This weekend at the Cataract City Classic at Niagara Falls High School, I got my first look at the 2013-2014 Wolverines. It wasn't just my first look at this year's squad, it was literally the first time I had ever watched any of the athletes on Falls' roster play. How is that even possible? Last year's bunch that fell in the Section VI Class AA final to Jamestown, was led by a host of seniors. In fact, all of the postseason points registered by the Wolverines were the product of seniors. There was junior Vinzell Watkins, who was a key player for Niagara Falls during much of the regular season, but an injury ended his season early, and after being ruled ineligible in the offseason, NFHS was suddenly looking at a whole new landscape on Porter Road. Instead of the mighty Wolverines simply reloading like they do annually, it was finally time to rebuild. Enter the youth movement.
This year's squad has just three seniors, and only one, Zach Walker, starts for Falls. There are four juniors that made the team, two of which made an impression (Devin Scarborough & Antwan Palmer). The other five roster spots at NFHS are composed of two sophomores and three freshmen, and everyone of them stood out to me. The sophomores are Elijah Griggs and Breon Harris, while the freshmen are Charles Lamar, Tyler Sanders, and Devin Sanders.
It's one thing to make or even play at the varsity level as a sophomore or freshman, but the pressure cooker that these kids stepped into was significantly more intense than most young underclassmen experience. For starters, their first varsity action is played in the Cataract City Classic, an annual event renowned for bringing in top competition, selecting the right matchups, and always producing some memorable, down-to-the-wire battles. Then there's the NFHS Pep Band making the game feel larger than life under the bright lights on the biggest hardwood in the area, surrounded by massive bleachers for a high school gymnasium. Add to that the banners that hang, honoring the 2005 team that was crowned NYS Class AA Federation champions & National Champions by one source. Mix in the pictures as you pass through the halls of guys like Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris, & James Starks, showing the come-up from high school, to D1 college programs, and then even the pros. Now sprinkle in some alumni who have been part of a rich tradition over the last decade, sitting in attendance and looking on. Finally, there's the opponents this young team got to compete against. On night one, Sir Allan MacNab of Canada, a team that played against Huntington Prep last season and boasts a major D1 big man. On night two, the defending NYSPHAA Class AA champions, Bishop Kearney.
All things considered, and I just gave you a lot to consider, opening the season with 12 & 15 point losses is downright respectable. Neither game got out of hand, with the young Wolverines scratching and clawing throughout every minute of both contests and making their clearly superior in talent and significantly more experienced opponents, earn their points and their victories.
Following night two, Niagara Falls head coach Sal Constantino said "Just because we're young this year, I wasn't going to dummy down our schedule. You never like to lose, but I can't ask for more effort than these kids gave me this weekend."
From my vantage point at centercourt this weekend, both the effort and the attitudes of the young players at Falls were commendable. No negative body language, no rolling their eyes at the coach, no hanging their heads when the going got tough, and no plays off!
It will be interesting to see where this team is at the end of the season. Don't be surprised if it's at Buffalo State, like always.