By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — In his first few years on the job, Bill Beilein looked longingly at the top talents from nearby Niagara Falls High School, eagerly running the floor when he opened the gym for pickup games at Niagara County Community College, but reluctant to suit up for his Thunderwolves in-season.
That changed last year, when Dave Pascucci joined the program. This year, Jordan Street, a fellow 2010 NFHS graduate, enrolled at NCCC after pursuing a prep school path, and in the opening weekend, the 6-foot-6 center was named to the all-star team at Erie Community College's Tip-Off Tournament. More Wolverines might be on their way, next semester, or next year. And it's coincided with a NCCC's rise as a local junior college that can compete with regional powers such as ECC.
"Guys are looking at the school differently now," Niagara Falls coach Sal Constantino said. "Billy has done a really great job there and our players are starting to see that as a competitive program. He's started to build a track record of getting kids to move on in the classroom and basketball, and that's what you're looking for in a junior college."
With the one notable exception being Robert Harris, who had a successful career from 2004-06 under coach Frank Rotundo, a former LaSalle assistant coach, NCCC has struggled to recruit players from its fertile backyard since the new Niagara Falls High School opened 12 years ago.
That recruiting avenue has opened up for Beilein after his team won 19 games last season, he earned coach of the year honors, and several of his players, including Niagara Catholic graduates Dyrell Dolson, A.J. Roberts and Lorenzo Joseph, have moved on to play at Division II and III schools.
"That was on me to prove that we can win to these local people so that they believe in us," Beilein said. "I was surprised to land a Niagara Falls kid. So having Dave Pascucci and now Jordan Street on this team is huge for us. Sal does a tremendous job with his guys. His guys come out and play extremely hard, they are very disciplined kids, they love to play and they are gym rats."
Street had 22 points and 15 rebounds in Sunday's overtime win over ECC, and Pascucci is being counted on this year for outside shooting off the bench, Beilein said. Fellow locals Jake Hughes (Niagara-Wheatfield), Ethan Baker (Wilson) and Tyler Truesdell (Wilson) will all play meaningful minutes for a Thunderwolves team that has realistic hopes of winning the region.
More locals are sure to follow. Beilein is a fixture in area gyms. One of the Falls' best recent players, 2011 Gazette Player of the Year Marcus Feagin, is considering enrolling at NCCC next semester after playing last season at Monroe Community College, Constantino said, and the Niagara Falls coach would recommend NCCC to any of his players that want to stay local.
"If my son was that age, I would send him to a junior college," Constantino said, "and N-Trip is as good as any one of them."
"It prepares you," Street said, "mentally and physically, to be in that Division I mindset."HOME OPENER • NCCC men's and women's basketball doubleheader, 5 p.m.