The boys' basketball postseason tournament has been a shining moment for the shield of the Niagara Frontier League – especially North Tonawanda.
NT (Class A) and Niagara Falls (Class AA) captured championships in the big-school classifications of the Section VI Tournament to reach the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association portion of the playoffs.
They are among the five Section VI champions who will be in action Saturday against Section V (Rochester area) counterparts during the Far West Regionals at Genesee Community College in Batavia. Also making the trip are Health Sciences (Class B), Chautauqua Lake (Class C) and Franklinville (Class D). All but Falls and Franklinville are first time state tournament participants – although the Panthers of Franklinville last advanced 25 years ago.
Both NT and Falls have stiff tests awaiting them too with the Lumberjacks (20-4) facing the top-team in the state in Irondequoit (22-1) and Niagara Falls (15-8) drawing third-ranked Fairport (20-1).
The Far West Regional slate starts at noon and is divided into three sessions: Classes D, C and B at noon, 1:45 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., respectively; Class A at 6 p.m. and Class AA at 9 p.m. Winners advance to the final four St. Patrick's Day weekend in Binghamton.
The gap between the last two sessions Saturday is such so that fans wanting to see the Class A game between North Tonawanda and either Irondequoit or Wayne do not get shutout like a good number of folks did two years ago at Gates Chili High School when the Class AA fans showed up earlier for the twin bill that tournament site organizers anticipated for that one.
Those from Niagara County making the trip to Monroe County will get to see something they haven't witnessed since 1993.
That's the last time two NFL teams (LaSalle and Kenmore East) won Section VI titles to advance to regionals.
"This year, more than any shows the league earned a little respect in Western New York," said coach Sal Constantino, whose Wolverines placed fourth in the league during the regular season but won sectionals as a No. 5 seed by defeating ECIC I co-champion and second-seeded Lancaster.
Niagara Falls beat Section V Class AA runner-up University Prep by a point, which dropped a three-point verdict to Fairport in the final.
While the Wolverines are in regionals for the second year in a row and 10th time since 2000, this is unchartered territory first-time state tournament participant North Tonawanda.
The Lumberjacks couldn't be happier as they not only have made history for their school, but they also have followed up a regrettable moment with its most unforgettable one.
A promising 2015-16 took a hit when seven members of the team were suspended late in that campaign for violating the school's code of conduct. They were all underclassmen who are back on the team this season.
The road back from the undisclosed mistake wasn't easy as workouts and retreats were among the team building activities organized by coach Ryan Mountain.
"Those seven individuals needed to earn their way back on the team over the offseason and earn each other's and my own trust back," Mountain said. "I said they need to practice, plan, prepare and play like they just lost their last game and also as if they're trying to make the team.
"They've been nothing but outstanding. They've learned how to lead. They've learned how to invest. They've learned how to unite this family back together. That may have been the greatest success of our team this year."
The on-court results haven't been too shabby either.
The experienced Lumberjacks have caused their opponents problems with their size, athleticism and vaunted 2-3 zone defense. They ended the championship dreams of fellow NFL member Grand Island and ECIC II co-champions and tournament top seeds Williamsville South, the two-time overall defending Class A champion, and Amherst (Class A-2 champion).
Junior Trevor Book and senior Vincent Tripi wowed the folks during Championship Week at Buffalo State with Book pouring in 25 points in Tuesday's win over Amherst. Tripi made several impressive passes and also scored big buckets, including the three-pointer that gave NT the lead for good against Will South.
The Lumberjacks own wins over postseason champions Niagara Falls (Class AA), Amherst (A-2), Health Sciences (B) and St. Mary's (Manhattan Cup Class B).
NT (20-4) hopes to earn another shining moment, but it won't be easy against an Irondequoit crew that crushed Wayne in Thursday night's Section V final, 56-36.
"We're there to represent Section VI and all the Lumberjacks who didn't get a chance to get this far," Mountain said. "Whoever we play they're going to get one of the best half-court defenses our section has and a very explosive offense as well. … We feel that anything is possible."
Far West Regional schedule
Saturday at Genesee Community College
Class D: Franklinville vs. C.G. Finney, noon
Class C: Chautauqua Lake vs. Northstar, 1:45 p.m.
Class B: Health Sciences vs. Mynderse, 3:30 p.m.
Class A: North Tonawanda vs. Irondequoit, 6 p.m.
Class AA: Niagara Falls vs. Fairport, 9 p.m.