NIAGARA FALLS – For years the only thing Niagara Falls High School and Niagara Catholic really have had in common is the fact both are located within the Cataract City.
The two schools that are complete opposites (Falls is largest high school in Western New York while Catholic is one of the smallest) now have another similarity.
The schools have boys basketball postseason championship teams in the same season for the first time since the start of the Section VI (1938) and Manhattan Cup (1948) tournaments. Furthermore, each team has young players who have been major contributors. The Wolverines and Patriots look to keep the good times rolling this weekend in their respective state tournaments.
Niagara Falls, fresh off securing its 12th Section VI title, faces Section V champion McQuaid Jesuit at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in the Class AA Far West Regional at Buffalo State Sports Arena. The winner earns a trip to the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association final four in Binghamton during St. Patrick's Day weekend.
Niagara Catholic, which won the Manhattan Cup Class B title in the Monsignor Martin playoffs, returns to action at 1 p.m. Sunday in the New York State Catholic High Schools Athletic Association final against Regis of New York City at Villa Maria College. The winner advances to the Federation Tournament of Champions the weekend of March 23-25 in Glens Falls – the event that brings together the postseason champions of the NYSPHSAA, NYSCHSAA, the independent schools and New York City Public Schools to determine the overall champion of the state.
It's safe to say that a city with a reputation for being a basketball town has more than lived up to that this season, even if this is somewhat unchartered water for Niagara Catholic. This is only the fourth time in the city's history that more than one high school team won a playoff title in the same season. It's the first since 1994, when defunct LaSalle won Class A and defunct old Niagara Falls captured Class B-1. The other instances: 1962 (Trott Vocation and Bishop Duffy) and 1966 (Trott and LaSalle).
Of course that number is a little skewered because LaSalle often beat Niagara Falls on the way to its 12 Section VI championships and three state titles – mostly in Class A before the formation of AA.
Meanwhile, Niagara Catholic often was the guppy swallowed up by the big fish in the Monsignor Martin playoffs until the association recently opted to split the Manhattan Cup into two tournaments (Class A for large schools and Class B for small). Before 2015, the small and large schools in the MMHSAA competed against each other in the same postseason tournament.
"They went from five wins last year to having such a great season (this year)," Niagara Falls coach Sal Constantino said of Niagara Catholic.
Twice before, Catholic has played for the right to advance to the Federation only to lose (2005 and 2007). Previously, it either was the furthest advancing Class B team in the Manhattan Cup Tournament. This time the Patriots go in with momentum. They're champions.
"It helps coming in and winning our Monsignor Martin championship and going in on a nice little winning streak," said Catholic coach Giulio Colangelo, a graduate of the school who also served as head coach at Niagara Falls from 2006-10. "We just want to keep the momentum we have going.
"For me it's quite exciting to come back to my alma mater and coach in a (state) championship game."
The Wolverines (19-4), who start two eighth-graders, expected to be here although championship moments in states have been fleeting -- one state title (2005) in 18 years. Falls is looking to advance to the state final four for the first time since losing in the Class AA final in 2009.
"The only one that hasn't had the success is me," said Constantino, who has guided Falls to four sectional titles in his eight seasons only to run into a superior Section V champion in three previous regional appearances.
"My whole thing right now is trying to convince the kids to enjoy the moment and have fun with this," Constantino said. "When sectionals started there were 105 schools in the state playing now there are only eight. I want them to feel proud of themselves and enjoy it."
Among those who have enjoyed and risen to the moment is 6-foot-3 eighth-grader Roddy Gayle (13.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game), who had 12 points and two steals in the sectional final against Williamsville North. Classmate and point guard Willie Lightfoot (8 ppg., 6.0 apg.) had five steals in the win over North to help set the defensive tone for a team that loves to press and relies on sharing the basketball. Senior Syquan Ralands had 12 points and 11 rebounds to go with five steals.
Niagara Catholic (17-8) wants to cash in on its opportunity with a lineup that starts two freshmen and two sophomores.
Freshman Jalen Bradberry comes in after earning Manhattan Cup MVP honors, averaging 24.5 ppg in the tournament, including a 27-point effort in the final versus O'Hara. He's averaging 20.3 ppg. and 4.6 rebounds, while junior Haakim Siner chips in with 13.7 ppg., and 10.5 rpg.
"They've improved as the year has gone on," Colangelo said. "We've played well and we look to continue to play well."
The last Class B team from Western New York to win the Federation was Park School in 2015. It moved into the Monsignor Martin's A Division the following season.