Tonawanda News —
AMHERST — On the campus of Daemen College, members of the men's basketball team are treated like kings.
Partly because of the small, close-knit community at the school, but mainly because folks associated with the college feel they have one of the best-kept secrets in Western New York: a high-flying, lightning-fast, senior-laden mixture of entertaining and talented players that are leading Daemen into its inaugural season as a member of NCAA Division II's East Coast Conference.
There's a different vibe around Lumsden Gymnasium these days. A team that's flown under the radar in recent years believes it's set to break out onto the local hoops scene as the only D-2 squad in the region. And local basketball authorities are starting to take notice.
"Daemen and (head coach) Don Silveri, they've done a great job with that program," said Canisius College head coach Jim Baron after a recent exhibition game against the Wildcats. "I think they're really good. They have a lot of chemistry, and they got juniors and seniors. They're a good team. They won 20-plus games last year and went to the (USCAA) championship game. So they're real good. I told our guys it would be a real challenge for us playing them."
And a challenge it was.
Daemen lost to the D-1 Golden Griffins, 102-85, but Baron told Silveri after the game he was worried up until about the final two minutes of regulation. Griffs standout and preseason Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year Billy Baron was also impressed with the Wildcats after running up and down with their speedy backcourt in the contest.
"Those are gritty guys and they're going to win a lot of games," Billy Baron said. "(Casey Sheehan) can play, (Gerald Beverly) is real good and (Mark Coppola) — he's a pesky little guard. They have a lot of potential and I think they'll be real good in their league."
Daemen is primarily made up of Western New York talent. When Silveri and Associate Head Coach Mike Miranto recruited the core of the team four years ago, the vision was to get solid character players that had something in common: a strong work ethic.
Beverly, Sheehan and backup guard Supreme Hannah all hail from Rochester, while Coppola and bench contributors Aaron Davis (North Tonawanda) and Troy Nowak (Orchard Park) are all Buffalo natives.
Former University at Buffalo head coach Reggie Witherspoon, whom Silveri has known for many years, has some familiarity with most of Daemen's players from his time on the local recruiting beat. So Silveri asked him to come in and assess the squad's strengths and weaknesses during a recent scrimmage against Erie Community College.
Witherspoon liked what he saw, especially the Wildcats' senior backcourt combo and junior big man Beverly.
Medaille head coach Mike McDonald echoed Witherspoon's sentiments after a 87-75 defeat in an exhibition game against the Wildcats on Nov. 1.
"They have great guard play and when you have that you're going to be in any game," said McDonald, who coached at Canisius College for nine seasons before taking over the Medaille job six years ago. "Coppola controls the ball as well as anybody — as good as a Division I guard. He keeps it under control. Sheehan can score in a bunch of different ways, and they have Beverly inside who can clean up your misses. I think they really make it difficult for you to guard, and when they make shots on the wing they'll really give you fits."
Coppola has been dominating the local basketball scene for almost a decade. He led Williamsville South to three Section VI Class A finals appearances, including a Class A title in 2009, and finished his high school career second all-time in Section VI history with 683 assists.
Miranto, a North Tonawanda alum, called Coppola and senior Kadeem Johnson two of the best team leaders he's ever been around. They don't accept mediocrity out of anybody and they are always driven to succeed, which drives the engine of the entire team, Miranto said.
"Mark is like a little gnat out there," Silveri said. "He is such a competitor and he makes us all better. He holds everybody accountable, coaches included — he's like a coach out on the floor. He's constant motion."
As for Coppola's backcourt partner, Sheehan scored his 1,000th career point last season as a junior, but doesn't look the part of offensive genius — until the game starts, that is. Every team and player he goes up against usually has something to say about how talented he is, including Billy Baron, who gave Sheehan his stamp of approval after watching him up close.
"Casey is so physically talented. He doesn't look the part. Billy Baron made a comment to me after the game that Casey, when you look at him you think it's going to be easy, then after you watch him play for a few minutes it's like, 'man, this kid can play,'" Silveri said. "He's a good competitor too, so those two guys (Coppola and Sheehan) — they've learned to play so well together and it makes us all better."
Beverly averaged 14.3 points and eight rebounds per game last season, and his coaches and teammates think he's poised to be even better this year. Silveri called the 6-foot-7 center a man child who is just starting to realize his true potential.
"Gerald just keeps getting better," Silveri said. "You think back to when he was a freshman and he was growing into his body and he was so unsure of himself, but now he thinks he can play with anybody. It shows by the way he plays."
"We run a lot but we have to try and get it into the big man more because Gerald is such a force. He's going to be up there with the top players in our league," Sheehan said. "Just think he didn't play a whole lot in high school and he's still developing. I'm excited to see what he's going to do."
Davis, NT's all-time leading scorer, has been very productive for the Wildcats when healthy, and Silveri and Miranto hope he is able to stay that way, especially while Johnson is out of action rehabbing an upper body injury.
Tonawanda alum Jesse Lalka, who redshirted last season, and St. Joe's grad Tom Escott will both compete for minutes this year. Sharpshooter Jordan Greene has stepped into a starter's role as Johnson is expected to be out of action for at least the first month of the season.
Junior transfer Steve Carder will step into the vacated spot left by Jim Regan, who graduated after last season. Carder was the Region III Junior College Player of the Year last season, and Silveri expects him to be more of a factor as the season progresses and he becomes more familiar with the system. Senior Uchechi Ogbonna is also expected to be a big factor off the bench in his second season under Silveri.
Members of the Daemen community, including the basketball team and its coaches, are hoping the secret gets out this season, and local hoops enthusiasts take notice of the Wildcats.
Silveri said people who come out won't be disappointed.
"I think we're fun to watch and anybody that comes to watch us play will walk away saying, 'Boy those guys are fun to watch. They work hard, they play together and for one another.' And they do that," he said.
"It's an entertaining brand of basketball," said Coppola, who is 34 assists away from the school's all-time record. "We're an uptempo team with a lot of athletic kids, and offense is always fun to watch."Daemen 2013-14 schedule 11/08 Ohio Valley University 8 p.m. 11/09 Goldey-Beacom College 4 p.m. 11/15 at University of California-San Diego 7 p.m. 11/16 at California State University-San Marcos 7:30 p.m. 11/23 Mercyhurst University 4 p.m. 11/26 at Roberts Wesleyan College 8 p.m. 12/13 at Long Island University Post 7:30 p.m. 12/15 at New York Institute of Technology 3 p.m. 12/20 at Molloy College 7:30 p.m. 12/22 at Queens College 1 p.m. 1/04 at Saint Thomas Aquinas College 3 p.m. 1/06 at Mercy College 7 p.m. 1/07 at Dominican College 8 p.m. 1/12 University of the District of Columbia 3 p.m. 1/17 at Dowling College 7 p.m. 1/18 at University of Bridgeport 4 p.m. 1/24 Saint Thomas Aquinas College 8 p.m. 1/26 Mercy College 3 p.m. 1/28 Roberts Wesleyan College 8 p.m. 1/31 Long Island University Post 8 p.m. 2/02 New York Institute of Technology 3 p.m. 2/07 Molloy College 8 p.m. 2/09 Queens College 3 p.m. 2/14 at University of the District of Columbia 5 p.m. 2/21 Dowling College 8 p.m. 2/22 University of Bridgeport 4 p.m. Follow @tonanewssports and sports editor @MattParrino on Twitter for complete local sports coverage.