Take notice of Niles boys hoops

THINGS never seem to come easy for Niles, regardless of the sport … or politician, fiscal situation, levy, coach, etc.

A city known for a blue-collar work ethic and football stardom back in the 1950s and ’60s has endured some black eyes in recent years. Basketball certainly hasn’t been devoid of criticism.

Just a few months ago, former Niles High School girls coach Mike Cappuzzello resigned abruptly after he claimed numerous parents were being overzealous and aggressive in their complaints about playing time for their daughters. He said one parent even chest bumped him.

Somehow, this news didn’t seem overly surprising. There never seems to be a dull moment in the city.

The boys basketball team is trying to keep it that way — but in a positive manner.

The Red Dragons struggled the past few seasons, winning a combined 10 games in two years. Niles did produce a pair of star players during that time in brothers Cameron Kane-Johnson, who played at Westminster College before transferring to Youngstown State University, and Cylar Kane-Johnson, currently a senior and the school’s all-time leading scorer after surpassing his brother earlier this year.

But, those two were pretty much the only exciting thing about Niles basketball — until now.

While the Red Dragons’ 10-10 record may not seem overly impressive to most, a winning record is a major step in the right direction for the program. Their play as of late reflects a team that is on the rise as well.

Coming off wins over Girard and Struthers (before a blowout to Poland, arguably the area’s best teams), Niles is starting to show it’s much more than Cylar Kane-Johnson. They’re playing smart yet aggressive, fast but under control and they’re using a balanced offense and a physical, in-your-face defense implemented by first-year coach Doug Foster.

“The kids are buying in to the defense-first mindset, and it really paid off (in Tuesday’s 65-58 victory over Struthers),” said Foster, who coached the Niles girls basketball team last year. “Tonight was a reflection of where I want this basketball team to go and this program to be.”

With Cylar as the focal point, the Red Dragons are finding multiple ways to break opponents down.

If teams focus on stopping Kane-Johnson, the 5-foot-10 guard is savvy enough to pass off to open teammates, like fellow senior Corbin Foy, a sharpshooting guard, or Douglas Foster, the coach’s son who can also hit the 3 and run the point like a veteran.

There are other pieces, like defensive-specialists Trent Johnson and Zack Leonard, sophomore standout Jalen Royal-Eiland, who can provide instant offense when needed, and guys like Joe Corson and Robbie Savin, who do the dirty work rebounding and winning 50-50 balls for a team with one player over 6-feet.

If teams don’t focus on Cylar, who’s averaging nearly 28 points per game, he can single handily dominate. But he prefers the former because he knows the Red Dragons are at their best when everyone is involved. He started to see that in practice, and the progression really took off a few weeks ago.

“It was honestly just a build up through the season,” said Cylar about the team’s improved play as of late. “I don’t think there was an individual moment or game. Every practice has a big impact. We had a real good practice week a couple weeks ago, and everything clicked. After that, defensively, everything came together, and even offensively, everybody is starting to get aggressive. … (The practice) is starting to pay off.”

A team thriving thanks to hard work, representing a city that was built on similar traits, can create a fun atmosphere. Niles fans should take notice. The city could use something positive to rally around, and while the Red Dragons probably aren’t going to win a state championship (a district title might be a reach, too), it’s fun to watch a group of high school kids come together and reach their potential.

“I’m liking where we’re going the last three or four games,” coach Foster said. “That (Struthers game) is a huge win for us. Plus, we’re trying to get a winning season. That’s the number-one goal for this program. They haven’t had one in a while.”

The city could use some positive vibes as well, and Cylar is happy to oblige.

“My sophomore and junior year, we had 10 wins combined, and we just got our 10th win (against Struthers),” he said, “so this is new to me going into the tournament having a lot of confidence. I’ve never been this excited for a tournament game. When we get there, we get there, but yeah, it’s been fun.”

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