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BOYS BASKETBALL: Sophomore Jonas Stalyga is Grand Island’s Euro star

By Nate Beutel

GRAND ISLAND — All it took was a few games — and a couple monstrous jams — and Jonas Stalyga had already won over the Grand Island cheering section.

But as for the sport of basketball itself, that took much longer to win Stalyga over.

Growing up in Lithuania, basketball was the sport of choice for most of youths there. But it didn’t always appeal to Stalyga, who said all he really did was “shoot around” during his early years.

Then at the age of 9, Stalyga and his family packed their bags for the United States and landed in Cincinnati. Once there, Stalyga continued to only casually pick up the rock. But as he began to enter middle school, there was no way to hide his height. According to Stalyga, he played with the eighth-grade team as a sixth-grader and then was called up to the junior varsity for his seventh- and eighth-grade seasons.

But then after his mother got a job offer in Western New York, the Stalyga family packed up yet again and ended up on Grand Island. Before his freshman year, Stalyga enrolled at Canisius High School and then found his way onto the JV hoops squad in the winter. While there he impressed many, including former Niagara Falls junior varsity and now modified coach Sal Constantino, who still raves about Stalyga’s 20-point performance against the Wolverines last year.

Even though it appeared as if Stalyga and the Crusaders were a perfect fit, that wasn’t the case as the 6-foot-6 swingman decided to leave Canisius and enroll at GI for his sophomore year. He also played with the Vikings during a couple summer leagues and found himself the perfect match — coach Greg Ross.

“I really like the coaching staff here,” Stalyga said Thursday. “Coach Ross is great and I thought he would make me better.”

For Ross, Stalyga was a pleasant surprise as the veteran coach took over the varsity reigns at GI.

“He gave us another perimeter scorer and another kid who’s athletic and big and you can’t have enough of them,” the coach said.

Stalyga was a great compliment to returning center Greg Feathers and wing player Alex Neutz. As the Vikings began to work more closely, Ross saw the versatility that separates Stalyga from most players his size.

“He can do a lot of things,” Ross said. “He can shoot, jump and rebound, too. Plus he helps us with the point.”

That’s certainly not to say his game his perfect. Just ask Stalyga himself.

“I need to really work on my defense,” he said.

And Ross agreed.

“Defensively, he gets lazy at times and just stands there,” the coach said. “But he’s still young and he’s still learning.”

Another area where Ross would like to see improvement is in Stalyga’s strength and toughness. He said he knows Stalyga has the intensity within him, it just needs to be shown more with both his physicality and mentality.

Stalyga, meanwhile, believes playing in the summer for Western New York’s elite AAU organization — GC Ballers — will also help with that progression as it did this past summer.

“I think I got a little rougher,” he said with a laugh.

That extensive AAU work coupled with his ability to play out on the perimeter lead both Ross and Stalyga to envision Division I interest in the coming years. But for right now, both agreed that there’s plenty of other business at hand.

The Vikings are 5-4 overall, but still winless (0-4) in the Niagara Frontier League heading into today’s home game against Lewiston-Porter. Stalyga believes that will change soon, as the young players are constantly gelling and getting better.

“We’re getting there,” he said. “We’ll have a good rest of the season.”