When Oracle Charter school senior Jeffrey Ngayot told some friends in his West Side neighborhood that his basketball team would be playing McKinley this season, their response was: “you’re gonna get blown out.”
“Y’all school’s too little,” Ngayot recalled them saying. “You can’t beat us.”
As Ngayot (pronounced guy-OUT) and the rest of his teammates showed last Friday, Oracle proved wiser than those wisecracks. The Phoenix turned many heads around Western New York high school basketball with its 80-75 victory at large school power McKinley. It was the biggest win in four years of basketball at the school.
Seniors like Ngayot, Leon Johnson and Gerald Bibbs have played for coach Brian Pawloski’s program since the beginning, when Oracle struggled to seasons of 2-17 and 4-16 before turning things around last year with a 15-5 mark. This season the Phoenix are 14-1 and the McKinley win vaulted them into their first appearance in The News small school poll, where they are seventh.
“There was just a ton of joy,” said Pawloski, an Amherst High graduate. “These guys get here as soon as we open the gym. They love being together. They love playing around. We have a big brother on the team, we definitely have a little brother, we’ve actually got one like an older sister, looking out for everyone. … When you’ve got things like that, it leads to something like this.”
When the program began four years ago, the numbers weren’t good at 888 Delaware Ave. (it plays most home games at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf), and not just in the win column. In the first year, Oracle’s two-win season ended with just five players being academically eligible. The next season, it was four wins, with nine players eligible. Pawloski remembers an early road trip to Westfield in which the opposing coach took his own timeouts to mitigate a game that was out of hand.
Two years ago, the academic performance improved as the program began growing with summer league play. That led to 15 wins last season, which ended with 17 players eligible. This season, the Phoenix are at 14 wins, and Pawloski expects most of the 30 players to be eligible.
“My teammates push me to work harder, and they want me to do the same for them," said Bibbs. “We’re like family. We’ve got good coaches – we’re staying on track of our academics, making sure we stay eligible and getting ready for sectionals. [The coaches] just want us to reach our full potential.
“They just want us to be successful in life, go to college,” said Bibbs, who added the coaches and the program have helped him improve in the classroom after being suspended multiple times last year. “They stay on our back, but I appreciate it. They make sure we’re focused on the stuff we need to be focusing on.”
Oracle’s starters are seniors Julius Allen, Jamarr Cunningham, Eric Waters and Bibbs along with junior Antone Gulledge. Key reserves include seniors Leon Johnson, Kinny Rawls and Ngayot as well as junior Nelson Modi.
“We tell the guys excellence begets excellence,” said Pawloski, whose assistants are Mike McKee and brother Mark Pawloski. “If you hold yourself to a high standard in the classroom, you can do that same kind of work on the court, and vice versa.”
Charter schools are technically public schools, which makes them members of Section VI.
CSAT, located in the Town of Tonawanda and a longtime member of the Niagara-Orleans League, broke through last year to win Class B-2 and become the first charter school to win a Section VI championship.
Oracle is in Class C-1, which is also home to defending Class C champion Middle Early College, which is the only other C-1 team ranked in this week’s small school poll (the Kats are fifth and have been ranked much of the year).
“We’re just trying to stay on track,” said Bibbs. “Don’t get too cocky, and don’t underestimate anybody, because anything can happen.”
Lauren Mariacher and I host PrepTalkTV Weekly tonight, and our guests will be from boys basketball’s No. 1 large school: Niagara Falls coach Sal Constantino and seniors Jermaine Crumpton and Jaleo Wilkins.
We’ll also review the past week and a look ahead to this weekend’s action at 9 p.m. at buffalonews.com.