After winning just about everything there was to win in 2018-19, Cooperstown boys basketball coach John Lambert faced a different challenge in his second season leading the Hawkeyes.
Despite losing 10 of 13 players and four of five starters, including last season’s Class C state player of the year in Jack Lambert, the Hawkeyes moved past a slow start to narrowly miss out on repeating as Section III Class C champions.
For his efforts guiding a young Hawkeyes team back to the section final, Lambert is The Daily Star’s Coach of the Year for boys basketball for the second consecutive season.
“That’s the beauty and the art of coaching. We had lost close to 80% of our offense and 80% of our starting lineup,” Lambert told The Daily Star on Thursday. “ But getting players into positions where they can be successful is the art of coaching, and it’s something I love doing.”
Cooperstown started the season 0-2 with losses to Delhi and Vernon-Verona-Sherrill.
The slow start could be attributed to a pair of quality opponents, but also a lack of familiarity within the incoming roster. While the previous season saw Lambert take charge of a team primarily featuring his eldest son’s closest friends, he said this season’s roster included mostly inexperienced players and some that may have not played basketball to focus on other sports.
Senior Kaishaun Jefferson, who ended up earning a Center State Conference Division III All-Star selection, unexpectedly arrived in the district just weeks before the season, adding to the uncertainty.
According to Lambert, who is also an Otsego County judge, it was steady improvement that allowed the Hawkeyes to bounce back with 10 consecutive wins in a streak that lasted more than a month.
“If the player likes to come to practice, if they like their role, if they want to push themselves to be better, that’s what I want,” Lambert said. “I want them to be totally different players at the end of the year, and we were lucky to have a group of players that wanted to do that. I was super proud of them and couldn’t ask for more effort.”
There were, of course, key returners in junior Spencer Lewis and senior Ryan Lansing, the lone returning starter from last season’s team. Each joined Jefferson as league all-stars and averaged double-digit points per game.
But the key to the season became the transformation of junior center John Kennedy from a little-used force of intimidation during his sophomore year to the offensive and defensive focal point as a junior.
Kennedy had experience playing youth basketball, but had wrestled as a freshman before returning to basketball his sophomore year. While the state semifinals and final last year saw the 6-foot-9-inch center begin to show his potential, it was clear more development was needed for Kennedy to become the centerpiece of this season’s team.
It worked out, however, as Kennedy averaged 17.2 points per game, 14.6 rebounds per game and 3.7 blocks per game. He set the school’s single-season record for blocks with 89, and collected a haul of awards that include the CSC Division III Player of the Year award and an appearance on the Class C all-state second team.
Lambert described a summer of work and contact between the two as Kennedy turned into one of the area’s top players.
“He just dives into it. I know he gets frustrated sometimes when things don’t happen right away, but if they were easy, everyone would do them,” Lambert said. “To go from last year, where he would come off the bench as the big kid that everyone saw in warmups, he was someone people would look at then the rest of the guys would kill them.
“This year I told him it wouldn’t be that way,” Lambert continued. “He was going to be the focal point, and teams figured that out over the year, leaving opportunities for Ryan, or Spencer, Kaishaun and Kendall (Haney).”
The Hawkeyes, who ended the year 18-6, will lose three players to graduation in Lansing, Jefferson and guard David Valmas. But expectations including a potential sixth consecutive trip to the section final are not out of the realm of possibility ahead of next season.
“I’m hoping everybody comes back and is ready to go, and we can build on this year. To go through this season we are happy with where we ended up,” Lambert said. “I’m excited about next year. And the kids are already dribbling in their driveway because there’s not much else they can be doing.”