Cooperstown girls basketball coach Mike Niles tells his teams that it is “mathematically proven” his groups that do two things have had the most success.
One of those things is unpleasant: a loose ball drill that this year’s Class C state champions didn’t do. The second thing Niles asks his girls is simple and more popular. He likes them to check in with him every day.
As a physical education teacher at CCS, Niles said he is always available for a quick hello from his players.
“It doesn’t have to be much,” he said. “Just a ‘hi, how is your day?’ Or we talk about food a lot. ‘What’s for lunch? What did you have for dinner last night?’ That sort of thing.
“The loose ball drill, which they hate, is them diving on the floor for loose ball,” he continued. “Somehow they managed to avoid that one this year.”
They may hate the drill, but they like the coach.
“I like that he’s not a screamer,” freshman Maggie Schuermann said. “He knows how to get through to us without screaming.”
“I think he coaches really different than a lot of people,” junior Liz Millea said. “He knows we know how to play the game. He isn’t always trying to coach us.”
“He trusts us,” junior Jen Flynn said.
During the state title game March 22 at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, Niles trust in his team was evident as the Hawkeyes survived a quick start by Northern Adirondack.
After the Bobcats began the game with a 7-0 lead, Niles and his guards were debating, via hand signals and nods what version of the press to set up. Niles called one press, Flynn wanted another. She got her way. Cooperstown went on a 11-2 run to end the quarter and the title was secure long before the game ended.
“They’ve played a ton of basketball together,” Niles said. “I don’t feel like they always have to be told what to do.
“The reality as a high school coach is, once you send them out on the court, you really don’t have a whole lot of control over the game,” he continued.
He’s equally modest about his success, believing it to belong mostly with the girls who have come through the program, and the program itself. The volunteer fireman who drove the trucks in the Cooperstown victory parade, those are the heroes, Niles said. His fellow teachers who have to teach lesson plans, grade papers and give tests; they do hard work.
In his own mind, Niles is a gym teacher who gets to coach in a great program. But in his eight seasons as the girls varsity coach, Niles is 135-43 and has won three Section Three Class C titles and the state title his team won in Troy.
His relationships with the other levels of the program appear solid and without drama. He freely gives credit to his assistants and other head coaches, junior varsity coach Shannon Merwin, modified coach Glen Noto and Scott Whiteman, who coaches the elementary school girls at The Clark Sports Center.
“Mike took over the girls program right about the time I got here,” Whiteman said. “So he and I sat down and I said, ‘look, you’re going to be here for the long term, I’m here for the long term. How can we work together?’ He didn’t have any ego about it. He wanted to work out what was best for the program.”
Still, Niles originally turned down the job. He had coached boys varsity at his alma mater before his teaching position was eliminated. At Cooperstown, he was coaching modified boys basketball when athletic director Mike Cring offered him the girls varsity job.
“I said no,” Niles said. “I had been the head coach at Unatego ... and it was a high pressure situation. I was coaching modified and it was great. I went home early. I didn’t have to call the paper. I didn’t have as much stress.”
It was Niles’ wife, Monica, who convinced him to take the job, pointing out in part, that Cooperstown had Jen Wehner and Samantha Fox returning for their senior seasons and the program was strong.
“She said that if I didn’t take it, it would eat me up every time the girls were playing and someone else was coaching them,” he said, “and she was right.”
A 1992 Unatego graduate, Niles went to the State University College at Cortland where he got a bachelor’s and master’s in physical education. He and Monica met in high school but didn’t start dating until the end of college. They have two children. Ethan is in 10th grade and played junior varsity basketball at CCS. Meghan, 10, the team’s ball girl, will start at CCS next year for fifth grade.
Niles admits he is looking forward to coaching his daughter someday, and he said he expects that it will be at Cooperstown.
“I know she is looking forward to it,” he said. “I would say that it is going to be something special.”
Niles turned 40 last fall, but a state championship is the ultimate repellent for a mid-life crisis. This season he will coach junior varsity softball. In the summer he will referee baseball games, and in the fall, he will coach junior varsity girls soccer. His team is favored to repeat in 2016, but he is the first to tell them another title is not guaranteed. But his life is a good life, he admits, and the modesty breaks just enough for him to appreciate his story.
“I guess it really is, a local-boy-makes-good story,” he said.