Cooper Jaguars boys' hoops in Sweet 16 just nine years after inagural season's 2-25 campaign

Coach Tim Sullivan has been there for all of it

UNION, Ky. -- Coach Tim Sullivan took a moment Monday as his 9th Region champion Cooper boys’ basketball team was wrapping up practice at Xavier University’s Cintas Center to look back at the first nine years of Jaguars basketball and he smiled.

His team was 2-25 that first season during the 2008-2009 school year when the Boone County School District expanded to four high schools.

“All the sudden, now we’re playing in the Sweet Sixteen,” Sullivan said. “Pretty special.”

The Jaguars (28-4) will play 3rd Region champion Meade County (13-21) at 8 p.m. Thursday to wrap up the opening round of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys Sweet Sixteen Basketball Tournament at Rupp Arena in Lexington.

It has taken less than a decade for Sullivan and his coaching staff to build a program that has nearly reached the pinnacle of the high school sport the commonwealth of Kentucky loves. The Jags followed their first season with a 5-25 record and then an 11-17 mark before going 16-15 in 2011-2012 to start a run of five winning seasons in the last six years. Cooper has won at least 24 games in three of those seasons including this one.

Now they’re four wins from a state title.

From left, Cooper's Dante Hendrix (3), Chris McNeil, Sean McNeil, Adam Kunkel (5) and Brayden Runion (11) at practice Monday at Cintas Center. (Tom Ramstetter/WCPO Contributor)

“It’s kind of like watching my kids grow up after watching the bumps and bruises we went through early on,” Sullivan said. “Our alumni are still coming out and are around the program. They’ve paved the way for these guys to do this. To be the coaching staff that has been here from Day 1, it’s pretty special to see because we’ve got our hands all over it. We’ve watched it develop.”

The Cooper program has come a long way since 2008 and this team has come a long way since practice started in October. The Jaguars have won 14 straight since a 55-52 loss Jan. 20 at Covington Catholic. The streak includes the Jags’ 51-38 win over CovCath March 6 at BB&T Arena in the 9th Region final.

A grueling schedule that included games against Ohio powers Mason and Elder and tournament trips to Louisville and Lexington was designed to test the Jags and it has led straight to Rupp Arena. District and regional championship goals have been checked off the list and one goal remains.

“We’re not satisfied,” junior guard Adam Kunkel said. “We’re trying to go and do bigger things. We’re trying to make a run at this and possibly win it. We know what our goals are and we want to go get it. We just have to keep practicing and grind stuff out.”

The Jags will attempt to reach their final goal the same way they’ve reached others -- by following their coach’s mantra of getting better every day and understanding the process.

“Just focus on our job and focus on the little things,” senior guard and leading scorer Sean McNeil said. “Lately we’ve been focused on rebounding because we’re not one of the biggest teams. We fight for everything we get. I think we all know that and we all work hard for it.”

And never lose focus. Not in practice, in a game or in just spending time with teammates.

“Sully keeps us locked in from start to finish,” junior guard Brayden Runion said. “If we get off topic, he’s there to correct us. We’re a really good team when we’re locked in. It’s the same thing we’ve been doing since Oct. 15. Stay locked in and be ready every day. We can’t take any days off.”

Scouting Report

The Jaguars are not fooled by Meade County’s 13-21 record. The Green Wave lost 19 of its final 20 regular-season games after standout senior center James Baker went down with a thumb injury at a holiday tournament in December.

But Baker, who leads three teammates averaging double figures with 16.3 points per game, returned just before the 11th District Tournament and Meade County hasn’t been the same since. Baker and the Green Wave have won four of five postseason games and won the school’s first regional title since 1984.

“We understand that their record is the way it is because their best player was out for about a month or two months out of the season,” Sullivan said. “They play really hard. They’re extremely scrappy. They’re physical and that’s what we’re trying to simulate in practice.”

Junior Aiden Matthews has added 10.5 points per game and junior Noah Schwartz has scored 10 points per game for Meade County, but stopping Baker will be the key.

“We know this is going to be a big battle,” Kunkel said. “I think we’ll be ready.”

Cooper also features three players who average double figures, led by McNeil at 16.9 points per game and Kunkel at 16.8.

“Sean being a senior four-year starter is a guy who gets it,” Sullivan said. “Some nights he going to score, some nights he is going to have to rebound and some nights he’s going to find the open man. That was evident in our region final when he only scored nine points, but the two biggest plays were when he made a really nice drive and kick on back-to-back plays to Brayden and Dante (Hendrix) for threes.

“Adam -- I guess they call it spurtability. He can score big numbers really quickly. He can go off the bounce and do things and can score in different ways.”

Runion has emerged as a star throughout the season, averaging 10.3 points per game while playing with a lot of intensity.

“He just plays with such energy,” Sullivan said. “He got Mr. Hustle in our conference this year and I was glad to see that because the fact that the coaches in our conference saw the fact that he plays 100 miles per hour all the time.”

Senior Dante Hendrix, who Sullivan called the heart and soul of the team, has averaged 7.8 points per game while doing a little of everything on the court.

Meade County will have a tough task of continuing its hot streak against a balanced team offensively that challenges everything on the defensive end.

“We’re going to be in your face from tip to buzzer,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to challenge every single pass and every single shot. Offensively, you’re going to see a team that is very selfless and really looks for each other, always trying to make that extra pass. They’re not worried about who is scoring and more worried about us as a team having success.”

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