Balls are bouncing, sneakers are squeaking and championship dreams are reignited.
All that can only mean that basketball season has returned to the greater Niagara region.
After a season filled with eight boys and girls teams reaching Section VI semifinals, five reaching the finals and Lewiston-Porter and Niagara Falls winning boys sectional titles, teams will look to either reload or start new eras this season.
Here are the players and teams to watch out for this winter.
Ben Dickinson, Sr., Newfane: Yes, he can catch a football, hit a baseball and jump far, but Dickinson can also compete with the best on the hardwood. Now heading into his third and final season under Eric Klumpp. One year ago, the 6-foot-2 forward helped Newfane win the Niagara-Orleans League championship and advance to the Class B-2 semifinal by averaging 11.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Dickinson finished in double-figure scoring 15 times and recorded six of his 10 career double-doubles during his junior season, including a three-game stretch in February, which featured a 25-point, 12-rebound outing against Akron.
Nick Estell, Jr., Niagara Falls: He missed six games to injury and, by season’s end, showed signs of what he could deliver when fully healthy. A true point guard for Carlos Bradberry’s offense, Estell averaged 11.2 points, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals per game. After never scoring 20 in a game during his first two seasons, Estell did so three times in the last 11 contests, including a career-high 24 against Nichols. And after moments like hitting the go-ahead free throws against Health Sciences in the Class AA semifinal, Estell is poised to make an even greater impact as a floor general with James Robinson and Davon Wade both gone due to graduation.
Omarion Ralands, Sr., Niagara Falls: Ralands was one of many players that contributed to the Wolverines’ title championship win in and advancing to the Far West Regional. Ralands averaged 11.9 points, along with four rebounds and 1.6 assists per game and was third in Class AA with 37 3-pointers. Ralands showed signs of what to expect his senior season as he scored a season-high 26 points against Lancaster and then added 16 points against Victor in the Far West Regional game. One of 10 players listed as 6-feet or taller on the Wolverines’ lineup, Ralands will look to provide his size and versatility on the wing for the Wolverines.
Luke Walck, Sr., Niagara Wheatfield: Standing at 6-foot-5, Walck has transformed into a player capable of producing a double-double on any given night. In fact, one year ago, Walck recorded 10 double-doubles, while averaging 10.6 points and a section-leading 12.1 rebounds per game. Walck delivered in the second half of the season for Erik O’Bryan’s offense, posting a staggering 16-point, 20-rebound stat-line against Kenmore West. Walck heated up heading into the postseason, too, as he recorded five double-doubles over the last eight contests, including a 13-point, 19-rebound outing against McKinley in the Class A1 championship. Opponents will likely have Walck near the top, if not at the top, of the scouting report this season.
Shawn Watson, Sr., Niagara Wheatfield: For the past two seasons, Watson was one of many options in the scoring department for Erik O’Bryan. But players like Xander Fletcher and Ty Kwitchoff are gone meaning Watson could have a break-out senior season. Watson finished second on the Falcons in scoring with 11.3 points per game and grabbed a team-best 8.1 rebounds per game. Watson also produced six double-doubles, two of which came by scoring 25 points. Watson produced against the other heavy hitters in the region too, including a 12-point, six-rebound, eight-assist game in a nine-point loss against Niagara Falls and a 22-point, 13-rebound, seven-assist night in a win against Lew-Port. Listed at 6-foot-3 with the ability to work the ball inside, Watson will look to expand his growth for the Falcons.
Ready to break out: The lone freshman on Dave Gilson’s team last season, Charlie Croff — name sound familiar? His father starred for the Lions and SUNY Brockport — proved he could play at the varsity level with ease. Croff was third on the team in scoring with 10.4 points per game and was tied for sixth in made 3-pointers with 35 among all Class AA players. He scored 16 points in his varsity debut and finished in double-figure scoring 11 times in his first season. Lockport had nine players graduate, leaving Croff with an opportunity to score more for the Lions, who advanced to the Class AA semifinal.
Get to know him: Lewiston-Porter had a terrific season, advancing all the way to the Class B crossover game one year ago. But Patrick Krawczyk enters the new campaign looking for a new go-to scorer as Jalen Duff and Bobby Beilein both graduated. Sophomore Greydan Barnwell entered the starting lineup as a freshman and showed glimpses of being capable of more, averaging 5.2 points per game and knocking down 32 3-pointers. His best effort came in Lew-Port’s 67-57 win against North Tonawanda when he scored a season-high 13 points and added six rebounds and four steals.
NFL outlook: Niagara Falls left to become an independent school but the road towards winning the banner will likely come down to the final weeks. Lew-Port is the defending Frontier division champion and do return players like Barnwelll and Drew Leardini but will have to replace nearly 50 points per game vacated by Beilein and Duff, both of whom are now at Niagara County Community College. After losing four seniors, Niagara Wheatfield has a strong case to win the league with eight players returning for their final season, including Watson and Walck. Derek Jelen could be a key guard to help the Falcons reload in the backcourt. Lockport could make a run also but Croff will have plenty of new teammates to get acclimated with, as nine seniors graduated from last season’s team.
