(Chautauqua Lake's Tyler Meredith draws a foul on the way up)
Last February, Chautauqua Lake earned a signature win in the postseason, advancing past East High in the Section VI quarterfinals to earn a trip to JCC. While the Thunderbirds season ultimately ended with a narrow loss in the Class C1 Final, expectations of returning to that game and winning it ran high coming into this season with four returning starters. But in preparation of the postseason comes a regular season filled with challenges.
Chautauqua Lake is the second smallest team in its league, CCAA I West, and its bigger competition certainly comes with some impressive credentials. For starters, three teams in the league are classified in B1, two sizes up from the Thunderbirds. That includes defending Section VI champion Fredonia, and Dunkirk, currently ranked 22nd in NYS Class B. Then there's Olean, with a list of credentials over the past 10 seasons that are so big, a separate bus is required to transport them. Nine Section VI titles with eight advancements to regionals, five trips to Glens Falls, three state championship game appearances, and two state tiles, including last season when they raised their NYSPHAA state plaque with a perfect 27-0 mark. This season, the Huskies are in Class A2 and the only large school in any of the CCAA leagues. Sprinkle in the fun fact that Coach Mike Putney's Thunderbirds had never defeated Olean and you have all the makings for a special night in Mayville.
Behind a game-high 25 points from junior Devin Pope, Chautauqua Lake validated its #3 ranking in NYS Class C with a historic come-from-behind victory against the big dogs of the Southern Tier, defeating the visiting Huskies, 58-57. Chautauqua Lake improves to 6-0 on the season and 2-0 against the stiff competition in CCAA I West.
"The only way you're going to get better is to play teams like that," Chautauqua Lake coach Mike Putney explained. "Win or lose, it makes you better, it's what takes you farther in our school history."
The Thunderbirds are now just the second team to defeat Olean in league play dating back to the 2011 season. They are also the first Class C school to knock off the Huskies since December 3, 2010.
"We've been striving for this ever since they came into our league," said Pope. "We have a lot of high expectations for ourselves - they're a great team."
"These kids at Chautauqua Lake have worked their butts off hard," Putney said. "They wanted this game, they knew this was a huge game, and they knew in order to make noise we had to face big competition like this."
The Thunderbirds showed no fear of the storied program in the early going, as Tyler Meredith opened the game by draining a 3-pointer. Teammate Aaron Swan (14 points) followed with one of his own from downtown shortly after, giving Chautauqua Lake an early spark. Consecutive scores from Pope had the Thunderbirds leading 13-6 five minutes into the game.
A 7-0 finish to the first quarter for Olean capped by one of Monty Shoemaker's four 3-pointers in the game evened the score at 15-15. The late quarter surge was part of what would be a 23-7 run in the game for the Huskies that gave them a 29-20 lead, as they seemingly scored at will against the 2-3 zone of Chautauqua Lake. Shoemaker scored 14 of his team-high 24 points in the second quarter as Olean zipped the ball around to find open looks or move the Thunderbirds' defense to open space in the lane to attack.
A switch to man-to-man defense coming out of halftime by Chautauqua Lake returned the game to more of a possession-by-possession battle. The Huskies managed to extend their eight-point halftime lead to 11 points during the third quarter, before Swan registered the stanza's final score for the Thunderbirds - a trifecta that made it 45-37 heading into the fourth quarter.
A pair of quick steals to begin the final frame were converted into breakaway layups by Pope and Kyler Majka for Chautauqua Lake, and suddenly the game had a different look and feel to it, with Olean's lead cut to 45-41, and the sense that momentum was shifting.
Pope fed off that momentum and created even more for his team in the defensive end. On two straight series, the junior rose up in the paint to swat away perfectly timed rejections. He added a third big block later in the quarter for the Thunderbirds, who started using screens to get to the basket midway through the fourth quarter. Nate Hammond and Pope each drew contact and converted free throws for Chautauqua Lake, followed by the game-tying bucket from Pope at the 4:18 mark to make it 50-50.
"These guys can get to the basket if our role players step up and give us the screens," said Putney. "We need guys to be able to set screens and they were able to do it."
A score from Mike Schmidt briefly restored the Olean lead before Pope, who scored 12 of his 25 points in the last stanza, tied things up again. As the game moved under three minutes, Meredith broke away before the Olean defense could get back to give his team its first lead since the opening quarter. Less than 30 seconds later, he did it again to make it 56-52 in favor of the home team after an 11-2 run. With the Chautauqua Lake fans fully grasping the magnitude of the moment, the atmosphere became electric.
"Just a great game to be at," said Pope. "I don't know if I've ever been in a better game than this."
Shoemaker drilled his last '3' of night with 28 seconds left, pulling Olean within a point, 56-55. The Huskies called a timeout as soon as the shot dropped to set up their press, in hopes of creating a turnover and escaping with the win. Instead, Swan took the inbounds pass from Pope and reversed direction along the baseline as Meredith made one last dash in the other direction. Swan lobbed a beautiful fullcourt pass over the defense and found him in stride for the basket that would seal the game for Chautauqua Lake.
"All the hard work we've put in, we were able to keep the pressure up," an elated Pope said of his team's strong finish.
After going through the handshake line, the Thunderbirds took a moment to join the fans and rejoice in their accomplishment. Meanwhile, Coach Putney stood with his assistant coaches by the Chautauqua Lake bench and took it all in with a delighted look on his face that spoke volumes of how much the moment meant. But as he explained following the game, his hope is that the experince of such an important win leads to even bigger ones when the postseason arrives.
"Olean is a great team, they've won a lot games and not by fluke," said Putney. "They have a great coach, they have a great program. Would the division be nice, yeah, but we play for beyond that. What we really strive for is going on in the playoffs."
Olean 15 - 20 - 10 - 12 = 57
C.Lake 15 - 12 - 10 - 21 = 58
C.Lake: Devin Pope 25, Aaron Swan 14, Tyler Meredith 9, Nate Hammond 5, Kyler Majka 3, Joel Vinciguerra 2
Olean: Monty Shoemaker 24, Matt Droney 14, Mike Schmidt 9, Thomas Klein 4, Josh Bihler 2, Tristen Synder 2, Luke Rogers 2