CHESTERTOWN — The turning point came early in January in a 56-53 loss to Argyle.
The North Warren Cougars were, at the time, just another pretty good team. Greatness was a long ways away. Coach James Cuyler challenged his team to think about what it was doing wrong; to decide where it wanted to go.
“Because we knew that we were better than what we showed that game,” Cuyler said, “and we wanted to figure it out, because it felt like the season could go either way.”
The Cougars won 14 of their next 16 games, including the Adirondack League championship game, the Section II title and a state regional playoff game. That put North Warren in Saturday’s Class D semifinal of the State Boys Basketball Tournament at Cool Insuring Arena at 12:30 p.m. against Chapel Field Christian.
The Cougars have grown a lot since last season, when they got no further than the semifinals of the Section II tournament. It’s a more well-rounded group than last year, with different players taking the lead at different times.
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Sean Evans and Elijah Horge had big roles in the state regional final. Seventh-grader Semaj Cuyler, the coach’s son, was MVP in the sectional championship game. Derrick Tyrell was leading scorer in the semifinals. Four players scored in double figures in the quarterfinals.
A roundup of Friday's games in the State Boys Basketball Tournament in Glens Falls.
“When we went into the summer, we wanted to make sure this wouldn’t be a one-man team,” coach Cuyler said. “Sean Evans last year led in scoring. If Sean didn’t have a good game, we’d normally lose the game, so we wanted to make sure we had other guys that could step up.”
Cuyler said this is a very together kind of team, sharing the ball on offense, connected on defense. A team that fits the word “Family,” which is printed on the back of their warmup jerseys.
That is not merely a basketball concept for this team. Cuyler, who is African-American, leads a team with a diverse makeup. His message has been to reject division and work together; to think about the team before the individual.
“These kids, I teach them all the time, to love one another, to support one another, to pick each other up when someone’s down,” he said. “Be that person they can come to when they need to.”
One constant the Cougars have been able to count on is community support. North Warren has had some of the largest crowds of any team during the postseason, and the numbers seem to grow with every game.
“It’s so heart-warming, because these guys feed off the energy of the crowd,” coach Cuyler said. “It feels like every game it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.”
“It’s crazy to show up at one of our games and the whole entire side is filled,” senior Angelo Willette said. “It’s great to see this much support for history, honestly.”
The schedule for this weekend's State Boys Basketball Tournament at Cool Insuring Arena.
What kind of game those fans will see depends on the opponent, and what’s working best for the 19-5 Cougars. They’ve won some low-scoring games, but also scored 77 points in the Adirondack League title game. The scoresheet varies game by game, with any of eight or nine players shifting between starring or supporting roles.
Ever since the January loss to Argyle, coach Cuyler said the team has been more consistent.
“One game we’d be playing up-tempo, in-your-face defense, and the next game we’re not doing that,” he said, “so it was very inconsistent before that Argyle game.”
An observer remarked to coach Cuyler that the Cougars sometimes look like they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder. Cuyler said that’s not too far off the mark. There have been times when the Cougars felt a little overlooked this season.
For instance, they noticed that Chapel Field, their opponent on Saturday, suddenly zoomed from 16th to third this week in the state poll published by the New York State Sportswriters Association. North Warren stayed at No. 8.
“Nobody believes in us,” Cuyler said, “and we understand that. We’re going to just try to prove people wrong.”