By David Yarger
In front of the home crowd at the "Lions Den" on Friday, Lockport High School defeated the Grand Island Vikings, 62-57, on Senior Night.
The win gives the Lions, at the moment, a two-way split of the Niagara Frontier League title with North Tonawanda. Both teams finished their regular season play with a record of 11-3. Kenmore West still has one more game and sits at 10-3.
If West were to win on Monday, it would cause the first three-way tie for the title since 1977-78.
Lockport coach David Gilson called it a crazy year in the NFL.
"It's interesting the way it's gelled out," he said. "I thought about that at the beginning of the year, thinking how balanced the NFL was at the top, and it's showed."
Gilson said the tough competition would hopefully help the NFL teams come sectional time.
The Vikings seemed to be playing from behind all night and just couldn't catch up. The score was within reach a fair amount of times, but the Vikings couldn't capitalize.
Coach Ron Krysztof was visibly frustrated after the game, as his team dropped its third game in a row.
"We're a little down," he said. "Usually I have some encouraging words to say, but I couldn't say much. Sometimes it's just best to take 24 hours. ... But obviously I'm extremely disappointed. I knew Lockport was severely shorthanded today."
Gilson listed three Lockport players as "no longer with the team," and another player was injured. He said he didn't believe the shorter bench raised the bar for starters Tavon Chambers or Malik Brooks.
"I don't think so; they've played a great year," Gilson said. "It's shorter, no doubt about it, but it's adversity and that's good for these kids in life to learn. You have to fight and keep playing, and you don't know how the cards are going to be handed to you, but you just have to play the ones you're dealt."
The first quarter of the game was slow, and there were a lot of turnovers. Lockport snuck out of it with a 12-11 lead.
The offenses heated up in the second quarter. J.B. Wilkes had his way in the paint for the Vikings, as he ended the half with 10 points. Wilkes fouled out, but finished with a game-high 20 points.
The lead changed 10 times, but at halftime Lockport led 34-31.
In the third quarter, Lockport extended the lead to 4 behind layups from Brooks and big bench points from Javon Ford. Ford produced the only bench points of the game for either team, chipping in 10.
Lockport led 49-45 going into the final quarter.
Late in the fourth, Garrett Robinson drove through the lane and made a layup to cut the Lockport lead to 1, at 58-57.
Brooks answered right back with a layup of his own, and the lead was back to 3.
Out of a timeout, Grand Island found Liam Carey in the corner for a game-tying 3, but it went in and out with 41 seconds left.
Lockport's Devin Leatherman sank two free throws and that was it. The Lions held on, 62-57.
For the Vikings, it's the first time they've lost three straight in just over a calendar year.
Along with Wilkes' 20 points, Mario Wright added 14.
Grand Island's next game is at home vs. Kenmore East. Krysztof said the game would not be taken lightly.
"It's a must win, because we wanna go into sectionals on a winning note," he said. "I think it's gonna be a big game for us just to get a little bit of confidence back. We don't wanna go in on a four-game losing streak."
Krzysztof said East hasn't been lying down, but rather putting up decent fights against other NFL teams. That game will be played at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 15.
For the Lions, the win gives them their first NFL title since 2014, which was also shared.
Brooks finished the night with 19 points, while Luke Lawrence chipped in 10.
Gilson said he was happy for his team's accomplishment.
"It's nice, especially with these guys, they've worked hard all year," he said, "I thought we've battled, and tonight was a heck of a battle for these guys and just resilient. They showed a great sense of resiliency, especially at the end, but they played hard and deserved the victory."