Forging ahead without four contributors from its New York State Federation Tournament of Champions conquering team, Park couldn’t pick up right where it left off last year.
Defending the championship, along with Manhattan Cup and Catholic High School Athletic Association titles, would be a season-long improvement project for the younger Pioneers. One with a solid foundation, however, in returning All-Western New York point guard Noah Hutchins, the most valuable player at last year’s Class A state Federation tournament.
“When you have a player like Noah Hutchins, you feel a little more courageous and ready for the challenge,” coach Rich Jacob said.
Park, the No. 1 team in The News’ large school poll, affirmed its local dominance Friday night, returning from a nine-day break to defeat No. 5 Lewiston-Porter, 84-68.
“We have to be pleased when we are allowed to learn and grow and still win,” Jacob said. “That’s the good news. But there is absolutely a gap between where we are and where we want to be.”
The Pioneers (12-1), ranked No. 1 in the state Class A rankings, will get a good sense of how big that gap is on Sunday when they meet No. 2 Albany Academy in the Zero Gravity North South Classic at Glens Falls Civic Center.
The game is a rematch of last year’s Class A state Federation final, on the same floor where the Pioneers won on Hutchins’ buzzer-beater from the baseline.
“I’m excited,” Hutchins said. “I know they want to play us bad. I know they want that revenge. We’re ready to accept that challenge.”
Albany Academy has retained the core of its team back from last season. Park, on the other hand, still has Hutchins, but lost guard Daniel Scott, a second-team All-WNY selection as a junior who scored 20 points in the Federation championship game before transferring to powerhouse prep school Oak Hill Academy, along with two front- court pillars in 6-foot-9 Julian Eziukwu and 6-11 John Orogun.
“A lot of kids on our team are a little nervous because they weren’t in those shoes last year,” Hutchins said. “It’s going to be different. We don’t have as many bigs as we did last year. I think we match up a little bit better, to be honest, because they are not very big, either. So we are able to stay in front and they have to be able to keep up with us now.”
Allowing Hutchins to push the pace with 6-7 senior Ebuka Nnagbo as the lone big man has been a winning formula for Park so far this season.
Hutchins scored 21 points and dished out 11 assists against Lew-Port. But the interior presence provided by Nnagbo (17 points, seven rebounds) and Park’s defensive focus were the keys to victory, Jacob said. Park also got strong performances from sophomores Keeonjay Carter (17 points) and Caleb Hutchins (12 points, eight rebounds).
“This was a good game to start off with after the layoff to get us prepared for this weekend,” Hutchins said. “The teams around here are decent, but we know what we can do. We know we are better than them. It’s just about ourselves and how we show up.”
Lew-Port has now lost three straight following a 12-0 start but those losses have come against three of the very best teams in the area: No. 2 large school Niagara Falls, ranked seventh in the state in Class AA, No. 1 small school Cardinal O’Hara, the state’s No. 3 team in Class B, and top-ranked Park.
“I personally don’t feel any different now than when we were 12-0,” Lew-Port coach Matt Bradshaw said. “I just wanted our kids to see what the best out there in this area is and see if we can compete with them. And I think we answered that question. … If we can play with Park and we can play with O’Hara, then we can play with any public school in Western New York.”
Eighth-grade point guard Jalen Duff led the Lancers with 18 points, all from beyond the arc. He also didn’t turn the ball over while being defended most of the night by Noah Hutchins.
“And if you ask me, Noah is one of the best on-ball defenders in the entire country,” Jacob said. “He is an incredible on-ball defender. I don’t think a lot of people recognize that because of his prolific offensive and leadership skills as a point guard.”
Trent Scott scored 15 points for Lew-Port before leaving the game late in the third quarter with an ankle injury. Freshman Roddy Gayle finished with 10 points against a Park defense that was determined to deny him the ball as often as possible.
“Sometimes I shake my head that we are doing all of this with an eighth-grader and ninth-grader out there,” Bradshaw said. “I think sometimes people lose perspective of that.”
Bradshaw also found himself shaking his head at Hutchins’ brilliance.
“Noah,” he said, “is without question the best player in Western New York.”