By Greg Klein
---- — It turns out Cooperstown’s highly anticipated softball season can wait. Or at least softball practice can co-exist with the basketball playoffs.
“I don’t mind if they overlap,” said Nicole Cring, the pitcher for the softball team and center for the basketball team. “All of the girls who also play softball were talking and we’re fine with it overlapping. We’ll do both. We want to keep this going for two more weeks.”
“This” is the Redskins basketball playoff run, which will continue at 1 p.m. Saturday at the State University College at Oneonta with a regional final against Section Four Class C champion Harpursville. Cooperstown won the Section Three Class C title on Feb. 28 at the Carrier Dome with a 59-44 win over Weedsport.
Cooperstown (20-2) started the season strong and has gotten better as it has gone on. The team was undefeated in the Center State Conference Division III and has won 12 straight games since losing to Sherburne-Earlville, 58-52, on Jan. 11. The team’s other loss came against Holland Patent on Dec. 28, 34-31. S-E and HP are Class B schools.
All year, coach Mike Niles has attributed the team’s success to senior co-captains Cring and Sumer Murdock.
“Sumer and Nic, that’s what it is,” he said. “They set the tone. ‘This is where we belong. This is our work ethic.’ The other kids listen to them because they know they are not full of hot air.
“They are leaders on the court and leaders off the court,” he continued. “They are always doing things to bring the team together, like team dinners and team sleepovers.”
According to Murdock, who plays small forward or shooting guard, it is the unity that has helped the team achieve its success.
“I think it is the relationships we have created,” Murdock said. “Honestly, I think that is why we have had the success we have had. There’s not anyone on the team who doesn’t like anyone else. Everyone gets along.”
Added Niles: “When I coach junior varsity soccer, I always tell the young kids, ‘you are going to do well because you have talent. But there’s going to be times in the season, or in the playoffs, when you play another team that is just as talented. Whether you win or lose those games will come down to the girls on the bench, and whether they are willing to give more for their teammates than the girls on the other team are willing to give for their teammates.’”
The girls on the bench have helped, but it is also the rest of the starting five that have come through for the Redskins. Senior forward Alannah Haggerty and junior guard Maggie Hall are both starters who have had big seasons.
Along with Cring, they are the stars of the softball team; Haggerty holds the CCS season record for highest batting average. Hall is not only the season leader for hits, doubles, triples and home runs, but with two softball seasons left at Cooperstown, she is already the career leader in doubles, triples and home runs.
Hall missed all of basketball season last year with injuries and Haggerty missed most of it. Their return has been a big boost to the team.
“Alannah Haggerty, she’s like our secret weapon,” Murdock said. “She’s been a huge surprise for us.”
Said Cring: “Alannah, she’s quiet, but she is tough and aggressive. Maggie has been a big key for us. She’s a great defender.”
Cring and Murdock are also complimentary about each other.
“Sumer has been a great leader,” Cring said. “She’s the best shooting guard around, in my opinion.”
“Nicole, obviously she has been our main player,” Murdock said. “She’s tall and strong and she’s a force inside with rebounds and blocks. I don’t even know how many big blocks she has made for us.”
At just over six-feet tall, Cring leads the team in blocks and rebounds and is the third leading scorer. She had a high of 12 blocks on Jan. 26 in a league win at Waterville. She also is constantly preparing for softball, pitching four or five times a week.
At least six of the Redskins will play softball, but Murdock — the team’s leading scorer with 14.4 points per game —is different. Basketball is her only varsity sport this year. She is a “shooter” in basketball parlance, and she said she will always keep taking shots.
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” she said.
Murdock practices her shooting like Cring practices her pitching. She said she practices shooting baskets every morning before school at the Clark Sports Center with her father Todd.
“Even before the season, I was going every morning with my dad to get ready,” she said. “I don’t think I am going to be playing in college, but basketball has been my life. I can’t even explain how important it has been to me and how important it has been to my family.
“I dream basketball,” she continued. “I can’t remember the last time I had a dream that wasn’t about basketball.”
Freshman Liz Millea has been another surprise. Millea took over at point guard, stepping into that role from the beginning of the season. She had her varsity high of 27 points in the second game, a Dec. 7 win over Mohawk, and then won the Section Three Class C Tournament Most Valuable Player Award in large part because of a 26-point game in the C-1 finals on Feb. 23, a 50-45 win against Little Falls.
“She’s mature emotionally and she has a great work ethic,” Niles said. “Off the court, she’s a young kid, but on the court, she isn’t. As soon as she goes into the game, you forget she is a freshman.”
At times, you may also forget about the coach, but Niles seems to like it that way. He’s less intense, although no less successful, than his CCS counterpart, boys basketball coach Dave Bertram. Niles doesn’t have a defined style of play like Bertram either.
“I feel like your personnel dictates your style,” Niles said. “For me, the pattern that has emerged is I like to play good half-court, man-to-man defense. That’s my comfort zone. After that, you are always going to have to make a big stop in a close game and you are always going to have to make a big basket in a close game.”
Cooperstown last made the state tournament in 2008, Niles’ first year as varsity coach. The team has made the section finals twice since then, but it has been a long wait to get back to the state tournament, he said.
“We had such a good team that year. I don’t know if I took it for granted, but I did think ‘this is great; we’ll be here every year,’” Niles said.
“This year, we wanted to get back to the (Carrier) Dome,” he continued, “but there is a big difference between setting a goal and going out and achieving it. Now that we have, we want to keep going.”
To do that, Cooperstown will have to stop Harpursville (18-3) and its inside-outside combination of center Miranda Drummond and guard Savannah Murray. The Hornets, who were a No. 6 seed in Section Four, and finished third in the Midstate Athletic Conference, had lost to Unatego twice before beating the Spartans, 60-36, in the section final on March 2 in Oneonta. Drummond scored 27 points in the game.
Most of the Cooperstown girls watched the Section Four final, and then they all met up at Red Bursey Gym for a team sleepover. Whatever happens next, they will face it as a team.
“I always feel a little fatherly to the girls, but I try to let them write their own story,” Niles said. “With Sumer and Nicole, I know I can let them lead. Once the kids step up as leaders, it kind of feeds off itself.”