The Cooper boys basketball team had uncharacteristic struggles last season.
Several COVID-related pauses in the schedule and a young roster left the Jaguars with a 5-11 record at the season’s end, far from the state runner-up peak led by current Division I power-conference starters Adam Kunkel and Sean McNeil.
The Jaguars are clawing their way back to prominence this season with a 17-3 record heading into a home game against Holmes Friday night.
“This group has really embodied what we do: Sit down and guard,” said head coach Tim Sullivan. “Team defense, do your job and finish the play with a stop and a rebound. It’s being relentless on the defensive end and not giving in.”
Cooper has allowed only 49 points per game on defense, no more than 57 against any Kentucky team. Cooper allowed 63 against Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy in a win, and 80 to Vestavia Hills from Alabama in a loss.
A big part of the renaissance has been Caleb Brooks, a 6-foot-9-inch junior center who leads the team with 16 points and eight rebounds.
He had 25 points in a key district win over Ryle Jan. 21. The win locked up the top seed in the 33rd District Tournament.
Brooks averaged five points per game last season.
“He continues to grow with his aggressiveness and confidence,” Sullivan said. “It’s all about confidence and maturity. He’s becoming a leader and he’s talking more in the locker room. The guys love watching him play and we need to play better for him and do better for him so he’s not carrying the load all the time.”
Brooks said the continuity the Jaguars have enjoyed this season has really helped.
“Last year, I really lacked confidence and I couldn’t get things going,” Brooks said. “Now, we’re winning games and my confidence has been boosted. I’m hitting shots. My teammates set up plays for me and I’m getting open more.”
Having a confident and tall center has helped a mainly guard-oriented team.
“It puts a lot of ease on us,” senior guard Blake Berry said. “Give him the ball and he’ll make the shot every time. I love playing with this guy.”
Brooks is surrounded by a group of experienced guards, led by seniors Blake Berry, Montana Phillips and Ethan Staten; juniors Trevor Ollier, Drew Schilling and Gavin Lutz; and freshman Yamil Rondon, Besides Schilling, all of them average between five and nine points per game.
Most of them had quality playing time last season. Sullivan said the three seniors have taken a step up in their final season and played with that senior urgency.
And they run the defense. Berry usually draws the other team’s top scorer. Against Ryle, he and the Jaguars shut out Ryle senior guard Donovan Robinson (17 ppg.) for more than three quarters before he scored eight points late in the game.
Berry prides himself on studying the opposition.
“I love it. It’s my favorite thing,” he said. “I’m a film junkie. I love getting up for the challenge. (Robinson) is a very talented player and he can score on all three levels. I just try to predict his move. I watch a lot of film so I can predict what he’s going to do. If I can’t, my teammates always have my back and they get in the gaps. It’s a blessing to play with these guys.”
Berry said the team has embraced defense.
“That’s something we stress a lot,” he said. “We work on defense all the time. When we’re not making shots, we rely on our defense and not a lot of teams do that. That’s something we pride ourselves on and work on every day, and I think it pays off. We help each other out, and it’s more fun to play when everyone is connected on defense.”
Sullivan said that despite the team’s struggles last year, the players were able to stay positive and know they were building for better things ahead.
“Just cherishing every day,” he said. “Last year was tough, but you go through that. It was tough for everyone. We didn’t win as many games as we wanted to, but the guys still had fun. They grew a lot. Going through something like we did last year makes you tougher, but it made us grow closer.
Said Berry: “The culture is a lot different. Last year, with COVID, we couldn’t do anything and we weren’t together as a group. Now, we’re hanging out together every day so it’s more fun... We enjoy coming to practice every day and learning to win. We enjoy the support from the fans.”
Cooper has some tough tests ahead, playing at Elder Feb. 1 and has future road games with fellow top Ninth Region teams Highlands and Dixie Heights.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cooper boys basketball back to winning with its trademark defense