Loss to Williamsville South in 2015 helped deliver redemption in 2017
By David Yarger
The 2017 North Tonawanda High School basketball team accomplished a feat that hadn't been accomplished since 1961: The team won its first Class A-1 Section VI title in more than 55 years, and its fifth in program history.
It's been a fun year for the Lumberjacks, who are still making strides to continue their season. The team won this title, while also clinching a share of the Niagara Frontier League regular season title.
Coach Ryan Mountain said he knew, from day one, these accomplishments were possible. He said he's looking to keep the season going.
"Absolutely, 100 percent," Mountain said. "We have Amherst Tuesday, and it's going to be a battle. We lost by 4 the first game at their place. It's nice to have them on a neutral floor, and both teams are playing really well."
For Mountain and his players, winning the title was a feeling like no other.
"North Tonawanda has been an outstanding community and district for me," Mountain said. "Coach O'Bryan recruited me nine years ago, to be his assistant, and it's been an incredible experience for me personally. ... So, to bring a title home for North Tonawanda is everything I work for."
Senior Zack Woodard said the title is for everyone in North Tonawanda.
"This isn't just for our team, it's for all the NT teams that have come up," he said. "It's for NT, it's not just for the 2016-17 season. We've been working for it forever. This is for Coach Mountain; this is for the past alumni. We've had a good program for a while and it feels good to make the record books."
Thought the Lumberjacks hadn't won a title since 1961, they played in the Class A-1 championship in 2015. Their opponent then was the Williamsville South Billies. The Lumberjacks didn't have the same fortune in 2015, losing, 63-41.
For junior Kyle McNeill, revenge was sweet.
"I think this means redemption," he said. "They beat us two years ago, so, it feels good to even the score with them."
The 2017 Lumberjacks were fortunate to have two players on their roster from that 2015 team. Seniors Brandon Casterline and Alex Quinn knew how tough the 2015 game was, and they said they refused to have the same result as before.
"Both of us stressed that defense is our most important asset, and I think that's what really gave us the win," Casterline said.
"We just said to calm our nerves and keep our cool," Quinn said. "It's just like any other game out there. We got to go out and run our stuff and we'll be victorious."
Woodard and Mountain saw how bad the two wanted to win.
"They really wanted this game," Woodard said. "They wanted redemption. They kept saying, 'Keep playing; don't watch the scoreboard; keep calm.' They were really the leaders on this team tonight."
"Both players spoke up in the locker room and said something very intelligent," Mountain said. "They definitely stepped up as leaders."
Along with Casterline and Quinn, there was a familial connection between this year's team and the 2015 edition. Woodard, McNeill and Trevor Book all had brothers who played in the 2015 title game. They said that game helped prepare them for this moment.
"We got a feel of what it's like, the atmosphere of a huge crowd and what a good team they are," Book said.
"I really learned from them, to listen to our coach," Woodard said. "Be calm; he knows what he's doing. Trust him now and believe him later."
With a grin, all three went on to say they now have bragging rights over their brothers.
These players did something not many high school athletes are able to accomplish. The players and Mountain said they were excited that they can look back years from now and recognize the title.
Mountain noted how close his team is, and simply said, when he looks back at the season, he'll remember team is the most important thing in basketball.
Quinn and Casterline called it amazing.
"It's going to be amazing, knowing all the hard work we put in, all the hours and everything coach Mountain has put into it for us. It'll all be worth it when we see it," Casterline said.
Mountain's group of nine seniors and four juniors will continue to try and keep the postseason run alive. The team plays the winner of the Class A-2 bracket, the Amherst Tigers, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 7.