The Niagara County Community College basketball programs have been steadily trending up for years now.
Under Bill Beilein and Nate Beutel, the Thunderwolves have become perennial contenders in NJCAA Division II, Region III, and both teams are coming off a season that ended in the national tournament.
The standard has been set, and both coaches expect their teams to meet it again this season.
They got off to solid starts, each going 2-0 with wins Friday and Saturday.
The men's team, which tied its best finish under Beilein last season by making the Elite Eight, beat SUNY Orange County CC, 70-63, and Columbia-Greene CC, 91-72, as part of the Goldberg Classic.
Two sophomores led the way, with William Kondrat scoring 24 points Friday and Marcellus Cooper (Amherst) dropping 22 on Saturday.
The two are part of a group of 11 sophomores, most of whom either played or redshirted for NCCC last season.
"The continuity of having the guys back is great," Beilein said. "You've got some established relationships, not just only with me but with their peers, which really helps just the everyday grind of being a college basketball player."
Kondrat is the Thunderwolves' leading returning scorer, having averaged 10.3 points last season. Point guard Nigel Scantlebury also returns as the team's on-court leader.
"He's just every day, 24/7, just working," Beilein said. "He brings good, positive energy to everybody. He's able to get guys going even if they're having bad days."
Locally, Nate Luckman (Barker) and Hunter Anderson (Park) join Cooper in the sophomore class. Jack Capen (Burt/St. Joe's) will also get some minutes as a redshirt freshman.
The NCCC men received 10 votes in the preseason top-20 poll, which would've placed them in a tie for 25th. They'll face a stiff test for the Region III title, with rival Erie CC coming it at No. 8.
First, NCCC will have to contend with Cuyahoga CC, another team receiving votes, in their next game Saturday as part of the annual NCCC Tip-Off Classic.
Beutel's women's team, which won a Region III title and made the national tournament for the firs time in program history last season, also has had a strong start to the season, and that's before getting to a pair of wins on opening weekend.
The NCCC women, ranked 15th in the preseason poll, received a couple key reinforcements this fall from their top rival.
Rochester's Monroe CC, a Region III power and 2017-18 national champion, decided to cancel the upcoming season in September due to low numbers. Head coach Tim Parrinello, who posted a 613-85 record at the school, was relieved of his duties in August after the school found financial aid violations and reported them to the NJCAA.
Only eight players showed up for a preseason meeting, according to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, forcing the cancellation.
That left Monroe's players scrambling to find new homes. Two of them, former Cardinal O'Hara Hawks Cierra Harrison and Nickelle O'Neil, landed at NCCC.
Harrison is a Lockport resident, while O'Neil is from Amherst.
"They're great additions to the returns that we had," Beutel said. "... Those kids are used to winning. They know what it takes to win."
Those returners include Newfane's Paige Emborsky, who became the second player in program history to earn a NCAA Division I scholarship when she committed to Abilene Christian in September.
Emborsky scored 530 points as a freshman and should have even more chances this season as the Thunderwolves' No. 1 option. She'll have a chance to become NCCC's second-ever 1,000-point scorer and top Michelle Milleville (Niagara Wheatfield), who hit 1,000 on the dot, for first place on the all-time scoring list.
"For my money, (she's) the best JuCo shooter in the country," Beutel said. "... And she has worked incredibly hard this offseason to not only earn that scholarship, but to also maybe earn the opportunity to become our program's all-time leading scorer.
"She's one of our captains, one of our leaders. She knows what it takes to get to that national tournament."
Emborsky is joined by returning forwards Aubrey Halloran (Albany) and Molly Mahoney (Lancaster), who both played big minutes last season.
The NCCC women went unbeaten in the regular season last year, obliterating most opponents in the process. They won their first 19 games by at least 13 points.
Beutel said he doesn't expect the same thing to happen this season, thanks to a much more challenging schedule. NCCC will play Union County, last year's national runner up, and the Community College of Baltimore County, a new program Beutel called one of his favorites to win it all this season.
"You know, everybody's like, can you go 31-0 again?" Beutel said. "I just want to see continue growth. And I want to see us playing our best basketball come March. We want to be tested along the way."
So far, the Thunderwolves haven't gotten much of a test. They beat SUNY Adirondack on Friday, 106-29, and David-Word of Life on Saturday, 119-19.
O'Neil and Emborsky led NCCC with 18 points apiece in the opening win. Freshman Alaina Forbes scored 25 on Saturday.