Niagara Gazette — What a difference a year makes.
It's admittedly an overused and generic phrase, but one that rings true for the Niagara Catholic boys basketball team.
Despite fielding a relatively-small roster made up almost entirely of familiar faces, the 2013-14 Patriots couldn't look more different from last season's talented but inexperienced group.
This year's team impresses at first glance, organized and purposed compared to its predecessor. Head coach Eric Fields said a year's worth of work has been the difference.
"This team put in a lot more time with each other in the offseason than we have in the past," Fields said. "We played in two summer leagues, the (University at Buffalo) team camp, a fall league. We only lost three games all summer long and played some quality teams.
"The players have been gelling together. They seem to be heading in the same direction. They enjoy playing with each other and for the school. They're really feeling good and having a good time with each other."
Senior shooting guard Jonathan Jackson leads the way after being named second team All-Area by the Gazette as a junior. He's the Patriots best offensive attacker, according to Fields, with the ability to score in transition or drive to the rim, where he has a knack for finishing after contact. This year, he's complimented that with a 3-point shot that Fields said he's worked on all offseason.
"He's our leader, hands down," Fields said. "He came in as a freshman and dedicated himself to the program. ... It's been a great four years, and I think we'll finally be able to see his full game. He's played out of position until now."
Jackson had been playing point guard for most of his career but slides over with the addition of freshman Qeyion Williams, who started for the Niagara Falls junior varsity team as an eighth grader before enrolling at Niagara Catholic. While he looks like a freshman, he plays like he has much more experience.
He's averaged around 10 points and seven assists the three games so far for NC (2-1).
"We've thrown everything at him, and he's been the biggest asset for us," Fields said. "He allows (other players) to do more. He takes a lot off them and lets us run our offense. He knows a good bit of the game, and even when he makes mistakes, he corrects, listens and adapts.
"The minute he gets a few more inches on him, gets a little bigger and stronger, the sky's the limit."
Senior and 3-point marksman Brian Thomas starts as a third guard, while senior Andrew Adamson (6-foot-4) and junior Jake Socha (6-foot-7) make up the frontcourt.
Socha is as thin as he is tall, though he plays year-round and should be a force as he grows into his frame. Adamson is a physical specimen with broad shoulders and loads of athletic ability, though he's only played organized ball for two years.
Fields said the two are starting to develop some chemistry.
"They work very well together," he said. "Jake has a nice touch from around the rim, and he can come outside. Both shoot pretty well.
"Andrew is just now starting to understand how talented and athletically he is. He does a lot of things and has a lot of ability, it's just getting him to be consistent and use it all the time."
Another difference with this year's team is the bench. Fields said he loved last season's bench players, but admits that they were more willing than talented. This season, his team is a little deeper.
Fields said sophomore Zach Socha, Jake's brother, could be team's best shooter. Fields also said another player is in the process of completing his transfer into NC and could join the team in the next few weeks. Connor Freeburger will also see minutes as a role player.
The Patriots lost to Bishop Timon on Monday in their Monsignor Martin Athletic Association opener. They continue league play Thursday against St. Mary's of Lancaster.
Follow Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.