By David Yarger
In front of a stunned home crowd, the Grand Island High School Vikings defeated the defending Section VI champion Niagara Falls High School Wolverines, 61-53.
The Vikings completed a task not many teams have been able to do, which is coming into the "Wolvearena" and beating the Falls. Coach Ron Krysztof said he looked at the game as a test for his team to see how it would respond to playing prime competition with an 8-1 record.
"The ultimate test is Niagara Falls," Krysztof said. "Even though there are other good teams in the league, just the history of Niagara Falls makes it something that's so huge for a school."
The start of the game didn't look promising for the Vikings. Niagara Falls came out playing strong defense, and a sluggish start by the Viking offense resulted in the score being 12-8 at the end of the first quarter.
The game changed in the second quarter with just over two minutes left. Grand Island sophomore Cam Sionko shot a 3 in the corner that went in and then there was a foul on the play. The foul by Niagara Falls was not on the shooter. If it had been, Sionko would've went to the free-throw line to take a bonus shot.
The foul was a push, away from the shooter, as the ball was in the air. Garrett Robinson, the beneficiary of the call, then went to the line to shoot two free throws, due to Grand Island being in the bonus. Robinson drained both free throws and, in the end, a rare 5-point-play occurred. It cut the Falls' lead from 13 to 8.
Both head coaches had critical comments about the call, which seemed to shift all momentum to Grand Island.
"I know coach Sal won't be happy, because it is a tough call," Krysztof said. "It really did kill their momentum and, if it happened to us, I would also be very disappointed. But calls go either way and it went our way."
Wolverines head coach Sal Constantino also saw the call as a momentum-buster for his team.
"We had a spurt there where I thought we were going to really open the game up and, to a point, ended the game," Constantino said. "They have a big 5-point-play and then we have two bad possessions in a row to end the half."
After all the havoc the play caused, Niagara Falls went into halftime leading 34-26.
With 2:50 left in the third quarter, the Vikings were threatening, with the Falls' lead cut to 6. The lead didn't last long, as the Vikings ended the quarter on 8-2 run, highlighted by a Sionko 3 that gave the Vikings a 43-42 lead. The lead at the end of the third was in favor of Grand Island, 46-44.
Sionko, who had a Vikings-high 18 points, didn't stop shooting in the fourth quarter, draining a couple more 3-pointers.
Krysztof spoke highly of his sophomore starter after the game.
"First off, he has confidence." Krysztof said. "That's the first thing you need, is willing to take the shot. And if you saw, there's no hesitation. He gets it and he's ready to shoot and, because he started last year as a freshman, it got him ready for these moments."
Krzysztof added Sionko has hit some big shots this season and, as soon as he gets the ball, he doesn't have to tell him to shoot it. The team has great confidence in him.
Alongside Sionko, Mario Wright and Liam Carey added a combined 28 points with 15 and 13 respectively. Carey was making his first start, coming back from an injury to his shooting wrist. He played with a cast over the injured wrist.
Krysztof praised Carey in his return.
"He had a huge block in the first quarter, some big rebounds, and defensively he made some big stops," Krysztof said. "He made some layups down low, and he's so close to getting cleared he's got to wear the soft cast."
Krysztof said Carey is a good shooter, but right now it is tough for him to take shots with his shooting wrist in a cast.
Late in the game, Carey made a one-handed free throw with his non-shooting hand. Krysztof also said Carey being on the court, athletic and moving around on defense, was great and makes the team better than it was without him.
After making a few late free throws, the Vikings closed out the game and upset the Wolverines to stay undefeated in league play.
Being undefeated doesn't mean Grand Island is the team to beat in the NFL, Krysztof said.
"No, absolutely not, and I say that humbly," Krysztof said. "We have other teams like Ken West, Lockport, NT and Niagara Falls. They've earned a right to be at the top and we haven't, and that's what we've talked about. We have to earn that, and that's what we set out to do. We have a lot of work ahead."
For the Wolverines, it seemed to be a struggle all night offensively. The team went 3-17 from 3-point range and committed 15 turnovers.
Constantino said not having starting point guard Tazaun Rose, who did not play due to a violation of team rules, caused players to play out of position. His absence forced them to handle the ball when they're not used to doing so.
"He's our catalyst on defense guarding the ball," Constantino said. "And offensively we put the ball in his hand a lot and he's a good shooter. We shot 3 for 17 tonight and you're not going to get a lot teams shooting like that."
Constantino gave credit to Grand Island's zone defense, as it gave the Wolverines offense fits.
"They extended their zone, and I told our guys to just be confident with the ball, go by them, and make good decisions. But, again, we had guys in situations that they're not comfortable in."
Syquan Ralands led the Wolverines with 21 of the team's 53 points.
The loss dropped Niagara Falls to 3-2 in Niagara Frontier League play. The Wolverines next game is in Rochester against the Aquinas Institute on Saturday, Jan. 7.
Next up for the undefeated Vikings will be a home test against the Lockport High School Lions on Friday, Jan. 6.