Andre Cook wasn’t quite sure what kind of team he had on his hands at the beginning of this season at St. Edward’s University.
Cook, a former boys basketball coach at Hudson Falls, recently wrapped up his 10th season with the Hilltoppers, an NCAA Division II men’s basketball program in Austin, Texas.
And what a season it was — a program-best 30-4 record, a berth in the Sweet 16 of the D-II national tournament, and to cap it off, the Clarence “Big House” Gaines national Coach of the Year Award.
“This was really one of those special seasons — no injuries, everything clicked, very little off-court things to deal with,” said Cook, who coached at Hudson Falls from 1996-2004. “We have our entire starting five coming back next year, so we’re expecting great things, but who knows if it’s going to go perfect again?”
It sure didn’t look it in the Hilltoppers’ first outing, as they nearly lost a preseason scrimmage against their own alumni.
“In Division II, you can play three Division I exhibition games during the season, but we don’t have a preseason,” Cook said. “Our guys were getting sick of playing each other, so I talked to our compliance guy and I got nine or 10 of our alums who are in the area, guys who are 25-30, still in shape, for a scrimmage.”
The same night as that scrimmage, there was a water break at one of the residence halls, so all of the students from that hall went to the gym to wait while repairs were made.
“So the gym is mobbed for a Nov. 1 scrimmage against our alums, and we didn’t even publicize it,” Cook said. “And we’re getting slaughtered by our alums — we’re down by like 20. Our conditioning finally came in and we went on a big run and we won, but I’m like, ‘Oh, boy, we suck.’”
Cook laughed at the memory. A week later, the Hilltoppers went to D-I Texas-San Antonio for an exhibition game just before the regular season tipped off, and won 77-76 on a pair of last-season free throws.
“Now I’m thinking, ‘Maybe we’re not so bad,’” Cook said.
St. Edward’s opened with six straight wins, dropped a loss to Texas A&M-Kingsville, then won 19 of their next 20 games. The Hilltoppers ended up winning the Heartland Conference title, then won two games in the D-II national tournament as a No. 2 seed. In the South Central Region final, they dropped an 89-70 loss on March 19 to top-seeded West Texas A&M, ending a record-setting season.
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“The guys just got more confidence as the season went on,” Cook said. “Over the last few seasons, we’ve been good — how do we get to be great? We’ve clearly taken a step.”
Cook also received the Heartland Conference and NABC District Coach of the Year awards this season.
“Nobody does it alone — if you don’t have good people around you, you don’t win those awards,” Cook said.
A standout at Watervliet High School and Skidmore College, Cook was a four-year player and 1,000-point scorer at both schools. He was a teacher and coach at Hudson Falls before moving on to HVCC.
At St. Edward’s, Cook has been fortunate to build a program from the ground up. He has 165 wins with the Hilltoppers, 105 in the last five seasons.
“I love it here, but I do miss the people back home,” Cook said. “The first three years we were just trying to stay above water — we were trying to figure out recruiting, figure out what works for us. I was trying to figure out who I wanted to coach.”
Cook said St. Edward’s is the best academic school in the conference. That became part of the niche Cook found.
“We’re not going to out-athlete anyone, we have to play a more cerebral game,” Cook said. “We play very different that a lot of teams in our league. We run a lot of sets and we want to run our stuff with precision. We play pack-line defense and offensively we want to push — can you sprint off screens, turn and shoot?”
So Cook wants tough, smart players who play unselfish basketball, and he applies the lessons he learned from his high school coach — New York State Basketball Hall of Famer George Mardigan.
“There was no stone unturned with him,” Cook said. “Work ethic and being prepared, that’s what I took from him. He was always going the extra mile to be prepared. So I knew that if he gives me his best, I’ve got to give him my best — and that’s what I do for my kids.”