Homegrown products seem to be the theme for college programs in 2020.
Niagara County Community College added to an already strong recruiting class, as Cardinal O'Hara's Avion Harris committed to the Thunderwolves just two weeks ago. A Niagara Falls native, Harris should feel right at home on NCCC's Sanborn campus.
To say going through the recruiting process during a pandemic was a challenge would be an understatement. The 2020 second team All-Western New York selection had ups and downs along this journey, but his saving grace was having Thunderwolves head coach Bill Beilein there to extend a helping hand.
"The process was really difficult, honestly," Harris said. "It wasn't the easiest or what I thought it was gonna be. But having coach Beilein believe in me throughout these hard times, I ended up picking NCCC."
After starting at point guard for Niagara Catholic's 2018 Monsignor Martin Class B championship squad and O'Hara's 26-2 Class B state champion team in 2019, Harris' role shifted his senior year. As the lone senior, Harris would be asked to take on the load of a No. 1 scoring option, as well as upholding his duties as a lockdown defender and playmaker.
The Hawks began the season slowly, faltering to a 3-13 start. That's when Harris began to shine; he would put the team on his back, carrying the squad to a 7-3 record in its last 10, taking O'Hara all the way to the Woj Cup final, where he notched his 1,000th career point while netting a career-high 41.
Hawks head coach Tony Pulvirenti had a front row seat for Harris' maturation as he blossomed into one of WNY's top players.
"It was great to see him develop the last few years coming from Niagara Catholic where, as a sophomore, he wasn't really a scoring threat," Pulvirenti said of Harris, who was named the MMAA Class B player of the year after averaging 17.7 points, 5.1 assists and 3.3 steals per game. "He's always been known more for his defense. ... We knew what we were getting from him as far as defensively, but we didn't expect for him to have that scoring ability. "
Harris went from averaging five points per game as a sophomore to 13.6 as a junior, then bumped that average up by 4.3 points this past season, aided by 11 games with 20 or more and an average of 28 points per game over his last four outings.
Being the Hawks' only returning player that received consistent minutes during the 2019 title run, Pulvirenti told Harris he'd be "an extension of the coaching staff." It may not have been easy reigning in a roster mixed with mostly juniors and sophomores, but Harris' patience helped the coaching staff when the season looked lost.
"The intangibles that he has aren't coachable," Pulvirenti said. "The heart and the drive he has, the determination. That stuff you can't teach, that stuff's a coach's dream. ...
"No matter what he does, school — he's an honor roll student — basketball, he works. Anything he does he puts 100% effort in and does it to the best of his ability. As a coach, that's all we're preaching to kids."
Beilein knows how battle tested Harris is and added that bringing him in is special to the program because "his energy and spirit are tremendous." It also didn't hurt having assistant coach Nick Sepe, who was with Harris and Catholic in its run to the state title game in '18, on staff.
Being able to keep in touch with Sepe throughout a treacherous recruiting trail made Harris' decision much easier.
"He helped me get back into thinking about NCCC, because I kind of fell off of it a little bit because I wanted to go far (away)," said Harris, who's joining a program coming off a 24-6 season that ended with the Thunderwolves ranking No. 18 in the final NJCAA Division II regular season poll. " ... But I got back in contact with him and he helped me and guided me back to Coach B."
Sepe used his WNY connections to bring in other local standouts like fellow All-WNY guards Jamond Jones, Nick O’Neil and Anthony Mack. Developing a strong program with Section VI talent was not the sole focus in recruiting, but the coronavirus naturally led to a 2020 class bolstered by 716 natives.
"I think some of these guys we've known for two or three years and that really helped us," Beilein said. "Then when you add the COVID part into it, it made sense for a lot of us. We want to service the community and be community based and locally based, and have our pieces in that fit what we're doing."
Beilein made sure to add Mike Esposito as a name responsible for bringing Harris in, as the former Niagara Falls girls basketball coach is one of Harris' biggest mentors.
Compiling a .695 winning percentage with 10 straight winning seasons and two trips to the NJCAA tournament is no easy task, but Beilein hopes the strength of his program continues on from local products seeking the hometown route.
"I think these guys coming in, when you're first team All-WNY, second team, and third team and fourth team, you've got a connection with WNY basketball," Beilein said. "And I think when those kids come in, like the LaTerrance Reeds and the Donel Cathcarts and the Hunter Andersons that have come locally ... (Barker native) Nate Luckman and (Burt native) Jack Capen, these guys come in and all the hoopers hang out together, so word spreads about the positives about the program. And we're open about it because we trust those relationships."
If things work out, Harris could add to NCCC's list of 12 NCAA Division I and D-2 kids coming from the school in Beilein's tenure. Harris is excited to join a talented group and he looks forward to experiencing it right in his own backyard.
"That will be like a dream come true. All my life I just wanted to play at the next level," Harris said. "And honestly to do it in front of my hometown it'll be even bigger. It'll make me push even further so I can actually do something and get (something) out of this year."
Follow sports reporter Khari Demos on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, be sure to listen to the 'GNN Sports Podcast,' on Spotify, Anchor, Apple podcasts and more.