Williamsville North’s boys basketball team is off to its best start in 10 years. For the Spartans’ senior leaders, the season has been a decade in the making.
“These guys have been playing together for such a long time,” coach Chuck Swierski said. “It’s one of those teams you hear about playing all different sports together since they were eight years old.”
As freshman, the group led North’s junior varsity squad to a 19-1 record. After getting acclimated to the varsity level as sophomores, they led the Spartans to the Section VI Class AA title game last season.
Returning five players who started over the previous two seasons, North has benefited from that experience and familiarity through the first half of the season.
The Spartans, ranked No. 5 among Western New York large schools, improved to 9-1 on Friday night with an 82-64 victory over rival Williamsville East in the championship game of the Five Guys Invitational.
“We have really good chemistry,” senior point guard Jacob Belote said. “Everybody on our team has played together since we were younger, so it’s cool to see us on varsity come together.”
Belote scored 18 of his 26 points in the second quarter when North established its lead. He was named MVP as the Spartans won their home tournament after losing in the championship game three years in a row.
“It feels really good to finally win our own tournament,” Belote said.
Belote has replaced Ryan Johnston, the only starter North lost to graduation, as the primary ball-handler after playing shooting guard the previous two seasons. He has also received game MVP recognition this season at the Bob Hettler Tip-Off Classic and Cataract Classic showcases.
“It’s cool,” Belote said, “but winning this tournament for the first time in three years, that’s cooler for me.”
Joe Nusall joined Belote on the all-tournament team after posting a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds). The Spartans’ quarterback during football season, Nusall missed all of last basketball season with a wrist injury after starting as a sophomore.
“He’s our Swiss Army knife,” Swierski said. “He’s a steadying influence, a smart kid, a tough kid, and he goes out and does his job. I’m happy to see, first, that he’s dressed and playing, and second, that he’s having a great season.”
North also got 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists from 6-foot-5 senior Jonathon Abaya, a third-year varsity player, 14 points from junior Breht Swiech, including 3-pointers on consecutive possessions after East opened an early 9-0 lead, and physical play from 6-3 seniors Scott Becht and Dylan Mann.
“We were able to work it inside and when they kicked it out, we knocked down open shots,” Belote said. “We’re moving the ball well. It’s just fun when we are all out their passing, contributing with each other and putting up points.”
The rivalry win made the night even more enjoyable for North’s senior captain, whose earliest basketball memories are of running around the East gym when his grandfather Dennis Belote was the Flames’ coach.
“It’s always a fun game because it’s a cross-town rival and I know most of the guys on the team,” Jacob Belote said.
Kevin Early led East (4-5) with 23 points. The junior made seven 3-pointers for the Flames, who don’t start a senior. Junior Cal Shifflet added 12 points and freshman point guard Max Schneider had nine. Schneider was named to the all-tournament team for his performance in the semifinal win over St. Mary’s (27 points, seven assists, three steals).
“Williamsville East would’ve beaten a lot of teams tonight, and luckily my kids came to play,” Swierski said. “We’ve gotten a lot of attention already with the rankings and some of our early wins. So we know are going to get everybody’s best game, especially in the division.”
North resumes its ECIC schedule on Thursday night against Jamestown. A rematch with the only team it has lost against this season, Clarence, looms down the road in January.
Swierski doesn’t want to get too far ahead, but he acknowledged that a potential rematch with Niagara Falls in the AA final at Buffalo State in February is in the back of the Spartans’ minds.
“We’re not looking past anybody,” Swierski said. “But we definitely feel that we want another shot at that.”