LEWISTON, N.Y. — Birds of a feather flock together.
Five basketball players who found their championship wings in the Cardinal O’Hara Hawks nest have migrated to a Niagara Purple Eagles women’s basketball program with hopes of soaring higher than ever before.
Standout sisters Angel and Aaliyah Parker return to Monteagle Ridge after receiving all-conference accolades a year ago. Three more O’Hara alumnae join them at Niagara, transfer additions Amelia Strong and Nickelle O’Neil, along with freshman recruit Jade Rutledge.
“It’s a dream come true,” Aaliyah Parker said.
“Not many people get the opportunity to play college basketball with one of their high school teammates,” Angel Parker added, “let alone four.”
O’Hara has won nine consecutive Monsignor Martin league championships under coach Nick O’Neil, with more than 15 players earning college scholarships during that span.
“To have five girls who played together at some point in high school playing together one last time in college is an amazing thing,” O’Neil said. “It’s a really big moment for Western New York basketball. It hasn’t happened before and I don’t know that it will happen ever again.”
O’Neil has asked around and can’t find another instance of a Division I college basketball roster with five players from the same high school.
“Nobody can find anything close to it,” O’Neil said. “I haven’t found one with four on the same team.”
Niagara coach Jada Pierce could remember three players from strong Philadelphia schools, including that city’s Cardinal O’Hara, teaming together at Big Five colleges when Pierce was an assistant coach in the area. “But I don’t know if I can recall four,” she said.
The players Niagara has recruited from O’Hara “are cut from the same cloth,” Pierce said. “They share that underlying foundation. They compete. They work hard. Coach O’Neill does a phenomenal job there teaching the game. They come in to college with a level of toughness and preparedness that some other freshman don’t have.”
In her eighth year coaching Niagara, Pierce believes the Purple Eagles can contend for the program’s first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship. Opening the season Monday night at Loyola (Maryland) and playing at the Gallagher Center on Saturday against LaSalle, the Purple Eagles were picked third in the preseason poll after a fourth-place finish in last year’s MAAC standings. That was Niagara’s best since placing third four times from 2000-05. The Purple Eagles reached the MAAC final once before in 1997, after finishing seventh in the standings. Niagara’s lone regular season title came in 1993.
The Parker sisters’ ability and leadership is the primary reason for optimism. Angel Parker is a returning All-MAAC selection who averaged 17 points last season and ranked among the national leaders with four steals per game. Aaliyah Parker was MAAC Rookie of the Year and a preseason pick for second-team All-MAAC as a sophomore.
The pipeline from O’Hara to Niagara started in late summer 2019 when Parker, the top player in WNY over her final two high school seasons, backed out of her signed pledge to Siena in order to play closer to home.
“When Angel opened the door, I automatically knew her sister would follow,” Nick O’Neil said.
Aaliyah Parker, who like her sister was player of the year in WNY, had scholarship offers from schools in larger conferences but preferred to play with Angel at Niagara.
“The success both of the Parker sisters have had at Niagara shows that you don’t have to go to a bigger school,” Nick O’Neil said. “You can stay local and get accolades.”
Rutledge was the first to follow, committing to Niagara before winning her fourth Msgr. Martin league championship as a senior captain.
“My decision to come here was because it was close to my family at home,” Rutledge said. “Aaliyah and Angel told me great things about the program and the coaching staff. I’ve been to a lot of games that they played at Niagara. I think this is a special group and we can do great things together.”
Strong, a Niagara Falls native who was Msgr. Martin league MVP as a senior, was recruited by the Purple Eagles but wound up signing with LIU-Brooklyn. She did not play in any college games before transferring to Niagara last December.
“I wanted to come home and it’s definitely a family atmosphere here at Niagara,” Strong said. “My former teammates being here was also a factor. I wanted to play with them. We have good chemistry.”
At 6-foot-2, Strong gives the Purple Eagles a needed post presence. “Millie is going to be a fore to be reckoned with,” Angel Parker said. “She brings a lot of strength and length, and is a very good rebounder.”
The oldest in the flock, coach’s daughter Nickelle O’Neil, was the last to arrive on campus. The point guard for a Niagara County Community College team that went 30-1 in 2020, O’Neil started for Saint Peter’s in the MAAC the past two seasons. She initially gave a verbal commitment to use her last remaining year of eligibility at Daemen, before deciding to join her former teammates at Niagara.
“It was definitely the O’Hara connection that brought me here,” Nickelle O’Neil said. “Getting the chance to play at home with my former teammates was a blessing and opportunity that I am not taking for granted. We jell really well together on the floor, all five of us. It’s a natural connection.”
Nickelle O’Neil’s ability to run the point and guard opposing ball-handlers could make Angel Parker an even more dynamic player on both ends of the floor. AAU teammates since middle school, Angel Parker proclaimed them “the ultimate backcourt” while they were both at O’Hara.
“It’s going to be really fun having both of them out there at the same time,” Pierce said. “Nickelle is actually a little bit faster than Angel, if you can believe that. She is really tough to get by. The ball-handlers we play against are in for a lot of pressure.”
Angel Parker could be even more disruptive in the Purple Eagles’ “hurricane havoc” press, Nick O’Neil said. “She’s really good in the passing lanes and anticipating where the ball is going,” he added. “Being on that second line of defense, Angel could get even more steals than she did last year.”
Nick O’Neil said he expects four O’Hara alumnae to start for Niagara, and Rutledge is a positional fit allowing for the possibility of all five being on the floor together.
“They have a chance to do some really special things,” he said. “It would be a great thing for girls basketball in Western New York to see these girls help Niagara win the MAAC and go to the NCAA tournament. It would open even more doors for kids to stay home and play.”
Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.