For an Oneonta boys basketball team facing an uphill climb from well before the first practice of the season, it was the quality of the ascent rather than the height of the peak that highlighted the year.
As the leader of the Yellowjackets during a campaign that nearly produced a memorable set of accomplishments despite repeated setbacks, Yellowjackets senior guard Graham Wooden is The Daily Star’s 2019-20 Player of the Year for boys basketball.
Beginning with the news that returning star Teddy McGraw would miss the entire season after undergoing elbow surgery in June, Wooden said the Yellowjackets adopted an unyielding mentality.
“We went through a lot, even from before the season hearing the news about Teddy. The mentality was keep moving forward, keep working hard; build our team chemistry and go from there,” Wooden told The Daily Star on Tuesday. “The numbers didn’t end up too glamorous, but I’m just proud of how the season went. I wish it could have gone better, but I don’t regret anything.”
“Graham and the other guys did a really good job rallying each other over the summer,” Oneonta coach Jerry Mackey said. “At that point you’ve got two choices: feel sorry for yourself, or grind it out and figure it out for yourself. We thought we would have two of the best guards in the state, and then we just had one. Graham did a great job right away of refocusing the guys and saying we are still going to show up, compete and see what we can do.”
While Wooden’s leadership qualities are hard to quantify, his on-court numbers speak for themselves. He finished the season averaging 21.2 points per game, 4.53 rebounds per game, 3.8 assists per game, 1.6 steals per game and 1.1 blocks per game as the Yellowjackets finished 12-7 with an appearance in the Section IV Class B semifinals.
“I knew I would have a lot of weight on my shoulders and pressure just because I’d been playing varsity for four or five years and with a really good junior season, teams would key on me,” Wooden said. “Without Teddy, I saw a couple of box-and-ones, different things thrown at me. But I just had the mentality to have trust in my teammates to make plays. It worked out, a lot of guys stepped up.”
This honor is just the latest for Wooden. He was named All-Southern Tier Athletic Conference, a Section IV All-Star by the Basketball Coaches Association of New York and a third-team all-state performer by the New York State Sportswriters Association.
“Graham had a push-pull fight to balance between searching for and chasing good looks for himself and incorporating other guys against the flow of what teams threw at us,” Mackey said. “I can really think of like three or four shots over the course of the season where we looked at each other and thought we’d want that one back. And that’s really amazing over the course of a season.”
Wooden had compelling reasons to get other players involved. The Yellowjackets went 0-4 in games that the senior guard missed significant time, beginning with the second half of a loss to Chenango Valley, followed by two other games where Wooden did not play, and eventually the season-ending loss at Seton Catholic. But those four losses came by a total of 10 points, and include a 71-70 regular-season loss at Seton.
“It just showed that we could really do anything, that we had that next-up mentality. We really fulfilled that,” Wooden said. “It was definitely hard not being able to be out there, but I couldn’t complain because my best friend, Teddy, couldn’t be out there for a whole year. I just knew I wanted to be back.”
All told, OHS took three of its seven losses at the hands of Seton, by a combined five points. The first defeat came Dec. 19 by a 58-55 margin in a game that saw Wooden reach 1,000 varsity points.
It’s worth noting that the injury that kept Wooden out was a long-term issue that began during his junior season, and kept him at 60%-70% health throughout the senior campaign. Mackey, after watching Wooden for almost five years, called that estimate “optimistic.” Wooden had surgery on the cartilage behind his left kneecap in March.
Upon Wooden’s return to the lineup, the Yellowjackets won three straight to reach a section semifinal at Seton, a game that ended up encapsulating the OHS season. Wooden had 27 points in just less than three quarters of play, including an offensive show that produced 13 points in 5:45 of the third period before the injury forced him to leave the game.
“Everybody sees the game results, but the real players and coaches know what goes into that. Graham continued to build layers to his game from the time I brought him up in eighth grade until that performance at Seton where he is the best player in the gym, and he’s about to score and everybody in the gym knows it,” Mackey said. “He just stayed in the moment every day, about everything.”
The Yellowjackets, fueled by excellent performances from seniors Zyeir Lawrence (18 points) and Alex Osterhoudt (16) extended the lead from two to seven after Wooden left the game, but a late run took the top-seeded Saints to the section final, where they defeated Norwich, 79-52.
“It stinks that we lost to Seton the way we did, it stinks that I wasn’t healthy,” Wooden said. “But we really fought and we really came together. It just goes to show that Oneonta is not a team that will just show up. We’ve got a good program, a good coach, a good assistant coach. We have tenacity.”
While Wooden will leave Oneonta with plenty of accomplishments, Mackey said perhaps the most unexpected is his status as the leading scorer in program history with 1,267 points. Achieved during a Jan. 14 win over rival Norwich, the accomplishment went relatively unnoticed as the Yellowjackets fielded just eight players because of illness and Mackey missed the game because of a personal obligation.
In a way, according to Mackey, that makes sense.
“If you really take a pause and think about the arc of Oneonta boys basketball, from Tony Drago and Bob Zeh… the first seven accolades you would give to Graham are not about getting his, about being selfish,” Mackey said. “It’s about teamwork and passing and handling the ball in pressure and changing his body. You’d be pretty far down the list before you got to scorer when you talk about Graham.
“It’s never been about stats with Graham,” he continued. “Then to be atop the scoring lead in the arc of Oneonta boys basketball, that’s something.”
Wooden’s future plans include college basketball on a partial scholarship at Division II Mansfield University. While he is still walking with a limp, he said he is actively rehabilitating his knee and hopes to be back to full strength in July.
He admitted he is a little anxious for the step up to college ball, but the goal to experience it to the fullest will remain from his time at OHS.
“I’m really excited for the next step, academically and athletically. Basketball-wise, a lot of people don’t get this opportunity to play at the next level,” Wooden said. “It’s a privilege, and a privilege to do it on scholarship. But I know I have to get to work and rehab this leg. Then I can go from there.”