BINGHAMTON – To get its first state title in boys basketball, Cooperstown needed 32 minutes of basketball Sunday, preceded by more than half a century of preparation.
Cooperstown defeated Middle Early College, 71-61, in the Class C boys basketball state final, claiming a title for a program that had long boasted success, but not the ultimate prize. It came four years after a similar title run by the girls basketball program, a book end of titles for a village known for baseball, but in love with basketball.
“We were just building,” senior guard Calvin Sandler said. “I was pretty young last time they got to the final four, I remember watching the game, actually. It means a lot to us. It means a lot for us.”
The Hawkeyes had come close on several occasions, including in 2003 when a previously undefeated Cooperstown team fell in the final, and in 2012, when a foul call in the final seconds of a semifinals loss to MEC derailed another deep, talented team. The Hawkeyes also won section titles in three of the past four years, with now-legendary players Tyler Bertram and Owen Kennedy Jr. rewriting the school’s record books. But it took a unique team to get the program’s first state crown.
Senior captains Jack Lambert and Noah Lifgren, co-captains with Sandler, had experienced state frustration as underclassmen, including a section title loss last year to Tully where Lambert missed a potential game winner at the buzzer. Both had previously played in state tournament action when the Hawkeyes won Section III titles in 2016 and 2017, but the Hawkeyes lost two heartbreakers to Moravia in the regional round.
“I remember growing up watching older guys play. The person who drove us (on the bus) down here is the class of ‘76,” Cooperstown coach John Lambert, CCS class of 1987, said. “We got off the bus and I told him we were doing it for the ‘76ers, the ‘87s, the ‘91s, all the kids that wanted to do that and didn’t get to.”
This weekend, Lambert and Lifgren both played an integral role in changing the Hawkeyes’ fortunes. On Saturday, Lambert broke the record for most points in a state final four game, scoring 53 points as Cooperstown pulled out a 108-98 win in triple overtime against Greenport. The senior captain scored a game-high 23 on Sunday, earning tournament MVP honors.
“The team is really excited, especially Jack and Noah,” sophomore John Kennedy said Saturday. “They’ve worked really hard to get here.”
But Lifgren and Lambert are just two of eight seniors on the Cooperstown roster. Sandler, Lifgren and Lambert were joined in the starting lineup by fellow senior Jesse Furnari and junior Ryan Lansing. Ryan Burns, Kyle Santello, Ben Tafuro and Kyle Meyer rounded out the senior class. Most of them had come close to a section title in soccer this school year, too, but lost on a late goal to South Lewis, to fall one game short of the state tournament.
“It feels great being the first ones to get the state title for the school,” Lifgren said “It’s an amazing feeling, especially doing it with friends I have had since I was four.”
Still, it was Kennedy’s emergence over the weekend that may have pushed the Hawkeyes to the title. Kennedy, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, is in his first year of varsity basketball after playing modified basketball and later switching to wrestling as his winter sport. Although he had 30 wins in his freshman season, he left wrestling when he got too close to the 285-pound limit for comfort. His brother’s success in 2017-2018 – Owen won The Daily Star’s Player of the Year Award last year – was one of his inspirations to switch back to basketball.
The younger Kennedy scored 25 points with a game-high 22 rebounds in the semifinal before tallying another 17 points and a game-high 13 rebounds Sunday. He was named to the all-tournament team.
“John has had a massive impact, and not only in these last two games where he has put up some great stats,” coach Lambert said. “He’s had an impact throughout the season. When he wasn’t quite ready to have the ball down on the low block like we wanted him to, I told him, ‘John you gotta be a wall, you gotta make people get off their butt, you gotta rebound. You gotta do other things and the offense will dovetail in.’”
Putting the pieces together was the challenge for Lambert, who took over coaching duties at the beginning of the season. But the transition was familiar as Lambert had been coaching his son, Jack, and his classmates during youth basketball and later in junior varsity and as an assistant varsity coach.
“It’s just a special group of kids. They see where they are, and they haven’t run from it,” he said Saturday. “I love that about them. It’s gonna make them successful people in life. They’re gonna see a challenge, they are gonna recognize it, and they are gonna try to overcome it.”
Few people are more familiar with the program’s history than the team’s first-year coach, who is also an Otsego County judge and acting New York state supreme court justice. As a player at Cooperstown, Lambert also went to a state final four in 1985. His father, Paul Lambert, coached the Hawkeye basketball team from 1958-1964 before moving into an administrative role. The athletic fields at Cooperstown are named in his honor.
“When I think about it, I go back a long long way, as a little guy running around Bursey gym in 1977, 1978 when I’m eight or nine years old,” he said. “We’re all connected that way and it’s phenomenal.”
The names of other legendary coaches like Red Bursey, after whom the gymnasium at Cooperstown is named, remain fresh in the memory of Hawkeye athletes. Each year, Cooperstown hosts the Dick White Tournament, named after a Hawkeye boys coach of more than three decades. White coached Lambert during his time as a player.
Lambert also gave credit to his predecessor, CCS Athletic Director Dave Bertram, who coached the team to two final four appearances and back-to-back section titles in 2016 and 2017 with his son, Tyler, Lambert and Kennedy Jr. as three of his top players.
“That’s probably the most special part. It’s not just us. It’s for all of them,” Lambert said, his voice wavering. “It’s one big group. That’s what makes us strong and it’s why we’ll be strong again next year.”
Now, the “birthplace of baseball” has another basketball trophy to rally around.
“It’s so special, so special. I love being a role model for the younger kids, and really playing for the kids that played before me that I looked up to,” Jack Lambert said. “It’s amazing, Cooperstown is just an amazing community. Bringing it home to them is just unbelievable.”