Rivals come together; game raises money for good cause
By David Yarger
In basketball terms, when Niagara-Wheatfield and Grand Island stepped onto the hardwood inside N-WHS Tuesday night, the teams were battling to improve their record in the Niagara Frontier League and gain points for the sectional playoffs. As important as a win was, though, Tuesday night was about a lot more than basketball.
The Falcons and Vikings joined in the 2019 Hoops for Hope game, which was played in honor of a friend close to each school’s heart : Julie Neville.
Neville lost her tough battle with breast cancer earlier in the fall. She was a teacher at Huth Road Elementary on the Island, and one-time JV basketball coach for the Vikings. Neville has four young children and left a legacy of love and dedication to her family. She’s also the daughter of Grand Island Athletic Director Jon Roth.
The game honored the life of the Grand Island wife, mother, coach and teacher. All proceeds from the event also went directly to the Neville Family Education Fund.
Admission to the game was a $3 donation, and there was a bake sale, half-court shot opportunity (in which all three contestants missed, including this writer), a 50/50 raffle and basket auction.
The game drew a large attendance of Vikings and Falcons faithful who all came to donate to the good cause. Also, in attendance was Roth, who was blown away by the turnout and the event put on by N-W.
“I just can’t say enough about Niagara-Wheatfield and their whole community, (and) the Athletic Department, of course, reaching out for Julie and supporting the little Neville boys,” Roth said.
He added that N-W was the first school to put on an event in Neville’s honor and “We’re just so happy. We saw this kind of a crowd, unfortunately, at the wake and the funeral. We definitely expected a big crowd.”
Prior to tipoff, Falcons coach Erik O’Bryan, and Jay Smith, a relative to Neville, presented a pink and black memorial ball to the Neville family which said, “Forever in our hearts, Julie Neville.”
The game fit the bill to what was already a thrilling evening, as the Falcons came back to defeat the Vikings 72-65.
The first half belonged to Grand Island, as the Vikings led, 35-26, at the break. Cam Sionko and Nick Bibik had 10 and 8 points, respectively, in the first half.
Momentum shifted in the third quarter, though, as freshman TJ Robinson led the comeback for the Falcons.
Robinson scored 11 of the team’s first 13 points of the half, with 9 of the points coming off three 3-pointers.
With the score in favor of the Vikings, 42-41, Raejaun Smith made one of two free throws to tie the game, then on the next offensive possession laid it up and in to give the Falcons a 44-42 lead.
With the score notched at 46, Robinson was at it again, as the guard drilled an and-one 3-pointer. Despite missing the foul shot, the Falcons held a 49-46 lead.
The Vikings didn’t go down without a fight, though, as back-to-back buckets by Easton Speer closed out the third quarter, and the Vikings trailed, 51-50.
Ben Salomon and Roman Wright began the fourth quarter with buckets to extend the Falcons lead, 55-50.
Grand Island was quick to answer, though, as the Sionko brothers gave the Vikings the lead right back. A two-pointer from Logan, followed by a free throw and trey from Cam, gave GI a 56-55 lead.
The Falcons countered with a 6-0 run featuring buckets by Smith and Zach Stanley, then two free throws from Smith.
The lead increased to 63-58, Falcons, as Davon Ware found Stanley on a backdoor cut for two. The assist was one of Ware’s nine assists on the night to go with 6 points.
No matter how much momentum and energy N-W carried, GI continued to claw back, as Logan Sionko drilled a 3-pointer to cut the Falcons lead to 67-65 with less than three minutes to go.
After Smith went one of two from the free throw line, Cam Sionko found an opportunity from three-point range that looked to tie things up, but the shot went in and out.
Vikings coach Ron Krysztof said, from his vantage point, the shot looked dead on.
“I thought it was good. I was right behind him and I think it hit a couple parts of the rim and went in and out. Had that shot gone down, I really liked our chances, because it gave us the boost of energy we needed, especially, because they (N-W) were struggling at the foul line. But it didn’t go,” Krysztof said.
Despite struggles at the free throw line (missing 17), the Falcons were able to close out the 72-65 victory.
Following the game, O’Bryan, one day from his birthday, was welcomed into the locker room by a happy bunch who overcame a tough defeat to Lewiston-Porter on Friday night.
