Grand Island girls basketball added another Niagara Frontier League title this season, the proud program’s first since 2011.
The Vikings boasted everything a championship team needs, with top-end talent, senior leadership and depth. But they’ll be remembered for playing a grinding defense night in and night out, allowing over 40 points only seven times — just once against an NFL opponent.
Nobody embodied GI’s toughness more than scrappy junior Lydia Sweeney, who led the NFL in points, steals and assists while playing through a torn labrum. For being the heartbeat of a championship team, Sweeney is our 2018-19 Niagara Gazette Player of the Year.
Head coach Kristin Wegrzyn said her star used a rough ending to the 2017-18 season — the Vikings fell to Hamburg in sectionals for the third year in a row — as fuel during the offseason.
“It was something she took extremely hard, and the morning after, from then until our new season, she was in the gym almost every single morning,” Wegrzyn said. “She always had that game in the back of her mind.”
The offseason was also big for Wegrzyn. After taking over the program ahed of the 2017-18 season, it was her first summer truly knowing what she had to work with.
She elected to speed things up, using Grand Island’s plethora of athletes to beat teams in the open court. That meant even more on the plate of Sweeney, her point guard.
The change worked splendidly. and GI boosted its scoring average from 40.6 to 51.9 points per game. After averaging 10.3 points and 3.8 assists as a sophomore, Sweeney boosted her numbers 19.2 points, 4.6 assists, 7.0 rebounds and 4.0 steals.
“We have so many athletes that can run, even though they’re not exactly basketball players,” Wegrzyn said. “... Having Lydia being able to push the ball and have a great sense of where to put the ball really helped us offensively.”
Sweeney, a three-sport athlete, started the season healthy but suffered the injury, a tear to the labrum in her left arm, around the halfway point. While it was her non-shooting arm, she said she struggled drawing contact while driving to the rim. Still, she never gave a thought to not playing, and didn’t even find out the severity until just before the spring lacrosse season.
While it certainly hampered her ability to score at times, Sweeney said Wegrzyn’s defense-first culture kept it from affecting her overall game.
“Offense is always never a given,” Sweeney said. “Some days you don’t have your shooting game, but if you bring your defense every game, that leads to transition and easy points. That’s something teams can’t prepare for.”
Sweeney kept chugging along, and so did the Vikings. They smothered Lockport, 45-33, in the NFL championship game on Feb. 14, then beat North Tonawanda in the first round of sectionals, setting up a rematch with Hamburg in the Class A-1 semifinals.
Sweeney stuffed the stat sheet, posting 21 points, five assists, six rebounds, two blocks and a steal as the Vikings got their revenge with a 44-40 win.
“It’s pretty crazy to look back on,” Sweeney admitted. “Going from last year, not even being in the final (NFL) championship game to this year, going undefeated in the league and winning the league, it’s pretty crazy to think about.” Though Grand Island fell to Williamsville South in the A-1 championship, Wegrzyn said her team achieved all of the goals it set before the season, winning the league and reaching the Section VI title game.
Now, Sweeney and Grand Island have another offseason to get even better.
Because of the injury, Sweeney elected to sit out this spring’s lacrosse season. After meeting with a doctor, she decided to hold off on surgery and commit to rehabbing nonstop.
“The doctor said we could do surgery but he doesn’t want to take that route because that would probably be a year of recovery, and that would take out summer AAU and next year’s season,” Sweeney said. “... My goal is to push it off and not have it during my sporting career.”
Sweeney is also playing AAU for the Buffalo Titans in what is a key summer for college recruitment.
She said she wants to study physical education and is hoping for the opportunity to do that while playing at the Division II level. “I want to go to a D-2 where I’d be able to get some playing time,” Sweeney said. “I have had some contact with D-1 (schools), but I know even if I got that opportunity I probably wouldn’t get to play until my senior year.”
Sweeney said she hopes to come to a college decision before the 2019-20 season.