Coop boys set for daunting final four

Jared Bomba | The Daily Star Cooperstown’s Noah Lifgren (right) celebrates after Sunday’s state quarterfinal in Binghamton. The Hawkeyes’ 61-46 win over Unadilla Valley set up a semifinal clash with Greenport Saturday at 10:45 a.m.

Green in the horns, but not with envy.

Despite finding itself in a NYSPHSAA Class C final four filled with some of the state’s most successful basketball programs, Hawkeye head coach John Lambert said his team isn’t feeling like the inexperienced group of the bunch.

“We feel pretty experienced as a group, even though the game is the final four and this group hasn’t been there,” Lambert said. “They are focused more on the opponent rather than the round. They’ve done a great job focusing on that and it really is a great testament to them that they can do that.”

There is plenty to focus on when it comes to opponents, as Cooperstown takes on Greenport of Section XI in the state semifinals Saturday at 10:45 a.m. in Binghamton’s Floyd L. Maines Arena.

The Porters, who come in with a 21-2 record according to Maxpreps, are making their second consecutive appearance in the state semifinals. A year ago, Greenport fell to eventual champion Lake George of Section II, 73-58, in the semifinals.

The Porters feature three players averaging more than 15 points per game, and two averaging more than 20. Junior guard Ahkee Anderson averages 23.9 points per game and has scored as many as 50 this season, breaking 40 on two other occasions and only failing to reach double digits once.

Senior Jaxan Swann averages 21.7 per outing and fellow senior Jude Swann averages 16.7.

For the Hawkeyes (23-2), this is the program’s third appearance in the state final four since the turn of the century, and first since 2012. In 2012, Cooperstown fell to Middle Early College in the semifinals. In 2003, the previously undefeated Hawkeyes fell to City Honors in the final.

Cooperstown may not have the same level of final four experience in its current team, but the Hawkeyes do have greater familiarity with the stage. Cooperstown played in the Maines Arena on Sunday in the state quarterfinals, and the team’s seniors played in state quarterfinals there as freshman and sophomores.

“When we heard the final four would be there, it sounded like a familiar spot,” Lambert said. “It feels more of an experienced situation to be going to that spot.”

On Sunday, Cooperstown leading scorer Jack Lambert scored 24 points, 15 of them in the first half of a 61-46 win over Unadilla Valley. Lambert, a senior, comes into the weekend averaging 22.9 points per contest, scoring as many as 36 and surpassing 30 on five occasions this season.

Lambert is joined in double digits by fellow senior Noah Lifgren with 10.8 points per game. Ryan Lansing contributes 7.3 points per game, Calvin Sandler averages 7.0 and John Kennedy averages 6.7 along with a team-high 8.1 rebounds.

Lambert said his team’s combination of depth paired with a bonafide scorer may be the mix needed to reach the program’s first final in 16 years.

“I think this team has taken it to another level. They play together offensively and defensively. I can’t emphasize enough that when they all play together they are very, very tough to beat. And we are fortunate to have Jack to be the leader, playmaker or scorer.”

“It says a lot about his ability but also his ability to mesh in with his teammates,” Lambert said. “The 2012 team didn’t necessarily have that elite type of player, but they were all very good. But we’re deep as well.”

The Hawkeyes will need all of that depth should they reach the final, scheduled for noon on Sunday, as the other half of the bracket features even more recent success. 2018 champion Lake George squares off with Middle Early College at 9 a.m. Saturday.

Middle Early College won the 2016 title and also appeared in the state tournament in 2015 and 2014. In 2012, the Kats (21-4) defeated Cooperstown in the semifinals before falling to Tuckahoe in the final. MEC also won the state title in 2010.

Somehow, the field’s fourth team is the most daunting of the bunch. Lake George (26-0) has won all 54 of its contests in the past two seasons. The Warriors are hunting for their second consecutive state crown, a fourth in seven years, and a third straight trip to the title game after losing the 2017 final.

All in all, the field of four consists of five of the last nine winners and has had at least one team in seven of the last nine finals.

“We are well aware of Lake George winning it and being undefeated. Middle College always seems to be there, and we know Greenport is hungry and they have some unfinished business,” Lambert said. “We are aware of all of that and the boys are ready for the challenge. I wouldn’t change anything going into Saturday.”

While the Hawkeyes may not boast the same pedigree, Cooperstown has a successful program of its own. Coach Lambert said that his father coached the Hawkeyes from 1958-64, before he played for them as a graduate in the class of 1987. In 1985, Lambert was a sophomore on a Cooperstown final four team.

He said that the program and the community’s support for it goes back as far as he can remember.

“There was always this mindset of play hard and together. We really are isolated in terms of who we play. Maybe that has solidified this identity of us against the world,” Lambert said.

“We’ve been blessed with a lot of good leaders and players, and the community rallies behind the kids. Even the sports that don’t have the success in the win column, the support for the kids is just great. Maybe it’s learned or maybe it’s passed down, but people get pulled into it.”

It’s a history Lambert hopes his team will tap into this weekend.

“Particularly when I think of the basketball program, we have always been successful or competitive in our own right,” Lambert said. “You see the banners on the wall, you see the success, and you want to be a part of that.”