“Halftime, we come in, and they were down,” O’Bryan said of his team. “I don’t even know if I had their full attention. I just kind of threw a marker somewhere and said, ‘You know what fellas, go play.’ "
“To their credit, they came out and played a hell of a second half,” O’Bryan added. He also praised the playmaking ability of Ware, who set up chances for his teammates all night.
“At the end of the day … we all know why that output was there, and it’s because Davon played like Davon can play,” O’Bryan said. “Point guards are the ones that teammates have to have so much trust in and get that confidence from. … I told him, ‘That’s what a point guard does.’ A point guard is a point guard. Pass-first a little bit, take yours when it’s there, but you have to create for everybody else on that, and you saw what he can do when he wants to create for everyone. He was fantastic tonight; he really was.”
The big story was Robinson, who came out and lit a spark for the Falcons offensively in the third quarter. The freshman guard drew praise from both O’Bryan and Krysztof.
O’Bryan said, “We’ve been going at him hard. The thing I love about TJ is he is in-game coachable, meaning you bring him over and you tell him what he needs to do, and he actually goes out there and does it during the game. I don’t know how many players I’ve had over the years that are actually able to do that. … We’ve been on him about being more confident, being more assertive.”
Krysztof said, “I thought in the first half we did a good job of limiting them to some tough shots. Some of them were open, but we really played a more disciplined defense. … (In the second half) No. 12 (Robinson) absolutely caught on fire. He played a fantastic game. I think that’s what really changed the game was No. 12.”
Krysztof added that he drew up a play to begin the second half, which found Will Soos an open 3-pointer from a spot he had been hot at lately. The shot missed, but Krysztof said he felt if the shot went down, the second half could be a different story with momentum in GI’s favor, up by double digits.
For the Vikings, Cam Sionko led the way with 25 points, while his brother, Logan, added 14. Additionally, Bibik and Soos added 10 and 8, respectively.
For the Falcons, Robinson led all scorers with 18 points, while Smith netted 14. Stanley, Wright and Salomon added 13, 11 and 9 points, respectively.
Despite the thrilling outcome of the game, the best result came from the final total of money raised. Athletic Department Secretary Jamie Beiter said the Hoops for Hope game raised over $3,500 for the Neville Family Education Fund.
In addition to the money total, both coaches agreed, it was an emotional, but outstanding, turnout to remember a special person.
“It was awesome,” Krysztof said. “I really want to thank coach O’Bryan and I know the athletic secretary did a lot for this. This is first-class. Wheatfield has always been first-class; Erik’s always been first-class; coach Steve (Miller) has always been first-class; but this really was a great moment. I have young kids myself. I’m a father; I have a 10-year-old and 7-year-old, and I was looking at the kids and I just – it’s hard not to get choked up myself, caught up in the moment. … I like winning or losing, but you realize, it’s just basketball. You’re here to teach and educate. But I thought it was really special. I really want to thank the Wheatfield family and basketball community.”
O’Bryan admitted the game was tough for him, as the Neville family, including Roth, has been close friends of his. He added how he had the opportunity to see friends he hadn’t seen in some time.
“I went to Jamie … Dec. 1, and I said to her ‘I wanna do something for Jon and the family.’ And, my God, that lady is amazing. She took it and just ran. … It was amazing tonight. That’s what it’s all about, and we told the guys that. ‘This isn’t about us tonight, this is about real life stuff.’ "
“I’m 42 years old, my wife’s 44 and we have a 7-year-old. That hits home. It hits home when you get to that age and you see things happen to other families. I was much appreciative and so proud to be a Wheatfield, not only teacher, but a coach. … And you know Wheatfield. There’s something about it. … You see the community just rise up and help somebody. It did it again tonight. It’s unbelievable,” O’Bryan said.
The Falcons next matchup is at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Kenmore East, while the Vikings next contest is at 6:30 p.m. Friday at home versus North Tonawanda.
Gabby Bonura, Jordan Parks and Sam Ranney assist with the event's bake sale.
Jessa Hill and Tara Perreault welcome attendees to the game.
The Niagara-Wheatfield Falcons basketball team donning T-shirts honoring the Neville family.
The Grand Island Vikings basketball team also donned some pink on Tuesday night.
Basket auction in the hallway.
Sommer Destino, Paige Donavon and Reagan Bleecher work the 50/50 and half-court shot table.
Grand Island cheerleaders
The many N-W students who came out and supported, not just their Falcons, but the Neville family, as well.