At the end of the 2001-02 men’s basketball season, the Red found itself at the beginning of a long rebuilding project as the team finished the season 5-22, including a 2-12 mark in the Ivy League. But there was hope. Hope that better days were around the corner because of a solid freshman class that included seniors Chris Vandenberg, Cody Toppert, and captain Eric Taylor.
During their four years at Cornell, that hope has materialized into results. The team has improved both its overall and Ivy League records in each season that the trio has been here, and this season is no different.
Despite two remaining games on its schedule, the Red’s 12 overall wins and seven victories against Ivy opponents are the most since the 1996-97 season. Two wins this weekend at Yale and Brown would give the Red the most Ivy wins for a Cornell team since the 1992-93 season. It would also be the first time the Red swept both the Bulldogs and the Bears since the 1998-99 season.
Yet one of the Red’s most impressive feats this season was the team’s sweeping of preseason Ivy-favorite, Princeton, for the first time since the 1984-85 season. The games were a far cry from the two games the Red played against the Tigers in the 2001-02 season, when it lost both games, including a 22-point loss at Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium.
“My freshman year, we were the worst team in the league, and now we are one of the best,” Taylor said. “That says a lot about this team.”
But the road to success was not always an easy one for this year’s seniors. All three players had to deal with adversity, and none was tougher than the knees of Vandenberg.
Touted as one of the best big men to ever come to Cornell, the 6-10 center out of Harley, Ont., stormed into Ithaca with a bang. In his first three collegiate games — the only three of his freshman campaign — Vandenberg averaged 6.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per contest, including a seven-block outburst in the first game of his career, at Canisius.
After suffering a dislocated kneecap in practice, Vandenberg was never able to fully recover and become the force in the middle that the coaches had hoped for. He played sparingly in 12 games as a sophomore and has not played since having off-season surgery before his junior year.
“[Vandenberg] would have brought a lot to the team,” Taylor said. “He displayed a lot of coverage and devotion to the team trying to comeback like he did.”
Despite his struggles, Vandenberg is still a part of Cornell basketball, as he can be found alongside WTKO’s Barry Leonard at most games doing the color analysis.
One of the things Vandenberg has spoken about this season has been the rare shooting ability of his classmate, Toppert. The 6-4 guard from Albuquerque has been a staple of Cornell basketball for the past four seasons and will set the all-time school record for games played (108) with appearances in this weekend’s games. Toppert also recently broke the all-time record for 3-pointers made, with 234, and is ranked eighth in school history in points scored, with 1,217.
But Toppert’s path at Cornell took a detour this season. After being Ka’Ron Barnes’ ’04 running mate for the past few seasons, Toppert was poised to be the go-to-guy. Instead, he took more of a backseat role so that his team could thrive using the “team-first” attitude of head coach Steve Donahue. Not only did the team have success this way, but so did Toppert who, despite a reduction of minutes, is the team’s second-leading scorer (11.3) and third in assists (50).
“He’s done a hell of a job,” Taylor said. “He did whatever he could to help the team get wins. It says a lot about his attitude.”
In all four years at Cornell, Taylor, the Red’s captain for the third straight year, has exemplified both a positive attitude and a commitment to doing things to help the team. The 6-8 center is the third leading scorer on this year’s squad at 10.7 points per game, the leading rebounder at 5.2 per game, and his 59 percent field-goal percentage leads the Ivy League. Yet Taylor’s contributions go far beyond the stat books — hustling after loose balls, defending taller players without complaint and being the glue that holds the team together.
After a four-year period that made Cornell basketball a program to be reckoned with, Taylor believes that he will look back at his days fondly.
“I’ll remember the struggles and then the improvements,” he said. “We’ve worked real hard and we’ve faced a lot of adversity, but our hard work has finally paid-off.”
Archived article by hris Mascaro
Sun Assistant Sports Editor