The beauty about the Yale Cup is that the Buffalo Public Schools' boys basketball league mixes large schools and small schools in the same divisions as strength of team matters more than classification size.
That said, a large school has won five of the last six Yale Cup I titles although there is a different defending champion as South Park rose to the top and dethroned McKinley to win its first Cup in 31 years. If the Sparks want to repeat, they'll have to get through the Macks along with small schools Middle Early College and East.
So far Middle College is 2-0 in the league, following last Friday's triumph over South Park. Couple that with the Kats victory over McKinley, and those are two wins that could be very important down the stretch when the teams meet in rematches during the second time through their respective schedules.
Middle College is the one small school that has interrupted the aforementioned string of Yale Cups won by the bigger members of the league, doing so back in 2014.
James Kane succeeds longtime pilot Randall Rich as coach of the Kats. The Bishop Timon-St. Jude graduate served as Rich's junior varsity coach the past two years and was on the bench with him during Middle College's run to the state Class C championship in 2015.
Those looking to help the Kats once again be a dangerous team during the postseason include senior Hakeem Dobbins. Jamond Jones is a sophomore who will run the point, while Azyion Clemons is a dangerous shooter. Nate Jackson is an athletic, leaper at power forward.
East bolted to a 4-0 start but has lost two straight, each by three points. One of those was to McKinley but the Class D-sized school (yes, East is part of a loaded Class D) would love nothing more than to capture the Cup after coming oh, so close in recent years only to finish behind either McKinley, Middle College or South Park.
The Panthers have one of the top players in the area in returning second team All-Western New York selection Willard Anderson, a guard whose lethal from beyond the arc but can also get to the basket. Justin Allen is an athletic inside presence for coach Starling Bryant's charges.
Leading South Park's bid to defend the title will be senior Ray Mushat. Other returning starters for the Sparks are juniors Elijah Lewis and David Stroud along with sophomore Anthony Mack.
McKinley, off to a 3-1 start, returns Kavon Rogers along with point guard Deon Spencer as the Macks look to secure their fifth Cup in seven years.
MST Seneca and Olmsted appear to be the favorites in Yale Cup II, which welcomes Riverside this year as it moves in from Yale Cup I. Both look to return to Buffalo State for championship week with Earl Howard leading the charge for Seneca. Olmsted, which won its first sectional title in Class C-1 in 2016, is led by Gabe Johnson-Carr and Joel Richards.
ECIC outlook: Williamsville South has won three straight ECIC II division titles and its quest to do so again will rest in the sure hands of senior Greg Dolan. The two-time All-Western New York first team selection has the ability to control and dominate games. He's scored more than 20 points in each of the Billies' first four games. South is off to 3-2 start as players get used to new roles, including the 6-foot-4 Dolan who will need to do the bulk of the scoring and serve as the inside presence more so than in his first three seasons when he facilitated the offense as point guard.
Amherst earned a share of the ECIC II crown with South last season and features returning do-everything player DeSean Ashley, a sophomore. Jake Mullen and Jackson Tan are other options for a Tigers team that wants to extend their run of success. Amherst, which moved into ECIC II last year, has won or shared six straight division titles and has won six straight sectional title. "We're young but I know our expectations are the same," Tigers coach Chris Kensy said. "They don't want to fall off."
Sweet Home's off to a 4-1 start with wins over Jamestown and Iroquois. Stephon Trueheart leads the Panthers in points average (15.5) followed by team captain Evan John (13.75).
Go West part two? West Seneca West had a season to remember on the football field that ended with the Indians winning a state title, but do they have the goods to string together an extended playoff run on the hardwood?
The 5-0 Indians have already won as many games as they did last season. They've already doubled their win total (1) from last year in ECIC I. While first-year coach Des Randall took over a program that was slated to return five starters, a couple transfers – including his little brother Juston Johnson – have infused the team with more depth and skill. The Indians also have four key members of the football team on the squad, which is also huge for Randall because athletes who have experienced success in one sport want to carry it over into other endeavors due to their natural competitive natures. West plans to press and play fast. The Indians already scored an attention-getting win over last year's Class AA runner-up Lancaster, 92-51. In addition to Johnson, other standouts for the Indians include Adrian Baugh, Alex Wayland and Nate Ryneic.
While West is off to a sizzling start, don't fall asleep on perennial division contender Williamsville North. The Spartans return three starters along with an infusion of additions from their 19-1 junior varsity team. Top scorer Jacob Belote is back after averaging 14 points per game last year as a sophomore. Jon Abaya, at 6-5, and 6-7 St. Mary's transfer Greg Poland give coach Chuck Swierski's squad some size in the post. North wants to rebound after posting a 10-11 record last year. "We have some expectations, we have some size, we're trying to put it all together," Swierski said.
Marcus Rojas and Matt Hill return to lead a young Jamestown crew hoping to help the Red Raiders extend their ECIC I title run. They've won seven straight under coach Ben Drake.
Milestones and more from ECIC: Depew standout Chad Biersbach is in his fifth season and needs just 26 points to hit 1,000 for his career. Depew drops from ECIC III to ECIC IV.
That's the division Lackawanna is determined to win, again. Noah Grabar and Noble Smith lead the efforts of last year's B-2 sectional runner-up.
JFK returns three starters looking to improve on last year's 7-win campaign: forwards Jacob Braniecki and Jordan Snyder, and point guard Nick Baker. Baker missed most of last year with a broken wrist.
In ECIC III, Cheektowaga earned a share of the division last year to complete the Dominick Welch era. Among those looking to keep the Warriors in the mix are returnees Alex Bryant, Davon Brown and Rudy Bragg.
