GREEN TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Riley Haubner could easily be underestimated on the basketball court.
The La Salle senior guard is 6 feet 2 and 160 pounds with wispy blond hair. He’s quiet and unassuming. His appearance doesn’t scream intimidation.
“I’m not picking on anybody per se,” La Salle coach Pat Goedde said. “When you go watch him warm up, there is really nothing to watch. It’s just when he turns the game switch on, he’s a different cat.”
The Greater Catholic League South division’s leading scorer has a killer instinct that you can’t measure. Opposing teams have experienced it firsthand this winter. Haubner on Monday was named the GCL South Co-Player of the Year with Moeller forward Jeremiah Davenport (Wright State signee).
“There are guys who are way stronger than him and way bigger,” Goedde said. “But no one has a bigger heart than him. That dude will show up and he’ll play. He is a gamer.”
La Salle plays Lakota West in a Division I sectional quarterfinal at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Hamilton High School. No. 3 will certainly be a focal point for the Firebirds.
Haubner plays with a chip on his shoulder. It's easy to see why. Earlier in his life, he defied the odds.
On Dec. 23, 2002, Haubner -- then 3 years old -- was discovered to have a softball-sized Wilms tumor on his left kidney. An operation removed the tumor and the kidney.
He spent Christmas in the intensive care unit. Haubner underwent 21 weeks of chemotherapy. He lost his hair and experienced foot drop. In short, he struggled.
But the young Haubner persevered. The family kept the faith. They grew closer together. At age 5, Riley was called a survivor.
“You never forget that,” said his father, Roy Haubner, a 1977 La Salle graduate. “It made us a lot stronger. Today when you wreck a car or lose some money or whatever it’s not a big deal, man. It’s like, ‘we still got him.’”
The 18-year-old Riley is healthy and doesn’t take medication. He has a blood test every year at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital just for monitoring purposes. Nothing is deemed out of the ordinary for the basketball standout.
“I definitely think about it a lot,” Haubner said. “I definitely know I am pretty lucky to still be here. It’s a part of me. I can’t really change it so I try not to dwell on it too much.”
Instead, Haubner, who lives in Colerain Township, has earned the right to be regarded as one of the premier players in the city this season.
He has a scholarship offer from Christian Brothers University and has interest from Findlay and Division III programs. He has plenty of options academically, too. He has a 30 on his ACT test and wants to study business in college.
“Riley is the most non-intimidating best player in the city,” La Salle Assistant Coach Brett Kostoff said.
Haubner, who plays for the Shining Stars’ Amateur Athletic Union team, has taken advantage of additional freedom in the Lancers’ offense this season with his skill set. Goedde handed him the keys to the gym last summer. Haubner worked out for three hours at a time on many days.
Haubner is drawing a lot of fouls this season -- attempting a league-best 178 free throws and shooting 80.2 percent from the free-throw line. He averages 21.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals and shoots nearly 46 percent from the field. He had a career-high 37 points against Elder Feb. 9 and scored 30 points against Moeller Jan. 19.
“I definitely think a lot of people are surprised,” Haubner said. “Maybe they watch film or something and they see me walk through the gym and say, ‘there is no way that’s No. 3.’ Or, ‘there is no way that’s the best player.’ I don’t know I kind of use that as motivation a little bit. They may not think I look like the best player but I am going to try to be the best player on the court.”
Haubner likes to prove the doubters wrong. La Salle graduated multiple players from a regional runner-up squad and when a few juniors did not return for their senior season, it was incumbent upon Haubner to pick up the slack.
“He’s really deceiving,” former La Salle coach Dan Fleming said. “He’s actually probably in the top five of my 27 years of athletic guys that we’ve had. He doesn’t look like it because he is frail. But he can jump. He’s very quick. He has long arms. His body contorts in many different ways to either get fouled or avoid being fouled and laying it in.”
Looks can be deceiving. Haubner has proved to be a high-level competitor who is not afraid to take big-time shots in the clutch. His example has influenced teammates, too.
“It just means a lot to the program because when you see somebody performing like how he’s performed and with what he’s went through in his life what excuse do other players have to give?” Kostoff said.
La Salle senior forward Henry Louden has known Haubner since the third grade. He’s seen him take over games. He’s seen him make the unexpected shots. He knows his friend wants the best for the team.
“It’s honestly amazing to watch him play,” Louden said.
Tyler Haubner, Riley’s brother and a 2013 La Salle graduate, says words can’t describe how proud he is of his younger brother who is also his best friend. Tyler, 22, said Riley knows he can play and run with anyone in the gym.
That’s motivation enough. Look at his heart, his family, teammates and coaches say.
“He’s been a winner his whole life,” Tyler Haubner said. “He just has that competitive nature about him. Once he gets going and gets that look in his eye -- you can tell in some of these games that he doesn’t want to lose. He leaves it on the court.”