SANBORN – In the back of the sports section, in the small print, the lopsided score demanded attention.
Under women’s basketball, Western New York.
NCCC 108, Lehigh Carbon CC 40.
That was Niagara County Community College winning its season opener, on the road, by 68 points.
The next day brought an even more outlandish beating, the Thunderwolves winning by 95, clobbering Northampton Community College, 121-26.
Similar routs ensued.
At home against Pitt-Titusville, 128-49. (And in the rematch, 123-42.)
Against Howard Community College, 122-48.
Then came Allegany College of Maryland, 114-23.
Finger Lakes, 97-51.
SUNY Broome, 93-32.
These were less victories than tidal waves, Niagara County flattening anything in its path. The Thunderwolves own a 21-0 record and No. 13 ranking in the NJCAA Division II poll ahead of Saturday’s likely rout of rival Erie Community College (5-12). And this junior college Godzilla had been growing for years, before erupting from its tiny gym on its tiny campus in the tiny rural hamlet of Sanborn.
“We’ve been trending to this point,” Niagara County coach Nate Beutel said. “We play an exciting style that I think kids enjoy to play, an up-and-down, high-energy, good pace. We had been averaging over 100 points a game. That’s obviously slipped – but still over 90 points a game. We take a lot of 3s. We get up and down. The ‘Golden State Warriors effect,’ where kids enjoy watching them play.
“It’s pretty to watch. It’s easy on the eyes. And we’re trying to emulate that style, because that’s setting them up for success and allowing them to enjoy themselves while being out on the court.”
As the season progressed, the margin of victories tightened – the Thunderwolves are now winning by an average of about 41 points per game – but every result was decisive, by no less than double digits, until Jan. 23 and a come-from-behind 84-79 triumph against the reigning national champs.
Monroe Community College was riding a 78-game winning streak against Western New York Athletic Conference rivals. It had beaten Niagara County in the Region III championship game in each of the previous three seasons. And it was stunned by the Thunderwolves’ 35-point fourth quarter, the Niagara County women summoning another tsunami.
“For me, that was like surreal,” sophomore forward Kenetria Redfern said. “Because at the beginning of the season (Beutel) gives us papers, like, what are your goals for the season? And I wrote in caps, ‘BEAT MONROE.’ … So for us to win, for it to be us, it was like, wow, we really did it. All the hard work, all the preseason workouts, all the practices, we really did it.”
Redfern is averaging 23 points per game, fifth-most in Division II.
Sophomore point guard Cori Dickson ranks second with 7.4 assists.
Freshman guard Paige Emborsky – the great-niece of Michigan men's basketball coach John Beilein – ranks third with 83 3-pointers.
Sophomore guard Shilah Parker is sixth nationally with 74 steals.
Freshman forward Aubrey Halloran, rounding out the starters, is 15th with 39 blocks.
“I’ve never been on a team that beat people by this much, so it’s weird for me,” sixth player Molly Mahoney said. “But it’s nice. We always say in the locker room we want to play the full 40 minutes, so we just keep pushing it. It’s all mental.”
The sum of Niagara County’s 10-player roster – nine of the women hail from the immediate area and stand below 6 feet tall – is greater than its parts.
The Thunderwolves rank first out of 135 teams in the division with 24 assists per game.
They rank second in overall scoring, averaging 93.8 points.
They are first in made field goals (37.3), fourth in attempts (79.4) and eighth in shooting percentage (47).
And they are blistering from long range, ranking second in made 3-pointers (10.1) and fourth in 3-point shooting percentage (40.1).
They make up for a lack of height with hustle on both ends of the court, pairing their overwhelming offense with a suffocating defense.
Niagara County ranks second in steals (16.7), fourth in opponents’ field goal percentage (30.5) and 11th in average points allowed (52.9).
It ranks 12th in average blocks (5), 15th in defensive rebounds (30.7) and 20th on the glass overall (47.3).
The players are instructed to keep their foot on the gas.
“There’s always somebody watching,” Emborsky said. “And I don’t know if there actually is, but at a junior college, there might be a coach in the stands, and you don’t want to slack off because it looks bad on your character, first of all, you let your team down, second of all, and you know that’s not you.
"You should be playing hard for a full 40 minutes, regardless of the score," she said, "because that’s just how we do things here.”
Beutel recalls walking into this gym a decade earlier as a sports reporter for the Niagara Gazette, the scores in the paper mirroring the drubbings of today.
“Before I took this program over, I was in the media,” Beutel said, “so I would go to the games and the N-Triple-C women’s program would routinely lose by 50, 60, 70 points. And now, we’re winning games by that much. And that’s a credit not to me, but to the kids that I’ve been lucky enough to coach over the last seven years, them buying into the culture and the message we’ve been giving them.”
In a word: Relentless.
“I remember meeting with my first group of girls,” Beutel said. “We talked about outworking our opponents every single day, from myself in terms of scouting and recruiting and film and things of that nature to the kids every day at practices, to the games, so we’ve always talked about outworking and having that belief, deep down, that if you work hard enough good things happen.”
Beutel was hired in 2012 by Bob McKeown, the former Channel 7 sportscaster and then-Niagara County athletics director, after two seasons as the varsity boys basketball coach at Grand Island High School. The Sanborn native also had experience as a graduate assistant under Daemen coach Mike MacDonald, when he was at Medaille College, and has been an assistant football coach at Starpoint High School since 2010.
In addition to his duties as women’s basketball coach, he also serves as NCCC’s sports information director, scheduling coordinator and head softball coach and is an adjunct professor of both sport management and physical education.
He also spent two seasons as the school’s women’s lacrosse coach.
Beutel’s women’s basketball teams have amassed a 154-50 record in his seven seasons. He’s twice been named the regional coach of the year. And he has helped nearly two dozen players advance to four-year programs, with about half earning athletic scholarships.
Few, if any, had planned on attending Niagara County.
“Junior college is unique recruiting,” Beutel said. “Kids come here for different reasons, but we have a group this year that’s highly motivated by the fact that they want to prove something to others. They want to earn a scholarship after their time with us. They want to play at a higher level. Maybe they were overlooked in high school. Or maybe they were second fiddle to some other teammates, and this is their avenue and their opportunity to showcase themselves and prove themselves on the floor.
“That’s one of our main pitches when we go recruit. We only have freshmen and sophomores, so you’re going to get a chance to play.”
And now, win big.
After knocking off the national champs, Niagara County went back to work, preparing to face a Jamestown team with a 15-2 record.
The Thunderwolves weren’t thrilled with their follow-up performance.
They knew they hadn’t played their best.
But they still won by 33.