The Steve Donahue era of Cornell basketball began in earnest last year with a roster overrun with youth. Despite the team’s year-long struggles and disappointing 5-22 record, 2001-02 gave fans a glimpse into the future of Red basketball. At the head of Donahue’s inaugural recruiting class was now-sophomore guard Cody Toppert, who hopes to lead the squad, as it works to emerge as one of the elite teams in the Ivy League.
Success is nothing new to Toppert, who led the Albuquerque Academy basketball team to the state finals as a senior. That year, Toppert was a first-team All-New Mexico selection, averaging 24.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Toppert wasted no time in making his mark after he arrived on the East Hill last fall.
“I really didn’t want to set too high expectations for myself. It’s pretty much a given that freshmen aren’t going to play that much or they aren’t going to contribute that much,” he said. “Once the season started and I was given a lot of minutes, I just wanted to contribute positively to the team.”
Toppert had a fine year statistically, leading the team in minutes (31.5 mpg), free-throw percentage (.914) and total rebounds (119), while ranking second in scoring (10.3 ppg), rebounding (4.4 rpg) and steals (27). And on a team that was racked by injuries, he was amazingly reliable, starting all 27 games last season, the only member of the Red to do so.
“Cody is someone who took full advantage of the opportunity that was at his doorway,” said Donahue. “He competes as good as anybody we have in the program, and I reward guys who do that.”
Donahue has an excellent understanding of just how good a competitor Toppert is. He originally scouted Toppert as an assistant coach at Penn under Fran Dunphy. Toppert was also heavily recruited by former Red coach Scott Thompson. Then, after Thompson stepped down prior to the 2000-01 season and Donahue was named his replacement, Toppert’s mind was made up.
“Basically, when coach Donahue switched over to Cornell, it was a pretty easy decision. I felt real comfortable with the coaching staff, I felt real comfortable with the area. All the other schools I was looking at became second-tier after coach Donahue switched over to here,” he said.
Coming into this season, Toppert shares much of the optimism espoused by his teammates. To a man, the Red is disappointed with last year’s result and determined to improve upon it. And, according to Toppert, this desire to improve began the moment last season ended.
“I enjoyed contributing to the team as I did last year, but nobody here was satisfied with what transpired. I think that I went back and did as much work as I possibly could to get ready for this year, and I think the rest of my teammates did the same, and I think it’s going to show on the court,” he said.
A shooting guard for much of his freshman season, Toppert is expected to see significant time both at that position and at small forward this year due to the injuries to sophomore big men Chris Vandenberg and Gabe Stephenson.
“Unfortunately because of injuries, we’ve pushed everybody up,” said Donahue. “I think I look at it as a positive because we’re more difficult to guard. Now we have so many guys who can do so many things on the perimeter.”
Toppert will also be looked at this season as the team’s top scoring option.
“Cody can score, and he’s gotten better at it, and we’re going to need him to do it,” said Donahue. “That’s his role on our team.”
Despite his coach’s endorsement, though, Toppert seems quite willing to share the glory, as the Red strives to reach the upper echelon of the Ivy League.
“We’ve got a number of guys who can contribute,” Toppert said. “Everybody can get it done, and that’s going to be a huge difference from last year.”
Archived article by Owen Bochner