(Photo by Harry Scull/Buffalo News)
For the last 10 seasons, Class A1 was dominated by Williamsville South and McKinley, who combined to win five titles apiece during that stretch. So predicting any other team to emerge as a sectional champion would be a stretch. The main contender coming into the season outside of those two was North Tonawanda, but the Jacks hadn't won a sectional since 1961. While it seemed a very unlikely outcome to most, it was part of Ryan Mountain's vision from the start.
"The first word that comes to mind about Ryan as a coach is passion," close friend and former assistant coach Sean Bruso said. "He loves everything that goes into the grind of coaching from working with the kids, developing, studying, scouting, organizing, attention to detail, and having a relationship with your players."
That passion resulted in a historic run that would make it tough to argue that the 2017 version of the Jacks was the greatest North Tonawanda team of all-time. After adding another divisional title to their credit in the Niagara Frontier League, the Jacks knocked off the number one ranked team in WNY to end a 56-year sectional title drought. They followed it up with an overall Class A championship that sent North Tonawanda to its first Far West Regional in program history.
"When he made our schedule, he kept it going through March at Buff State because he believed we would go that far," Jacks point guard Vincent Tripi said. "Everyday at practice, he'd look up at the banner from two years ago and remind us of what we were after."
It only took Mountain seven seasons behind the bench at North Tonawanda to break through. After taking over as head coach in the 2011 season, he has posted winning seasons over the last six years. Mountain has created an identity for the Jacks as one of the best defensive teams around, known for their vaunted 2-3 zone. He credits Archie O'Bryan with giving him the confidence to coach varsity basketball and also learned a lot about the game from his son and current Niagara Wheatfield coach Erik O'Bryan. Another major influence on his approach as a leader of young men came from an assistant coaching position at Maryvale in modified football, when Mountain worked under Bob Mullen.
"Bob Mullen taught him how to coach kids, how to be a part of their lives, and how much attention to detail matters in the pursuit of excellence," said Bruso.
He speaks about his players like they are family and relies heavily on his own relatives with the duties of his team. Randy Granger is Mountain's father, and also his assistant coach. His mother, Patty, filmed the games, and his brother Jeremy helped break down all the film. The feeling of closeness he's created within the program and the family-type atmosphere felt by the players helped Mountain to manage a deep unit. With multiple options at his disposal, Mountain tweaked his lineup based on matchups and got the most out of everybody.
"He would tell us our time would come and until it did, support your teammates," Tripi said.
"He's wired in a way that you see from successful coaches," Bruso said. "He's always found the right balance between pushing his players, yet pulling them in the right direction."
During the summer months, Mountain told Bruso that his team was going to win a Section VI title. It was a sentiment he conveyed to me early in the season as well, and reinforced that message throughout the season. As he consistently preached 'strength in numbers', he believed his team was the best public school in WNY, and told me "You really just want to see your team play up to its potential."
That potential not only took the team farther than it had ever been, but broke several North Tonawanda basketball records along the way. Along with a record number of wins (20), team records broken this season include total games played, points scored, scoring margin, field goals made, 3-pointers made, rebounds, and assists.
"I think he was the main reason we got that far," Tripi said. "He was an amazing coach that made us better."
After winning the Section VI Class A1 crown, Mountain said "We had a vision over the summer - we saw it, we felt it...we just had to go out and earn it."
"He lives in vision - he visualizes everything and thinks of every single scenario that could happen" said Bruso. "He has a complete vision for the direction of his program and a vision of how he wants his program portrayed and he's not afraid to tell anybody his vision of the program."
The coach who can be seen rolling up his sleeves at the completion of player introductions as part of a pregame ritual or crawling on all fours in front of the scorer's table slapping the hardwood to inspire his team, is also famous for his intellectual quotes following victories. Two of my favorites this season were "the hardest working teams are the last to surrender" and "it is amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit."
Well, the accomplishments were amazing, and your team is thrilled to see you receive some credit. Congratulations to Ryan Mountain, the 2017 Centercourt Coach of the Year.