Saturday is when the celebration happened, but Monday is when the magnitude of what the Lumberjacks did truly set in.
On March 4, the North Tonawanda Lumberjacks boys’ basketball team defeated Williamsville South for the Section VI Class A-1 championship. The program’s first sectional title since 1961.
A strong contingency from LumberJack Nation were on hand at Buff State to celebrate the win. But when the players got to school on Monday morning that’s when they really started to realize just how much the win meant to everyone.
“You come into school in the morning and you have teachers and students and all your friends congratulating you and telling you how great it was and just how proud they are,” senior Rory Farkas said, after he and his teammates received good-luck fist bumps from the boys lacrosse team after Monday’s practice. “It’s a great feeling to win it for the school.”
The ride continues tonight as the Jacks face Class A-2 champion Amherst at Buff State (7:45) for the overall Class A championship and the right to go to Far West Regionals in Rochester this weekend. While their win over the two-time defending A-1 Champion Billies may have shocked people around WNY, the Jacks knew from Day One what they were capable of doing something special this season.
“When I gave the players their schedules for the season it didn’t stop at Buff St.,” Jacks head coach Ryan Mountain said.
“It didn’t stop at the A-1 championship. It stops at the state Final Four in Binghamton and that’s what our vision is. We break everything down. So when the (regular) season ended all of our accomplishments went into a box and we sealed it. Then when we won a playoff game that accomplishment went into the box. We beat Grand Island that part of the bracket went in the box. The Section VI championship plaque, which I have not touched yet, is going in the box.”
Mountain wasn’t kidding about not touching the Section VI plaque as he asked me to place it inside the box of accomplishments for him.
The root of that success continues to be the team’s motto of strength in numbers which is a blend of their all for one mentality and the depth that they have.
“We’ve shown it against multiple teams,” senior co-captain Alex Quinn said. “Like St. Mary’s they were up on us at the half. But with us always rotating in guys it’s hard for a team to keep up with us when they only have seven or eight players that they can put on the floor.”
How big is this moment for NT High School? March 6 was the first day of spring tryouts. The fact that the basketball team needed the main gym for practice meant that some of the spring teams had to adjust their practice times. But they did so happily as everyone seems caught up in NT basketball fever.
In fact, Mountain, whose team is 19-4, is baffled at why so many people are calling their win over Williamsville South an upset.
After all they came in as the No.2 seed and co-champs of the NFL. It’s not as if this were a case of a No.10 seed catching lightning in a bottle for a couple of weeks.
“If you look at our body of work we’ve not only played one of the toughest schedules, we’ve succeeded,” said Mountain.
All four of the Jacks losses were close calls that could have gone either way. Two losses to Lockport, a two point loss to Class AA champ Niagara Falls that went down to the last shot and a 49-45 loss to A-2 champion Amherst in the championship game of the Tigers Holiday Tourney. A game where NT’s inside presence of Farkas and Alex Johnson was not yet in full swing.
“We said that from the start,” said Farkas. “We always knew we were contenders. We didn’t count ourselves out at all. We knew we were right up there with (Will-South). We didn’t really think there was any big difference.”
What makes the Jacks sectional championship even more impressive is when you consider where they were as a team a year ago. Seven players-all returners this season-were not allowed to finish the season because of a violation of the school’s athletic code of conduct policy due to an off court incident in the final weekend of January 2016. The Jacks finished out the season with the three remaining varsity players and four JV callups. A season of promise vanished in the blink of an eye as the Jacks experienced a quarterfinal exit in the post season.
But as it turned out that moment was just another step along the way as the players not only grew closer they grew up. They became more accountable on and off the floor. They learned from their error and became men.
“Grow closer and definitely grow up,” Quinn said. “I think everybody realized that you have to take responsibility for your actions. And not just in life-in basketball. When you turnover a ball you’re gonna have to make up for it.”
Losing the last few weeks of last season sent a jolt through every player and reminded them of just how fleeting the time to play high school sports truly is. The boys’ learned their lesson and came back a more driven and more mature group of young men.
“I believe that everybody that made that mistake definitely came back with the mentality that we have to make it up,” said Farkas.
“What we lost last year we’re not gonna lose this year. So we just came together and did our best. We definitely see it. Our coach has been preaching it all along you’ve got to cherish every moment. It’s fleeting and it’s not going to last very long.”
Saying how devastating it was for the players and humbling it was for the program Mountain explained how he felt the most important thing was to not just blindly punish the players, but to use the situation as a life lesson.
“I’m in the profession to help young men grow and learn from their mistakes,” he said, “but there are no mistakes. There are only lessons.”
Though no one understandably wants to dwell on those events, Mountain felt it was important to talk about the off season process the players went through to get them back on track as a team. And as a band of brothers.
“Those seven individuals had to earn their way back onto the team. They had to earn my trust back and each others trust back,” Mountain candidly stated. “This off season I focused more on building that team back together again. That’s was our central focus. We went out to Franklinville for a team retreat. We did a lot of outstanding team (building) activities. We played some basketball too. There was a full basketball court there too with glass backboards. So it was a basketball trip as well. We went on night hikes. We did the bon fire thing.”
Mountain said that an important part of the trip was watching last season’s highlight tapes, but he brought the highlight video from the previous season, when they fell in the A-1 title game, as well.
“The whole point of that was to create a vision,” Mountain said. “That vision was let’s get back together. Let’s get back to work. Let’s focus on the present moment and let’s get back to this spot and build our own highlight film (for 2016-17) and create our own dreams. The guys have been outstanding in their growth and maturity. I couldn’t be prouder and neither could their parents, the community and the entire North Tonawanda family.”
Tonight, at Buff State. The Jacks will try to keep the 2016-17 highlight reel going.