N-O outlook: Newfane enters as the favorite, looking to defend its title from one year ago. Despite losing guard Evan Myers to graduation, Eric Klumpp returns fellow starters in Dickinson, Landon Braman, Nate Snow and Konner Courtemanche, who led the Panthers to its first unbeaten league title since 1966. Roy-Hart lost the do-it-all talents of Jamel Johnson Jr. but still return players like senior guard Remington Albee, who was part of the Rams’ second-place finish in the league standings.
Girls players to watch:
Brianna Barr-Buday, Sr., Nichols: The Grand Island resident’s play improved and so did Nichols. Already an established talent, the 6-2 Buffalo signee took a leap last season, grabbing first-team All-Monsignor Martin honors for the league champions. Barr-Buday averaged 16.2 points, 12.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. She had 19 double-doubles and eight games with 20 points and 10 boards, including a 24-point, 18-rebound outing in the CHSAA semifinals, along with 20 points and 22 boards against Lancaster.
Annabelle Day, Soph., Cardinal O’Hara: Day transitioned seamlessly after transferring from North Tonawanda to O’Hara. The guard posted 11.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game. The first-team All-Monsignor Martin pick scored in double figures 12 times and had at least five rebounds on nine occasions. She scored a season-high 20 points in a win over St. Mary’s on Feb. 3, along with five boards, four assists and four steals. Day also had 15 points, nine boards and three steals against Hamburg.
Peyton McInnis, Sr., Wilson: McInnis went from averaging fewer than 10 points per game to being named Niagara-Orleans League player of the year. She averaged 13.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. McInnis led the league with 190 rebounds and was second with 320 points, 50 assists and 28 3-pointers. She had eight double-doubles, with two in the postseason, including a 21-point, 10-rebound, four-assist game against Cassadaga Valley in a Class C semifinal.
Megan Milleville, Jr., Starpoint: Milleville was a significant reason for Starpoint’s rise to the Class A-2 sectional final. The 6-2 center averaged 8.9 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Her 268 rebounds ranked sixth in Section VI. Milleville had nine double-doubles, including a 19-point, 19-rebound game against Williamsville South in the sectional final. She had double-digit rebounds in 16 games. Milleville had a career-high 22 points against Niagara Wheatfield.
Aliza Whitehead, Sr., Lewiston-Porter: Whitehead went from role player to key contributor as Lew-Port won its third consecutive Niagara Frontier League title and second Class B-1 final. She boosted her scoring output more than four points per game. Whitehead posted 12.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game. Whitehead had 13 more 3-pointers (46) than anyone in the NFL, while ranking fourth with 288 points. She scored in double figures 17 times, including a career-high 29 against Grand Island. And with the program’s all-time leading scorer Sophie Auer now off to Daemen, Whitehead moves into the top scoring role for new coach Brian Hall.
Azriel Hall, Jr., Lockport: Hall made a splash in her first varsity season, posting 18.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game. The guard ranked third in the Niagara Frontier League with 365 points. She also ranked in the top-10 in the league in rebounds, 3-pointers and steals. Hall scored in double figures in all 20 appearances and had eight 20-point games, including a career-high 28 points against Niagara Falls on Feb. 3. She also had her first career double-double on Jan. 10.
Ready to break out: One of the key players leading Starpoint’s resurgence for coach Megan Reed, junior Sophia Waliszewski is on the cusp of expanding her play at both ends of the court. One year ago, Waliszewski finished second in the section with 132 steals. The point guard had a team-high 3.5 assists per game and finished third on the Spartans in scoring (8.2). Waliszewski’s efforts helped Starpoint finish in the Class A2 championship game, establishing the expectation for the program as it now moves up to Class AA.
Get to know her: There’s another Day at North Tonawanda and she burst onto the varsity scene while still in middle school to become a key player for first-year head coach Michael Mills. Eighth-grader Lily Day, whose sisters Brittany and Annabelle are at O’Hara, averaged 9.6 points, 2.4 assists and 2.5 steals for the Lumberjacks last season. With 1,000-point scorer Emily Zander graduated, Day should be primed to step into a more prominent role this season.
NFL outlook: Lew-Port is the defending champions and, despite the graduation of Sophie Auer, the Lancers will rely on the talented backcourt of Whitehead and fellow senior Emily Mountain. Lockport could also be in the running, even with the graduation of Deaira Darrell and Iyanna King. But Joe Catalano returns some pieces from a Lions team that could have competed for the league banner had it not been for a loss against North Tonawanda, including top-five scorers in Hall and the Buzak sisters, Grace and Emma. Kenmore West is another team ready to take home the banner as veterans Sophia Balsano and Addy Vandewater return in the backcourt.
N-O outlook: Wilson is still at the top of the heap and with no signs of slowing down. The Lakewomen have won 63 consecutive league games and won all 12 league games by double-figures, half of them by over 30 points. Overall, Wilson allowed fewer than 30 points 10 times and 25 points six times, led by the defensive play of Rian Faery, who averaged a Section VI-best 6.2 steals per game last season.
A familiar face does return to the N-O as Kevin Klumpp returned to the sidelines midseason for Newfane. The Panthers finished with nine wins one year ago and are led by junior Anna Chunco, who averaged 10.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.
Balls are bouncing, sneakers are squeaking and championship dreams are reignited.