Admittedly, head coach Brook Cupps doesn’t expect his St. Paris Graham High School boys basketball team to generate fear in opponents. At first glance, the Falcons – from rural Champaign County — may even produce a chuckle.
“If you look at our team picture we don’t really look like we're very good, and sometimes we’re not,” Cupps said. “We’re not big. And that’s the knock on us. That’s our weakness.”
Graham is proof looks can be deceiving. Get over the un-daunting team photo and the Falcons other credentials are scary.
With a sweep of Benjamin Logan and Dayton Stebbins on the final weekend of the regular season, Graham recorded the first undefeated season in school history (20-0) and won the Central Buckeye Conference Mad River Division title. Ranked No. 5 in the AP state poll, the Falcons climbed as high as third earlier this season. That is the highest mark ever achieved by the program.
Graham earned the No. 1 seed in the Division II Troy sectional tournament.
“You never know,” Cupps said. “I don’t know if you ever expect to go 20-0, but coming in I thought we’d be competitive with everyone.”
In 2006, the Falcons went 15-9 with two freshman starters. Last year they were even younger en route to a 14-9 finish.
“Our best two players were sophomores,” Cupps said. “By end of last year we were playing four freshman and two sophomores most of the time. We took some hits, but guys started figuring out how to play.”
That education was accelerated over the summer and preseason.
Playing “70-80” summer league games according to Cupps, the Falcons warmed up for this season against some of the state’s top talent. Scrimmages against Cincinnati St. Xavier, Trotwood-Madison, Dayton Dunbar, Huber Heights Wayne and New Knoxville were primers that helped the Falcons prosper.
“We scrimmaged all those teams in the preseason and played with them and I think that more than anything convinced our kids they can compete with those kind of teams,” Cupps said. “The scrimmage at Dunbar this year was a great experience in particular for our guys. We go out to play and we got like nine guys and we’re just shooting lay-ups. Dunbar has like 18 guys and they’re all dunking. But to our kids credit they believed they could play and we went out and they beat us by two. We played a half.”
Graham has showed up for all four quarters more often than not. The Falcons won 14 of their 20 regular season games by double-digits and showed a penchant for winning close contests when it mattered with key wins over Tecumseh (73-67), Piqua (50-45) and Northwestern (58-54).
The turning point came early on with a victory at Tippecanoe on Dec. 1. The Red Devils were riding a 42-game regular season win streak before falling to the Falcons at home 60-48.
Tipp ended Graham’s season each of the past two years in the sectional tournament.
“It was a big win, especially early,” Cupps said. “They hadn’t been beaten at their place for a long time. It was good for our kids to go in there and win and solidify that they can play with that caliber of club. Tipp’s not the team it has been the last couple years but it’s still Tipp and a lot of teams still lose to them because of who Tipp was. It was good for our kids and the fact that it was there was even better for us.”
The play of Josh Schuler has been good for the Falcons as well. A starter since his freshman season, Schuler is a 6-2 junior guard and one of the Miami Valley’s top frontcourt players. Schuler averages a team-high 20 points per game.
“He sees just about everything,” Cupps said. “His biggest advantage is his understanding of the game. He has played so much that he understands more than the usual player. We play him wherever we need him.”
Schuler’s big games this season have come against Springfield Shawnee (32 points), Urbana (30), Springfield Kenton Ridge (29), Vandalia-Butler (29) and Tecumseh (27). He hit six threes against Urbana and Enon Greenon.
Sophomore post Ethan Ward is the team’s second leading scorer (10.5 ppg) and its tallest player (6-4). Junior guard Austin Jones, another three-year starter, averages 10 ppg, while junior point guard Ben Rosenberger adds 7.5 and a team-high 5.5 assists.
Senior Travis Crooks and sophomore Casey Crable make significant contributions as well.
“We play seven or eight guys and we have two seniors in our top eight,” Cupps said. “Our junior and sophomore classes are pretty much where the majority of our players are. Next year we’ll have five of our top six scorers back.”
This year, Graham’s road to Columbus is lined with potential match-ups against Canal Winchester (regional semifinals) and Dunbar (regional final). A trip to the state final four seems difficult. But then again, so was an undefeated season in November.
“We can’t play like Dunbar or Wayne,” Cupps said. “We have to play a certain way. If we play the way we can, we’re capable of competing with anyone. Whether or not we win I don’t know.
“But our kids believe.”