As a pollster for the Buffalo News, I'm asked to send in my weekly ballots ranking the top ten large and small schools. This is the last vote of the 2011 season. Below is a look at where I have the teams ranked at season's end, and some of the rationale used to get there.
1. Jamestown (AA) - A spectacular breakthrough season for the program that was loaded with highlights and accomplishments. In my opinion, the biggest of all was coming from behind to knock off the undefeated Class AA state champions in overtime and advancing to the state championship.
2. Niagara Falls (AA) - At the end of the day, I think the Wolverines were as good a team as most of us thought they were all season. Their season included wins over Jamestown, Aquinas, Canisius, and McKinley (in a game they led most of the way by double-digits despite the worst free throw shooting performance since Dr. Naismith thought to hang bushel baskets in the air), and they gave the Red Raiders all they could handle in the Class AA final.
3. East (A2) - The Panthers registered wins over four different teams ranked in this top ten, won the most competitive large school league in Section VI, and played Aquinas closer than any other team in WNY besides NFHS.
4. Williamsville South (A1) - The only blemishes on the Billies resume are a three-point road loss at Jamestown and a double OT loss to East. If not for Tremell Fisher banking a contested 3-p0inter, they finish number three. The Billies set a school record for wins in a season, including triumphs over Canisius, Hutch-Tech, Timon-St. Jude, Williamsville North, and a pair of wins against Bennett.
5. Canisius (MMAA) - The Crusaders comeback win in the Manhattan Cup championship was a testament to the balance, depth, and cohesiveness that Canisius possessed this season. Losses to Niagara Falls and Williamsville South, coupled with their only wins over a top ten school being the two against St. Joe's, keep them outside the top four.
6. St. Joe's (MMAA) - The wave of momentum the Marauders rode after knocking off Niagara Falls, helped them to roll Timon-St. Jude without Reggie Agbeko and build a 17-point lead on the Crusaders in the first half of the championship game. Unfortunately for them, that momentum found its way into the wrong locker room at halftime.
7. Bennett (A1) - The Tigers split with Hutch-Tech, won both meetings with McKinley, and had a good showing in the Class A1 final against the Billies.
8. McKinley (AA) - Not even a move up to Class AA could keep the McKinley from a 12th consecutive appearance in the semifinals. The only teams to defeat the Macks this season are all ranked ahead of them - Falls, East, and Bennett.
9. Hutch-Tech (A1) - After a slow start to the season, the young Engineers gained steam and beat the likes of East and Bennett, and held a ten-point fourth quarter advantage against Williamsville South in the semifinals.
10. Lancaster (AA) - The Redskins played Jamestown three times this season and lost by a combined 27 points...one point less than Williamsville North lost by at Jamestown. Lancaster's season included sweeps of Clarence and Frontier, along with wins against Kenmore West and Williamsville North.
1. I-Prep at Grover (C) -Finished the season two wins shy of where they wanted to be, but were still an easy choice as the top small school in WNY. The Presidents success this season included a Yale Cup II title, a pair of wins over Tapestry Charter, three wins against OTC Middle College, a victory over St. Mary's, and a trip to Glens Falls following a regional triumph versus East Rochester.
2. Cassadaga Valley (B2) - An early loss to Class D Panama and a league schedule that yielded two additional losses against teams in a lower class (C), kept Cassadaga Valley from being ranked until the final poll. But the Cougars postseason run opened everyone's eyes up north to the quality of CCAA II and was one of the best stories of the season.
I really hope that in the near future, Southern Tier small schools start scheduling more games against opponents to the north. It would provide more exposure for those teams and give fans and pollsters like myself a better gauge of where teams are really at. It's unfair to label a northern school as overrated at season's end because they were ranked all season and lost to a school that wasn't. It would be much more appropriate to label the Cougars and other teams from the CCAA as underrated...but how were we really to know? At the start of the season, we knew Cassadaga Valley had lost to Panama and Wilson had beaten St. Mary's.
3. Lackawanna (B1) - In February, I said that I couldn't see the Steelers winning Class B1 because of different issues that had plagued the team during the season and a strong competition within the bracket. Not only did they win Class B1, they did so by stunning unbeaten Dunkirk in a convincing performance, before looking even stronger against Newfane and dominating them in the fourth quarter.
4. Wilson (B2) - Even without one of their marquee players, the Lakemen advanced to the Class B2 final and dueled with Cassadaga Valley until the bitter end. The co-champs of the N-O had wins against St. Mary's, Newfane, Cleveland Hill, and swept CSAT.
5. St. Mary's (MMAA) - For a third straight season, the Lancers were the top small school in the MMAA after routing Archbishop Walsh to earn that distinction. In nonleague games, St. Mary's had wins against Newfane, Clarence, Hutch-Tech, Depew, Cleveland Hill, and City Honors.
6. Tapestry Charter (C) - Wore opponents down by dictating the pace of games, including against Maple Grove, who they outscored 26-10 in the fourth quarter of a comeback victory. The speed and depth of the Thunderhawks might not have been enough to upset I-Prep, but they pushed them until the game's end.
7. Dunkirk (B1) - From the two times I saw them play this season, they were clearly a very talented team with a dynamic player. Things may have gone differently for the Marauders if they were more battle tested and a little less confident from so many lopsided wins. Still a top ten team with a pair of wins over Olean this season.
8. Newfane (B1) - Co-champs of the N-O after spilitng regular season meetings with Wilson. Advanced to the Class B1 title game with a commanding win against ECIC IV champ Tonawanda, and then shot 2 of 18 from behind the arc when they got there.
9. Maple Grove (C) - The CCAA III champs were on their way to the Class C title game, before succombing to a Tapestry rally. A win over Olean gets the 2010 Class D state champs this spot over...
10. OTC Middle College (C) - the 2010 Class C state champs, who lost to Olean by ten this season. They were competitive all three times they played I-Prep, but I can't rank them any higher than ten when the Kats best win was in November, and the next best win was against City Honors...who beat OTC in the rematch.