Division co-champ East Aurora is off to a slow start as it doesn't return any starters from last season's sectional championship team. Among the players the Blue Devils are expected to rely on are Noah Denz, Kam Kmicinski and Kellan Wittman.
Others expected to contend for the division crown are Maryvale, Lake Shore and Iroquois. Maryvale has some experienced standouts to rely on in seniors Ray Blackwell and Dylan Casey. Blackwell's in his fourth season, Casey his third. Both helped the school's football team reach the sectional final. Lake Shore returns top rebounder and scorer Johnathan Park. Todd Kleitz takes over as coach at Iroquois, which drops into ECIC III from II.
NFL and N-O outlook: Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda are the reigning Section VI Class AA and A champions with hopes of not only contending again but also vying for the Niagara Frontier League title.
NT shared the league crown with Lockport and Ken West last year with Falls finishing one-game behind those three in what was a crazy competitive league season.
The Wolverines plan to rely on team basketball as they have the past two seasons in winning sectionals. The plan led to them earning a nonleague win over Section V contender McQuaid, a game in which the Wolverines had 21 assists on 26 baskets.
"The young guys have shown they can play at this level and the seniors have taken on kind of a tutelage," Falls coach Sal Constantino said.
Key returnees for the Wolverines include Tazaun Rose, Syquan Ralands and Quaran DuBois. Eighth-graders that have already earned big minutes include Roddy Gayle and Willie Lightfoot. Sophomore Taylor Sanders earned player of the game honors.
Third-team All-Western New York pick Trevor Book leads the charge for NT and is off to a sizzling start, averaging roughly a double-double – including 25.2 points per game, an increase of more than 8 points from last season's final average.
Lockport handed NT its lone loss of the season and though the Lions graduated several starters they appear to be a contender nonetheless. Their roster also has been boosted by the addition of transfers Torree Cheatham from Cardinal O'Hara and Devon Darrell from St. Francis. Ken West lost Tyler Aquilina to graduation but Erick Rainey and Andrew Fron are seniors who all saw significant time last season who look to keep the Blue Devils competitive. Lew-Port hopes to reach Championship Week at Buffalo State for the second time in three years and is led by Trent Scott and his 25 ppg.
Cancer support: Throughout the season, folks will see Niagara Wheatfield players wearing TEAM MILLER pink warmup shirts in support of Falcons junior varsity coach and varsity assistant Steve Miller, whose wife is battling breast cancer. Also, coack Erik O'Bryan's mother has been diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer.
And the N-O League: Wilson and Newfane are among the teams looking to end Medina's two-year reign as Niagara-Orleans League champion. Newfane has an experienced crew featuring Max Weber and Kyle DeVoogel. Both are averaging double figures in points with DeVoogel scoring 28 and 22 points over his past two outings.
Nate Fox has shown an ability to take charge for Wilson. Steve Frerich goes from quarterbacking the Lakemen on the football field to running the offense as point guard. Medina features returning fourth-team All-WNY pick and Toledo football commit Jalin Cooper, along with Izaiah Rhim and Brendan Luthart
Southern tier outlook: There could very well be a team that makes a run at a state championship from one of the CCAA leagues.
Defending Section VI champion and state semifinalist Franklinville looks like it could be the hunted in Class D, what with the Panthers pretty much returning everyone from last season. That includes Sam Erickson, who averaged 19 points and 10 boards last season, Isaac Kopp (15 ppg), Darren Clark (11 ppg) and Brock Blecha (9.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg).
Franklinville's biggest threat in league and, perhaps classification, is Ellicottville, which split the division title with the Panthers before losing to them in sectionals and returns all of its starters. The Eagles' top player is first-team all-state center Elliot Bowen, who is averaging a 17.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and blocks nearly 4 shots per game, along with football standouts Griffin Chudy and Austin Grinols.
Any talk of a CCAA team potentially going on run must include Olean based on its track record under Jeff Anastasia, the winningest boys coach in Western New York history. The Huskies are back in Class B-1 and will look to make a run at the title with a crew that includes Mike Schmidt, who was part of Olean's 2015 state championship team. Matt Droney's also back as a starter as the Huskies' other top players include Josh Bihler, Jack Dwaileebe, Brian Ramarge and Alex Weakfall. Defense and playing up tempo figure to be Olean's calling cards.
Division rival Chautauqua Lake features one of the top players in the 7-1-6 in senior Devin Pope, a second-team All-WNY pick last year who went for 40 points, 18 rebounds and 10 steals in 72-60 loss to Franklinville earlier this month. He's also had games with 41, 35 and 31 points for the Thunderbirds (3-1). He's averaging 36.75 points thus far. If he keeps scoring at that pace, he'll have a shot at reaching 2,000 points for his career.
Dunkirk figures to be a tough out as the athletic Marauders are led by Tyrese Kristian-Johnson, Darnell Butts and Devaun Farnham DeJesus. Last year's Class C-2 champion Randolph returns playoff MVP Tyler Hind, a sophomore averaging more than 21 ppg.
Charter Cup league: Defending Section VI Class B champion and state semifinalist Health Sciences figures to be the cream of the crop and is a deep team. In addition to do-everything 6-8 Tennessee-commit Davonte Gaines, the Falcons feature fearless junior guard Kameron Briggs – who gives teams headaches with his outside shooting and ability to drive to the basket. Josiah Haygood and Tayvion Nelson are among the other contributors for the Falcons.
Tapestry is off to a 5-1 start under coach Mike Ester with Dorian Plummer, Tariq Eubanks and Mike Towns off to fine starts for the Thunder Hawks.