After the Section III Class C girls basketball championship, Cooperstown coach Michael Niles had an interesting way of describing senior captain Kate Trosset’s competitiveness.
“You look at her, and she has that smile, and you think she is gonna grow up to be a senator,” Niles said. “But I tell you what, I wouldn’t want to play checkers against her.”
Trosset has shared this inconspicuous tenacity with the rest of her teammates as the Hawkeyes, seeded fourth in the section tournament, have ridden defense and grit to the program’s third section title in in five years and first since 2016.
Now, Cooperstown advances to the regional final against the Section IV Class C champion, Watkins Glen. Tip is scheduled for Sunday at 2:15 p.m. in Binghamton’s Floyd L. Maines Arena.
The Senecas defeated Unatego, 53-42, in the Section IV final for their fourth section crown in five years.
Watkins Glen is a less familiar opponent than Unatego would have been, as the Spartans defeated Cooperstown, 42-28, on Jan. 28 and 48-44 on Dec. 27. Despite the Senecas defeating the team that gave the Hawkeyes (19-5) two of their five losses, Niles said his team is a better matchup for Watkins Glen than for Unatego.
“Technically, I think we match up better with Watkins Glen. We had trouble matching up with the Perrys on Unatego but I think we match up a little better here,” Niles said. “Getting off the bus, Watkins Glen may be a little taller than us, but they don’t have a bunch of six-footers. When we get off the bus we have a bunch of 5-6, 5-7 kids, too.”
Apart from undersized, defense-focused rosters, the Senecas and Hawkeyes also share some not-too-distant history. Cooperstown defeated Watkins Glen in this round during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.
Also, both programs boast a recent state title; Cooperstown won the NYSPHSAA Class C title in 2015 after beating Watkins Glen earlier in the tournament, while the Senecas won the title two seasons ago in 2017.
For Watkins Glen, some of the talent from the state championship team remains. Senior Hannah Morse scored the winning basket in the state championship game, and remains the Senecas’ primary ballhandler.
Also returning for the Senecas is senior Taylor Kelly, who scored a game-high 25 points on seven 3-pointers in the section final.
“They’re the last two kids from their state championship in 2017,” Niles said. “They defend well and they are smart. Overall, they don’t have any six-footers or anybody with 55, 65 threes. But they are tough.”
Watkins Glen started three seniors and two juniors in the section final, while Cooperstown started three seniors, a junior and an eighth-grader in the Section III final. Despite comparable ages, Watkins Glen fields a team with state experience, while the Hawkeyes’ late run is due the emergence or reemergence of players that have waited to impact the program.
Niles highlighted the consistent scoring and defense of Trosset and junior Piper Seamon, as well as the rebounding of seniors Emilie Perez and Lauren Vibbard. Eighth-grader Meagan Schuermann has also hovered around a double-double in postseason play.
Still, it is defense that has led the Hawkeyes to wins in 15 of their last 16 games. The Hawkeyes gave up just 44.3 points per game over four section playoff games, despite playing the tournament’s top two seeds in the semifinals and final.
“Well I don’t want to sound cliche, but it has come down to reinforcement of what our defensive principles are,” Niles said. “Using our language to discuss what we are doing defensively without a lot of knowledge about our opponents.”
The Floyd L. Maines Arena in Binghamton is also a difficult place to shoot, according to Niles. He said he hopes that the experience of playing in the Carrier Dome has prepared the Hawkeyes for another game with open space behind the backboard. SUNY Cortland’s gymnasium, where the Section IV final was contested, does not mimic that backdrop.
“I don’t remember anybody having knockout shooting night [in Binghamton]. So I think the dome is a good experience, learning to see the ball fly and trusting your feet,” Niles said. “Hopefully there is a little spark from the dome in terms of shooting in that our feet are collected and our release is good.”
Considering the venue and both team’s defensive abilities, Niles said we may see a “football score” on Sunday. But regardless of the result, the late-season run has already been gratifying for Niles.
“No matter what happens, we may not like the result, but we can accept what happens knowing that we played and prepared as hard as we can,” Niles said.
“It’s a fantastic group of kids to be around, and they are pretty good at basketball so we’ll take out best shot Sunday and see how it works out.”