Three years ago, the Cardinal Stritch Cardinals struggled to a 2-19 finish.
This season, however, Stritch went 13-11, finished third in the Toledo Area Athletic Conference and won a game in the Division IV Sectional Tournament, proof that the Cardinal basketball program is headed in the right direction.
The senior quintet of Joel McVicker, Cody Clayton, Joey Cousino, Travis Rodriguez and Robbie Bekier, who were freshman when Stritch went 2-19 in 2010, were bound and determined to turn things around.
Since going 2-19 and 1-11 in the TAAC – good for last place – three years ago, the Cardinals have steadily improved their win totals each year, climbing from seven to nine to 13 wins, all while moving up the ladder in one of Ohio's best basketball conferences. This season, Stritch's 9-5 mark in the TAAC was good enough to finish third behind Toledo Christian and Ottawa Hills.
The team's improved play has coincided with Dave Rieker taking over as head coach three years ago.
Cousino, who was a second-team selection in the TAAC and honorable mention for All-Press Team, spoke about the change in culture.
“I think it's the commitment level,” said Cousino, who averaged 12.5 points, second on the team. “I saw some guys when we were freshman not being committed to it and not really caring. As the years went on, we just took more pride in everything, especially our defense, and that's where it turned around.
“It was about guys understanding their role and hopefully that will carry on through to the younger grades,” he said. “I remember, halfway through the freshman season, we'd already played about half the TAAC teams in JV, and I thought, 'When we're seniors, we could win (the league).' If not for a couple of miscues, we would've been right there (this year).”
Early in the season, however, things were not going so well for the Cardinals. Losses to Toledo Christian, Ottawa Hills and St. Joseph CC – three of the area's best teams – left Stritch with a 0-3 record. But, like good teams do, the Cardinals responded, winning three straight games to get back to .500 and eight of 10 to improve to 8-5, a run that was highlighted by a 54-53 win over Maumee Valley Country Day.
Sophomore guard Austin Adams, a first-team selection for both the All-Press team and the TAAC who led the team in scoring with 21.0 points, spoke about the leadership the seniors provided this season.
“They always went hard in practice and pushed everybody,” Adams said. “Even the ones that didn't get to play a lot still stuck with the program. We had five dedicated seniors, and Stritch hasn't had that for a long time. They are the foundation for the building of our program.”
Adams was part of a starting lineup that featured a three-guard lineup of McVicker (5-6), the point guard, and Adams (6-3) and Brooks Gasser (6-2), small forward Jacob Empie (5-10) and Robbie Bekier (6-3) in the post. Cousino (6-2), a guard, and Travis Rodriguez (6-3) and Carl Zacharias (6-3), both forwards, helped to provide production off the bench.
“We started off rough, but once we hit our stride, we played well together,” said Rodriguez, who also plays football and runs track for Stritch. “We started realizing our potential and won some big games on the road (Lakota, St. Mary CC, Maumee Valley CD) but couldn't pull everything together when needed. I give credit to the great teams in our conference like Toledo Christian and Ottawa Hills. In the end, we were a little disappointed and thought we could do a little better, but all in all, we had fun playing together and I'm glad to see the program going in the right direction.”
Despite the fact that the Cardinals will be losing three of their top five scorers, they do return the likes of Adams, Gasser, Empie, Zacharias and Joe Sinay (5-10) and have the offseason to prepare for next year.
“It brings a sense of achievement knowing that this is just the beginning of what will be more success in the years to come,” Rodriguez said. “We have a lot of talent with the people returning and they all have a genuine love for the game, so I know they'll get even better (during) the offseason and I wouldn't be surprised to see them win the TAAC.”