By Dan Wright
FLORENCE, Ky. – It’s taken just five years for Cooper High School to emerge as the dominate team in the 33rd District.
Friday night the Jaguars asserted that fact with a 63-54 win against Ryle in the district championship game at Boone County.
After sweeping their district foes in the regular season, the Jaguars survived two games to claim their second straight district championship. No school has more 33rd District championships in the past 10 years, even though Cooper High School has been in existence for only five of those seasons.
“It’s all about the kids,” said Tim Sullivan, who has been the Jaguars coach since their first season in 2008-09. “The guys who have gone through our program have bought into what we are trying to do. Believing in each other and believing in what we’re trying to do every day. It’s been that way since Day 1. Even though we couldn’t win many games in the beginning, our kids gave everything they had.”
Winning hasn’t been an issue lately, as the Jaguars won for the 11th time in their last 12 games, and for the 11th straight time against a district opponent, dating back to last season.
Friday night, Cooper did it by weathering a fast start by the Raiders, and then turning to their size inside to build a lead.
Junior guard Tanner White hit two 3-pointers for the Raiders in the opening quarter and senior guard Drew Mays added another as Ryle opened up an 18-15 lead after one quarter.
Ryle was limited to just 16 points over the next two quarters, however, and did not make another 3-pointer the rest of the night.
“We said we’ve got to get stops on defense and the offense will come,” said senior forward Louis Maniacci, who finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. “That’s what we did. We just started getting stops and stopped fouling so much and the offense came.”
Cooper used two 3-pointers from senior guard A. J. Collins in the second quarter to move ahead, 30-26, by halftime, and then pounded the ball in to the 6-foot-8 Maniacci in the third quarter to pull away.
A pair of dunks punctuated a 10-point third quarter by Maniacci that pushed the Jaguars advantage to 11 points, 45-34.
“Nobody can guard Louis in the paint, so we just had to feed him,” said fellow senior forward Drew Shelton.
Shelton, who scored 11 points, was the tournament’s most valuable despite finishing third in scoring for Cooper behind Maniacci and Collins, who scored 16.
“He is the unsung hero of our team and he epitomizes everything that our basketball program is about,” Sullivan said of Shelton. “He’s a kid that works every day with a smile on his face and doesn’t say a word. You never have to worry about him. I know his numbers aren’t the flashiest and he’s not dunking the ball, but because of his anchor and having him as our rock all year long, he’s a big reason why we’re where we are right now and why we’ve had success.”
Maniacci and junior guard Spencer Holland, who had one point Friday but scored 27 Wednesday in Cooper’s double-overtime, semifinal win against Conner, also made the all-tournament team for the Jaguars.
Ryle was represented by junior forward Will Stuhr, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Mays, who finished with 12 points.
Stuhr and Mays each had seven points in the fourth quarter, but the Raiders were never able to pull closer than six points.
Ryle will move on the next week’s 9th Region tournament at NKU as the district runner-up, but it will be Cooper entering as the 33rd District champions for the second straight season, looking to improve upon last season’s semifinal showing.
“It’s just a matter of going over and not letting the stage be too big for guys,” said Sullivan. “You’re not going to have any secrets. You’re not going to change what you’ve done all year long. There’s no secrets. Everybody knows each other. We’ll see what happens with the draw. This year’s 9th Region tournament is going to be unbelievable and I think it’s going to be one of the best 9th Region tournaments that there’s been in a while.”
RYLE (12-17): Mays 3 5 12, Fussenegger 2 6 10, Bellew 2 0 4, White 2 2 8, Rice 1 0 2, Deters 1 0 2, Stuhr 4 8 16. Totals 15 21 54.
COOPER (23-5): Morgan 1 3 5, Holland 0 1 1, McNeil 2 4 9, Collins 5 2 16, Hathorn 2 2 6, Maniacci 6 3 15, Shelton 5 1 11. Totals 21 16 63.
3-pointers: R--White 2, Mays. C--Collins 4, McNeil.
All-tournament team: Heritage-Charles Henthorn. Conner- Sam Hemmerich. Boone County- Michael Warning. Ryle-Will Stuhr, Drew Mays. Cooper-Spencer Holland, Louis Maniacci. MVP-Drew Shelton, Cooper.
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