Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Falls girls basketball program has taken its lumps over the years.
Just four years ago, head coach Mike Esposito elected to field a young roster full of potential over a more experienced, less talented group.
That team started a pair of fresh-faced guards — freshman Victoria Pryor and eighth-grader Toni Polk — and won only four games. The next year, the Wolverines went .500 with 10 wins. The trend continued last season, with NF finishing with 14 victories.
It was going to be tough for Niagara Falls to continue at the same rate of improvement this season, but so far the team has kept pace. The Wolverines are 10-3 overall and 8-0 in the Niagara Frontier League — including a monumental win at perennial power Lockport — with six regular season games left heading into tonight’s rivalry game at Niagara-Wheatfield.
It certainly helps to have what Esposito calls the “best backcourt in Western New York” in his two captains. And with veteran juniors Bianca Brown and Ijon’Ana Laster adding knock-down shooting to the lineup, the Wolverines think the sky is the limit this season.
“It’s really special to have the group we have,” Esposito said. “The girls know what we’re trying to do on offense and what we want them to do on defense. ... The shoe’s on the other foot now.”
Esposito, Polk and Pryor all also made a point to praise the play of junior Brekea Harris, the final starter in NF’s all-guard lineup.
“Every team needs a Brekea Harris,” Esposito said. “She hustles, is a tremendous defensive player and plays with a lot of heart and emotion.”
Each of the Wolverines’ losses has come at the hands of private schools, including two last weekend at the Martin Luther King Tournament in Erie, Pa. Niagara Falls won non-league matchups over local private schools Mount St. Mary and Sacred Heart.
The biggest win, though, was over the Lions. It was the first time Polk, Pryor or Esposito had gotten a win over the Lions, and it set up an interesting rematch Feb. 7 at Niagara Falls on the Wolverines’ senior night.
Another win over the Lions (7-1 NFL) and victories in two meetings with Kenmore West (7-1 NFL) on Tuesday and Feb. 4 will lock up a league title for the Wolverines and ensure this season goes down in history. There has never been a league championship at the “new” Niagara Falls High School, and no Niagara Falls school has won a league title since LaSalle and the “old” Niagara Falls were competing in 1991.
“We’re not trying to look past teams, but we’re keeping an eye on the bigger picture,” Pryor said. “Who (we we will be) playing, if we’re going to play good against them, we need to play good against the teams we’re playing now.”
Before any of that, the Wolverines will have to cross off another first in the Pryor-Polk Era. NF has never beaten the Falcons on the road and will have the chance to tonight. Esposito, Pryor and Polk openly talk about the rivalry between the two schools, meaning the game could be a doozie assuming the Falcons relish the opportunity to deliver a blow to NF’s title hopes.
“Wheatfield will definitely bring you out of character,” Polk said.
“It’s definitely a rivalry,” Esposito added. “I would think (our players) be pretty motivated knowing what’s on the line. We have to be physical, box out, pressure them and play our style.”
Follow Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.