Last weekend Cornell advanced to the final four in a national championship, lost in the finals to the reigning national champions and ended its season with an overall record of 22-6. All of this was done without the support of thousands of adoring fans, without the coverage of ESPN and without a coach.
Cornell club basketball was founded only five years ago, after students found the need for a competitive team without the great time commitment of varsity play. Tal Akabas ’11, who is now a graduate student at Cornell, was one of the founding members — also serving as a team captain in past years.
“There had been club basketball in the past, so there was a framework for how the team would function,” Akabas said. “There’s definitely a basketball community at Cornell, and there was interest. So, we set up practice times, we played a couple of games. … The first year was really a learning experience.”
Steve Donahue, the then-men’s varsity head coach, helped the team established itself in its first year. By the second year, having received funding from the SAFC and with the knowledge of how to run the team, Akabas and his fellow team members were able to take the program to the next level.
“The second year we had tryouts, and it was our first year in the regional tournament,” Akabas said. “We’ve done better and better as we‘ve built up the program.”
“We now have tryouts every fall,” said Sam Liu, also a graduate student and one of the original members of the team. “All of our guys played in high school, and we have a few guys that could have played varsity, but decided not to.”
Liu also explained that since Cornell’s varsity team does not take walk-ons, many members of the club team found it to be a way that they can keep playing at a competitive level.
“It’s different because there is no coach, and in ways there’s less pressure,” said freshman Austin Cagley. “It’s competitive, but it doesn’t take the fun out of it.”
The team now has a reputation for being one of the stronger club programs in the northeast, and plays close to thirty games throughout the season. This year in particular proved to be a strong one for Cornell, as the team claimed both an Ivy League title and made its first trip to nationals.
The Ivy League club basketball tournament was held for the first time this past fall, and included six of the Ancient Eight teams. Cornell came away with a win against Harvard in the finals, winning in overtime by only two points.
“Harvard is a bit of a rival for us,” Liu said. “We’ve seen them a lot.”
“Last year we lost in the semifinals in regionals to Harvard by one point,” Akabas added. “The Ivy League tournament was a good redemption.”
The regional tournament this year was held at UMass during Spring Break. Cornell won the tournament in a final against St. John’s, earning a spot in the national tournament held in North Carolina. Senior captain Mike Hyland was named the Regional Tournament MVP, while jnior Kyle Dolby was named to the All-Tournament Team for the region.
Nine players on the team traveled to the national championship tournament, which took place on April 14-16 at N.C. State.
“On Friday we started in pool play against University of Maryland,” Liu said. “We started off really badly, down in double digits, but in the second half Austin Cagley went off and carried our team to win by 10 points … It ended up being a great start to the tournament.”
Cornell finished pool play with a win against UMD, 57-49, and against Winston Salem State, 55-43. Junior William Scott was named Nationals Pool Play MVP for the tournament. Cornell proceeded to beat University of Dayton, UNC and N.C. State to make it to the finals.
“Those games were exciting because we were playing big name basketball teams,” Liu said. “The varsity teams are really well known, and so they’re schools with a strong basketball culture.”
The game against UNC was the last of the day for Cornell, and decided which team would make it to the final four.
“It was a team we struggled against,” Liu said. “It was the worst we played all tournament.”
However, a late effort by sophomore Joseph Scarpelli, who came into the game and hit two 3-pointers in the second half, helped to seal the win for Cornell.
Sunday’s first game against N.C. State proved a manageable task for the team, as it pulled away with a 56-44 win. It was at this point that the team secured a place in the finals, guaranteeing itself a spot in the national spotlight in front of a large crowd, in the team’s only trip to the national competition.
Cornell traded points with Ivy Tech for the entire game, but found itself down three points in the final minute. Kyle Dolby shot a 3-pointer with seconds remaining, but the shot rebounded off the rim just as the clock signaled the end of the game.
After the final game, freshman Austin Cagley was named an All American at the tournament.
“That’s what’s great about our team,” Liu said. “We had several team members earn honors and team recognition this year.… Different players can step up at different times. It helped us a lot at this tournament. With six games in three days, we can’t just have one person. There’s an even level of talent on the team. … Overall, we could’ve beaten any team there.”
Two of the team’s starters, seniors Patrick Coates and Tucker Burns, were unable to make the drive down to North Carolina with the team for the tournament.
“They could have helped a lot, but you never know,” Liu said. “Other teams had official coaches, yelling and running plays, and all this practice stuff. Our team is just Tal and I sort of coaching … It’s more laid back than a lot of teams, but we still did so much better. That was pretty cool.”
Many of the starting players will be returning next year, so the team is hoping to have similar success and keep up the reputation it has begun to build over the past few years.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Liu said. “They’re a good group and the team can only get better.”