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Patrick Cullinan reflects on championship season

Perseverance, working hard, unselfish, some of the words to describe a basketball team that recently added a championship plaque to their trophy room.

On March 26, the Cheektowaga boys’ basketball varsity squad won the Section VI Class A2 title over Charter School for Applied Technology (C.S.A.T.), their first one since 2014.

It was a struggle for the Warriors at the start of the contest. Three-year starters and seniors Nevada Eldridge and Keonte Brown, who were also the team’s top two scorers, got into foul trouble in the first half.

C.S.A.T., who came into the title game as the seventh seed, took advantage and ran with it. They outscored Cheektowaga 14-9 in the second quarter, going into the locker room at the half up 25-21.

The onslaught would continue as they pushed their lead to double digits in the third quarter. To some teams the weight of the pressure can become too much to handle. For Cheektowaga and head coach Patrick Cullinan, they never felt they were out of it.

Cullinan, who has coached the program for 11 years, discussed about the players buying into themselves and wanting to take that sectional title as a great memory for their athletic careers.

“One of the messages that we pushed was what’s your legacy going to be, how do you want to leave your legacy here in Cheektowaga and they took pride in that,” Cullinan said. “Our guys knew they were playing for a sectional championship…it was a whole another level.”

The warriors fought back in the fourth quarter, leading to a moment that will be talked about in the program for a long time. Less than 10 seconds to go, Cheektowaga inbounded the ball and quickly broke down C.S.A.T.’s defense with their passing. Three-year varsity senior Jesse Hawkins, found himself open for a three once he received the pass and knocked it down to send the game into overtime.

Hawkins would become a beacon of hope in extra time. He swished another late three pointer to tie the game. A defensive stop by Cheektowaga forced C.S.A.T. to keep battling, in hopes that fatigue would take a toll.

The players would channel their inner warrior and broke out to an 8-0 run to start second overtime. Cullinan said their performance was similar to their efforts in the regular season. The Warriors went on a seven-game winning streak; winning 11 out of their last 12 games to finish an overall regular season record of 12-3.

A free throw late in the game gave Cheektowaga a 74-70 lead and sealed them as champions for the first time in seven years.

“Watching our guys celebrate, in our gym with a sectional championship in this crazy year. To be able to have our guys be that team that came up on top and be able to whether the storm was extremely special,” Cullinan added.

After the clock struck zero, coach Cullinan went into the locker room after the celebration and checked his phone. He was astonished by the plethora of text messages he received. He also spoke to relatives and friends after the game, who were watching it from their homes.

“I had 146 text messages, I’m answering texts left and right. The fact people were able to watch it from home and get the reaction from parents and friends,” Cullinan said. “My brother who lives out in Long Island was watching, college roommates from Pittsburgh were watching as well.”

This team displayed a different style of basketball then their 2014 champion counterparts. As that team was led by two players in Dominick Welch and Zak Ciezki, this squad developed an unselfish style of play.

Kydale Staten (13.0 ppg), Nevada Eldridge (12.8 ppg) and Keonte Brown (12.6 ppg) ended the season with double figures in points per game. Jesse Hawkins (8.8 ppg) and Jacob Humphrey (8.1 ppg) each averaged more than eight points per game.

“We had so many different guys step up on different nights to be the guy that we needed, Cullinan noted. “It’s always tough to follow in another team’s footsteps, but these guys never tried to live up except for what they wanted for themselves.”

On Jan. 22 basketball was given the green light to start on Feb. 1. Once they got the okay that the season was going to happen, Cullinan and his group got going, with struggles coming in the early process.

Cullinan and assistant head coach Joel Fagan brought his players into shape as quickly as possible. The 11-year head coach said that Fagan did a great job to pace their players’ workouts and not overloading them before the regular season started.

The team started out with a 1-2 record, after their second loss the team turned it on and stay levelheaded. They went on to win seven straight games, then battled it out at home against Canisius. The Crusaders defeated Cheektowaga in the end, but Cullinan knew this team was going to have a deep run.

“When we played Canisius, we were down by nine at halftime, we came out into the third quarter and cut it down to five,” Cullinan added. “We knew we could play with those guys.”

After the loss Cheektowaga never lost a game for the rest of the season. In the first round of the playoffs they originally were supposed to play West Seneca East, but the team had to go on COVID-pause.

Cheektowaga would then run through Williamsville East in the semifinals to set up their match up with C.S.A.T. The rest is history.

“We did it for Cheektowaga, we wanted to bring something back to Cheektwoaga and lift everybody up and give them something to celebrate, give them something to be happy about because we know what we have been doing in the past year and a half,” Cullinan said.

Follow me on Twitter at Jacob_Fyock

Feature image is credited to Kate Barbati

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