After losing 5 seniors, expectations remain high for Wolverines
By David Yarger
In Western New York, dominant high school basketball programs have come and gone throughout the years, but one that has remained consistently dominant is Niagara Falls High School.
The Wolverines are coming off their second straight Section VI Class AA title and 15th sectional title appearance in the last 17 years. With 19 sectional titles in program history, coach Sal Constantino and his team have their expectations set to work for No. 20 this year.
To do so, Constantino will have to replace five seniors, including three whom were with the team since their freshman year, in Charles Lamar and Devin and Tyler Sanders. Constantino said he believes his returners are ready and he's possibly looking at starting four more seniors this year.
"Hopefully these seniors can help lead the young guys through it, and we'll be very young this year. We'll have two eighth-graders that are going to see substantial minutes on the varsity, so I'm gonna put a lot on the seniors," Constantino said.
The two eighth-graders, Willie Lightfoot and Roddy Gayle, are in rare company in NFHS history. Constantino said since the new building opened in 2000, he could only remember Paul Harris coming up to the varsity as an eighth-grader in the sectional playoffs and his playing time was brief. Harris helped lead the 2004-05 Wolverines to the school's only state and federation championships, as well as No. 1 rankings in various high school basketball polls. Harris went on to play Division I at Syracuse University and professionally in the NBA D-League and overseas.
"These guys are going to come in and they're going to play roles. They're going to have important roles if we're going to be successful," Constantino said about his eighth-graders.
As far as senior returners, the Wolverines will have starting point guard Tazaun Rose back, as well as big man Syquan Ralands. Along with the duo, guards Quran Dubois and Marquise Miller return.
Rose was motivated to come back strong this year and expects big things from the group.
"It feels really good to be back. I'm with a young group of guys, so me being a senior, I have to lead them in the right direction. Last season didn't go how I wanted, but this year will explain a lot. We need to be more disciplined, and even though mistakes happen, we just live through them and keep the fight," Rose said.
Josiah Harris will also return for the Falls. Harris came up to the varsity as a sophomore last season, midway through the season. Constantino said he thinks Harris could have a breakout year.
"I think he could be in for a big season," Constantino said. "When I look back, I think we lost a lot of grit and toughness. I think our skill level overall has improved, with him being one. He'll definitely help us. His brains will help set the floor for us. He's a really smart player."
Last year, the Wolverines were sectional champs, but they did not win the Niagara Frontier League. Constantino said sectionals are the main goal, and that's the team's big focus.
"At the end, we want to win sectionals. Anything we can get after that is gravy to us and we'd like to get states obviously. If you asked the guys what place they came in the NFL last year they wouldn't even know who won it last year," Constantino said.
Playing for Niagara Falls is not an easy task with the history of the program looming over players' heads. Constantino said, even though fans remember the Jonny Flynn's and the Paul Harris' from years past, the team now is just trying to be themselves.
"We're trying to be Josiah and Tazaun, we're just trying to be ourselves," Constantino said. "What happened back then, we're really proud of those guys and everything they did, but we're not them. It's not to say we can't be successful, but we're not trying to be them. We want our own identity."
Every year the Wolverines have relied on stellar defense and Constantino said the same can be expected this year.
"I look and the Jordan Nwara kid at Louisville had 13 points in his first game, well he had nine against us. Justin Jackson at Maryland, he's going to be a first-round draft pick in the NBA, he had four when he faced us. We know what our identity is; we're going to guard the hell out of guys. We know what sets the table for us," Constantino said.
Constantino added the banners on the gym walls at NFHS "are just papers on the wall" to his team and they want their own.
Even though there may be new faces on the roster, the expectations remain the same for Constantino's bunch and he said as long as the team stays together as a unit, it should be a fun year.
"It's tough with kids sometimes to put winning ahead of their own individual accomplishments. If we get a good team chemistry and guys are buying in and we want to be a part of something bigger than just ourselves, we have the chance to be really good," Constantino said.
The Wolverines start the season off with three difficult non-league games, the first being on the road versus Section V power UPrep. A week later, the Wolverines come back home for two games in the 2017 Cataract Classic. On Friday, Dec. 8 they'll face another Section V team in McQuaid Jesuit. Then, a night later, they'll take on Park. The Falls fell to Park in their first game last year, 55-50.
Constantino noted the importance of the non-league schedule to better test his team saying, "We don't get that many non-league games to pick. We're kind of going with what we can get, so we always try to challenge ourselves."
The season opener at UPrep is at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2. The Wolverines knocked off UPrep last year, 65-64, in a comeback effort on the second night of the Cataract City Classic.
Senior returners Syquan Ralands, left, and Tazaun Rose, right, participate in the teams dribbling drills at the start of Tuesday's practice. (Photo by David Yarger)