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25th ACE hoops all-star game changes venues, continues tradition

Western New York’s longest-running high school basketball all-star game returned to its roots this week.

The 25th edition of the ACE showcase will be played at 7 p.m. Thursday at Amherst High School. More than 40 players attended Tuesday’s tryout at Sweet Home, where the event originated.

“Having the tryout here is special,” Sweet Home coach Brandon Woods said. “The coaches who came before me at Sweet Home put a lot into starting this tradition.”

“Sweet Home basketball is where this all came from,” said Erik O’Bryan, the Niagara Wheatfield coach and assistant chairman of Section VI who played in the inaugural ACE game in 1995. He has coached in the event for several years.

The game was founded by Canisius College coach Reggie Witherspoon and his assistant Jim Kwitchoff when they led the Sweet Home program as part of the Athletes Committed to Excellence youth development program they started with former Baker Victory coach Joe Corey.

Former Sweet Home coaches Paul Schintzius and PJ Cauley took over the game in 2000 after Witherspoon and Kwitchoff began coaching for the University at Buffalo and could no longer organize scholastic programs due to NCAA rules. The event moved to Niagara Falls the following year, gaining sponsorship from the Niagara PAL youth program.

Amherst coach Chris Kensy picked up the ball this year after longtime PAL/ACE game organizer Sal Constantino stepped down from his coaching position at Niagara Falls. The WNY chapter of the Basketball Coaches Association of New York has taken over sponsorship.

“Sal has done a great job with the game and we didn’t want to let it go by the wayside,” Kensy said. “We wanted to keep that tradition. I can remember when I was a little kid coming to watch the ACE game here at Sweet Home. It was the marquee game with everybody playing.”

Bishop Timon-St. Jude coach Jason Rowe remembers participating in the ACE program and first two all-star games as highlights of his high school career at Traditional.

“Guys like myself, Tim Winn (Niagara Falls), Chris Moore (Park), Josh Sankes (St. Joe’s), we competed against each other during the season and the ACE game gave us an opportunity to play together and form a brotherhood,” Rowe said. “I hope it means as much to the current players as it meant to us.”

This year’s game features 23 players split into two teams: 12 seniors, six juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen.

There will be a dunk contest and 3-point shootout at halftime. Game MVP and contest winners will be awarded championship belts, Kensy said.

Dunk contests were part of the original ACE event. In recent years, the PAL/ACE showcase dropped the contests in favor of holding two games, one for freshmen and sophomores and another for juniors and seniors. Kensy said he hopes to add a second game in the future.

“We’re starting a little smaller and hoping to build upon it every year,” Kensy said. “Hopefully we can get it back to being the biggest game in Western New York. Back in the ’90s, the gym was packed and everybody looked forward to this game.”

Spring vacations and AAU commitments prevented some players from trying out this year.

The game is sanctioned by the NCAA, but Division I coaches are not permitted to attend. There are no restrictions for coaches from lower levels.

Admission is $5. After covering costs to run the event, proceeds will go toward future BCANY events and the Amherst boys basketball program, Kensy said.

This is the third all-star showcase held locally since the end of the regular season.

The 22nd silver Hoops Classic featured boys teams representing the Yale Cup, Niagara Frontier League, ECIC, Monsignor Martin as well as a girls game with Monsignor Martin and Canisius Cup players.

Park School senior Noah Hutchins organized his LTE Showdown for a second year featuring boys and girls games for various age groups along with skill competitions.

“It’s a lot of work,” Hutchins said. “It was my senior project for school and was at least 50-plus hours getting everybody to come together, coaches and players, and promoting it.”

As a PAL/ACE veteran, Hutchins appreciates the game’s tradition.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said, “getting some of the top talent in Western New York out there competing.”

The lineup

Black and gold team: Noah Hutchins, Park, 12; Jalen Bradberry, Niagara Falls, 10; Malik Brooks, Lockport, 12; Jacob Belote, Williamsvile North, 12; Jamond Jones, MEC, 11; Jamal Lewis, McKinley, 11; Michael DiGiulio, Williamsville South, 11; Daquan Hill, Sweet Home, 11; Davon Ware, Niagara Wheatfield, 12; Trent Cordone, West Seneca East, 11; Tom Ragonese, Roy-Hart, 10. Coaches: Matt Bradshaw, Lew-Port; Dan Lutman, West Seneca East; and Brandon Gerstung, Akron.

White and gold team: Mike Schmidt, Olean 12; Jaylen Stewart, Amherst, 11; Jakari Nettles, Middle Early College, 12; Trent Scott, Lew-Port, 12; Mason Goodridge, Springville, 12; Jakob Jerebko, Lancaster, 12; Jake Mullen, Amherst, 12; Devin Degree, Will South, 12; Brady Woleben, Silver Creek, 12; Trey Kleitz, Iroquois, 9; Leonard Harris, CSAT, 9; Jaylen Hearon, Nichols, 10. Coaches: Zaire Dorsey, McKinley; Mike Tryzbinski, Williamsville East; and James Kane, Middle Early College.

Dunk contest: Jaylen Stewart, Mason Goodridge, Malik Brooks, Quincy Drake, Daquan Hill.

3-point shootout: Noah Hutchins, Jalen Bradberry, Trent Scott, Jake Mullen, Devin Degree, Trey Kleitz.

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