed up their only loss by taking down Class B school Gowanda on the road. Ellicottville has three returning starters from last year’s Class D finalist, including leading scorer and tough-to-stop junior Elliot Bowen, and Austin Grinols.
Franklinville shouldn’t be discounted either with talented Sam Erickson leading the way. Erickson is averaging 27.5 points for a team that has a win over Class C contender Randolph and dropped a pair of three-point decisions to private school Walsh and Class B school Burgard. Let’s not forget about Sherman, a perennial Class D contender, with 23-point-per-game Chris Robson and Kolby Parks – both in their third seasons. The 12-time Section VI champion Wildcats haven’t won a title since 2014.
Don’t sleep on the Niagara-Orleans League's Barker, off to a 4-1 start with a nonleague win over private-school Batavia Notre Dame. The Raiders are coached by former Roy-Hart skipper Don Baker. Nate Luckman averages close to 24 ppg.
What’s new: The NYSPHSAA final four moves from Glens Falls to Binghamton, while the Federation Tournament of Champions moves from Albany to Glens Falls.
Key dates: Depew Holiday Tournament (Wednesday and Friday), IAABO Tournament at St. Bonaventure (Dec. 29-30), I-90 Showcase at Villa Maria College (Dec. 29-30, four games each day), MLK Classic at City Honors (Jan. 13-14), Section VI Tournament (opens Feb. 21), Section VI Championship Week (Feb. 27-28, March 1-4 and March 7), Far West Regionals at Rush-Henrietta High School (March 11), state final four at Binghamton Veterans Arena (March 17-19), Federation Tournament of Champions at Glens Falls Civic Center (March 24-26), Manhattan Cup Tournament (TBA).