By MIKE MEILER
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Falls High School boys basketball program has a storied tradition. In the past decade, the team has won a state championship and played in four more. It's been nationally ranked and has sent players to top Division I college programs and even the NBA.
This year's Wolverines are set to do something no team in school history has done: make the New York State All-Academic list.
The team, ranked No. 1 in Western New York and No. 5 in the state on the court, carried an 88 average through the first marking period, the highest in school history. Six players carried averages over 90, led by senior Ramir Burton's 95. If the players can keep up their marks through the second marking period, which closes Wednesday, they'll be the first in school history to earn the All-Academic designation, as well as the first to break the 85-mark as a team.
"It's important that the community understands that the kids aren't just basketball players," said head coach Sal Constantino, "and it's important that kids who see these guys play and want to play here understand that they work just as hard in the classroom."
The academic turnaround starts with Constantino, who took over the program three years ago looking to put an emphasis on grades. Players point to him as the main catalyst behind the improvement, which he said was a goal of his when he took the job.
Constantino said his focus is on pushing his players to go to college. He doesn't penalize players for missing practice for after-school meetings with teachers, and it's mandatory for seniors to send out college applications before Christmas and to attend the high school's annual financial aid fair. Last season, he played a game without his seniors rather than have them miss the fair.
"Sal always pushes us, no matter what," said senior guard J.J. Wilkes, who had a 92 in the first quarter. "He's always on top of us about our grades, even if we're in the hall for a little bit of time, he comes out and tells us to get to class."
"He cares about us on and off the court," added senior Stefon Caffee, who had a 93.
Some players, like Wilkes and Caffee, had always been above-average students.
Others, like senior forward Tikere Ralands (92) struggled in school before playing for Constantino.
"(My grades) started improving once I started playing basketball," Ralands said. "Sal is really strict on grades. He's always checking up on us."
The improvement is part of a district-wide effort to increase the academic standards of student athletes. New requirements make student athletes focus on grades to be eligible to play sports. Athletes at Niagara Falls must maintain 85 percent attendance and be passing four classes, plus physical education. Of the four classes, three must be what John Forcucci, athletic director of the district, calls "core" classes (math, science, social studies, English).
Forcucci said the members of the boys basketball team aren't simply meeting requirements, though. They're exceeding them.
"The boys have done very well in the classroom," he said. "There are a few that are taking AP classes currently, and that's really the model we'd like to see form all our teams."
Also joining in the effort are the faculty and staff of the high school.
Constantino checks in with them regularly, and improvements in grading technology allow the teachers to provide coaches with up-to-date progress reports.
"Most of the seniors on the team have the same classes," Wilkes said. "It helps, and we definitely want to thank the staff. They're always on our back about grades knowing that we're on the team."
Constantino shied away from praising himself, though, instead pointing out the biggest reason for the improvement: the players.
During practices, grades are often a subject of conversation between players.
"Before practice, when we're in the huddle and we start talking about the days left in the marking period — that's the best part," Constantino said.
"They get it. They really, really get it. It's a good group of guys that have their heads on straight."Follow high school sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.