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Over the summer, the Niagara County Community College athletic department splurged for shiny new banners in the gymnasium to commemorate the school’s regional championship teams in wrestling, volleyball, bowling, baseball and men’s basketball.

When the women’s basketball team began practicing in October, coach Nate Beutel gathered his players and pointed to a blank spot on the wall.

“Let’s force them to put another one of those banners up there,” Beutel said.

Midway through the season, the NCCC women’s basketball team is well on its way to having a banner year.

The Thunderwolves are 15-0 at the midyear break and receiving votes in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III national top 20 poll for the first time in history.

It’s not only the best start in the program’s three-decade existence, but a school record for victories, with another 15 regular season games left to play.

A local laughingstock as recently as two seasons ago, the NCCC women have joined a men’s team that is 13-1 and nationally ranked to excite the campus. “What has gone on on the court is truly amazing,” NCCC athletic director Bob McKeown said. “You’re seeing in the gym now a lot more fans coming out to the games and a lot more enthusiasm from the people at the games.”

Beutel, a Starpoint graduate, is in his second year at NCCC after two losing seasons coaching the Grand Island boys basketball team.

McKeown was unfazed by Beutel’s lack of success at the high school level when he recruited him for the NCCC job. He was more impressed with Beutel’s thorough knowledge of the local high school scene after he spent five years as a Niagara Gazette staff writer and Buffalo News correspondent.

“I knew Nate would be a tremendous recruiter,” said McKeown, a former WKBW-TV sportscaster who coached the women’s basketball team for five seasons in the early 2000s. “I don’t know if there is anybody in Western New York who knows more about the high school scene than Nate.

“We had to change our approach to the women’s team,” McKeown continued. “I knew Nate was passionate, and I knew I was getting someone who would put in the effort. He’s brought in fantastic athletes and molded them into a team quickly, and got them all going in the same direction.”

Beutel was initially reluctant to coach women, but he was eager to work at the college level and believed NCCC was a place where he could have success.

“I did think we could turn this around relatively quick,” Beutel said. “Looking at this job from afar, from my newspaper experience and living around here, I always thought this was a job where you could be competitive. I just think the program needed the proper attention. “If you look at the NCCC programs that are successful, or have been successful in the past, the main ingredient has been hard work from the coaching staff. So I just kind of followed that lead by working my butt off.”

“Nate is a grinder,” NCCC men’s coach Bill Beilein said. “He’s constantly going to see more high school girls play basketball and working in the gym with his players individually.”

One of Beutel’s first missions when he took the job was to persuade Lewiston-Porter graduate Kristine Ripson to resume playing basketball after two standout seasons with the NCCC volleyball team.

Ripson was the Region III Player of the Year last season, and this year she is averaging 17.7 points per game, ranks 12th in the country among NJCAA Division III players in rebounding (12.1 per game) and third in the country in blocked shots (3.8 per game). Beutel bolstered this year’s squad with the addition of point guard Jesse DeWaters (Royalton-Hartland), a transfer from Cortland State, and Jaclyn Welch, a freshman guard from Colonie.

Welch ranks 24th in the country in scoring at 18.6 points per game and fourth in steals (4.4 per game). DeWaters is third in assists (7.0 per game), 16th in blocks (2.3 per game) and 33rd in steals (3.0 per game). She’s also had two triple-doubles – double figures in points, rebounds and assists – so far this season.

“Having a point guard like Jess DeWaters has been a blessing to us,” Beutel said. “We are lucky to have her. She makes our team go.” NCCC also has gotten strong play from starters Ashtin Fiegel (Akron) and Albanellys Perez (Medina).

“No slight to last year’s group, but this year’s group really wants to get better, really wants to work hard every single day, and most importantly, they want to win,” Beutel said. “It’s an awesome feeling to have a group of kids that will do whatever it takes to win.”

Two key players from last year’s team, Jessica Curry (Wilson) and Lauren Bojarski (Akron) have stuck around to help Beutel and assistant coach Kaitlyn Roland in an informal capacity.

“Those two have been great resources,” Beutel said. “They are the same age as these kids, and a lot of times they experience the same things as the players. They are great sounding boards, and they have the ability to tell the girls: ‘We need a better practice tomorrow,’ or ‘We need to pick it up in this drill, or you need to talk more.’

“The girls might be sick of hearing from me the last three months, but if they hear it from a peer, they might take it a little more seriously or take it more to heart.” An assistant football coach at Starpoint in the fall, the burly and sometimes surly Beutel has not softened his approach when coaching women.

“I tell the girls when I am recruiting them that I’m not the easiest coach to play for, whether you are a male or female,” Beutel said. “I will get after the kids, but it’s only because I really do care for them.

“I was leery at first, but now, I absolutely love coaching the girls. It’s been a blast. I’ve found my niche.”

The Thunderwolves resume their season Jan. 7 with a home game against Lakeland Community College. Beutel is using the break in the schedule to refocus his players and keep them from getting overconfident from the undefeated start.

“I’ve been preaching to the girls all along that in conference play, every game is going to be a dogfight. There are no easy games on the schedule,” he said. “And it’s helped that in the latest poll, we’re still just receiving votes. We haven’t been able to move up even though we are 15-0. That’s kept us motivated.”