It would be easy for the five graduating seniors on the men’s basketball team to allow themselves to become distracted by emotions and memories heading into the last weekend of their Cornell careers.
But for the Red’s elder statesmen, this weekend is not about saying goodbye. The games against Harvard and Dartmouth are a chance to finish the Ivy League schedule with 10 wins, a feat that has not been accomplished by a Cornell squad since the 1987-88 season.
“We want to get two wins and that’s really what we’re focusing on,” said senior tri-captain Kevin App. “That’s really our main goal. And just trying to enjoy the last weekend.”
[img_assist|nid=21726|title=Monster from the Midwest|desc=Senior Andrew Naeve (right) goes up with the right hand in the Red’s 60-59 win on Feb. 10.|link=none|align=left|width=67|height=100]
For App and his classmates — fellow tri-captains Andrew Naeve and Graham Dow, Jason Mitchell and Ugo Ihekweazu — ending their careers by fulfilling a goal that has escaped the program for more than a decade would be a fitting way to wrap up their time at Cornell; it’s something they’ve made a habit of doing over the past four years.
“When they came here they were coming into a situation that was extremely down,” said head coach Steve Donahue. “What they’ve done in league play is tremendous.”
Donahue’s 2002-03 squad won just four games in the Ivy League. The Class of 2007 helped the Red surpass that total with a 6-8 league mark the next season. It was the beginning of a turnaround for the Cornell program, as the Red vaulted its first second-place finish in 17 years in 2004-05 with an 8-6 conference record.
“That year was our first time coming in second in a long time,” Ihekweazu said. “Each year we’ve taken a step closer to our ultimate goal, which is an Ivy League title. I think our class is just another rung in that ladder towards that goal.”
The 2005-06 edition of the Red posted a second consecutive 8-6 league record and a third-place finish, but this year’s seniors weren’t content with resting on those laurels.
Among their goals for the 2006-07 season was bringing home an Ivy League title and winning 20 games.
While those goals have proved elusive, Donahue says the fact that they were within reach is a testament to what the seniors have achieved. He pointed to their work ethic in the weight room and in practice as lasting contributions to the program.
“They really bought into what we wanted to do year-round,” Donahue said. “Then the next group assumes this is how you behave, this is the Cornell basketball culture. … Their leadership kept that going.”
Perhaps no senior exemplifies that better than Naeve, who recently set a school record by recording five consecutive double-doubles after entering the season with career averages of 4.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
“He’s the perfect example of what we need in this program,” Donahue said. “What you see is someone whose work has paid off. His talent level has caught up to his work ethic and he’s very confident with what he’s doing.”
Dow has also been a key contributor for the Red at game time, despite suffering a back injury and a sports hernia during his career, as well as undergoing hip surgery last spring. The player that Donahue describes as having made a career out of “playing with pain” currently leads all Cornell players with 42 steals and 106 assists this season.
While Ihekweazu joined the Class of 2007 as a sophomore transfer, he quickly became an integral part of the team dynamic, providing a strong presence on the glass and on defense.
“He added something we didn’t have,” Donahue said. “[And] to his credit, he bought into that role.”
Although Mitchell and App have not played as many minutes or posted the numbers that their classmates have, their teammates and coach point to the duo as the most important part of the senior class as a result of the leadership they have given the team this year.
“As an outsider, people don’t understand how a team forms,” Donahue said. “When two guys come in [and] work hard and practice hard without the reward of playing and never show it in their body language and energy level … I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”
For Dow, the staying power of his two classmates means just as much.
“It’s tough to stay four years when you don’t really play that much, and a lot of guys in our program who were in the same boat as they were either quit or transferred elsewhere,” he said. “It says a lot about their character and integrity and persistence that they stick with it.”
In the final season for the Class of 2007, it would be easy to say that the torch has already been passed, since two freshmen lead the Red in scoring. Donahue sees it differently, however, and hopes it will hold true for two final games.
“Our freshmen enable us to score points,” he said. “But our seniors enable us to win games.”