Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Niagara falls for Cooley

B-CC hoops standout commits to Purple Eagles

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Bethesda-Chevy Chase senior Austin Cooley has accepted a basketball scholarship offer from Niagara (N.Y.) University, of the Division I Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

‘‘I just liked it up there; I felt like I fit in pretty well,” Cooley said. ‘‘It was kind of hectic. By the end, I just wanted it to be over. I’m happy that I got to the end and made a decision.”

Cooley’s recruitment was indeed a drawn-out process. The athletic, 6-foot-4 guard played in three state semifinal games and two state finals at B-CC. He averaged 18.3 points per game as a senior and was named to the All-Gazette first team.

Cooley was linked with a number of schools over the past year. Barons coach Steve Thompson said Penn State, DePaul (Ill.) and Miami (Fla.) showed the most interest among major-conference schools, and that Central Connecticut State, Mount St. Mary’s, Loyola and The Citadel (S.C.) made offers. The recruiting Web site also listed Rhode Island, Quinnipiac (N.Y.) and Maryland-Baltimore County as suitors.

‘‘We did a lot of work with Austin, trying to get him to the right spot,” Thompson said. ‘‘I think in the end, Niagara got a great find. I give them a lot of credit for doing their homework. ... It seems like it’s going to be a really nice fit for him.”

Niagara made NCAA Tournament appearances in 2005 and ’07. The Purple Eagles went 19-10 a season ago, 12-6 in the MAAC. Thompson said 11th-year head coach Joe Mihalich trekked to Bethesda personally to recruit Cooley.

But unlike former teammate Maurice Pearson, a 6-9 forward who committed early to Ohio University in 2006, Cooley’s recruitment wasn’t straight-forward. Colleges seemed split over whether he would play point guard or shooting guard in college, and despite Cooley’s winning pedigree, Thompson said he heard a number of excuses for why teams weren’t coming after him harder.

‘‘Grades were never an issue, but we heard rumors that he wasn’t qualified; no, he qualified a long time ago,” Thompson said. ‘‘We heard that Austin had already signed with Rhode Island; no, he never signed. ... A lot of people didn’t know why he broke his hand [in the fourth game of his senior season], so there was a rumor that he was hard to coach.”

Mihalich and his staff looked past the rumors. At Niagara, Cooley joins a young roster that had only one senior last season, and just three scheduled to return for the coming campaign. He said he will most likely be a two-guard in the Purple Eagles’ offense.

‘‘They say they play who deserves the time, so I guess I’ll have to go in there and show I deserve it,” Cooley said. ‘‘There were schools that were recruiting me ‘kind of’ but not really acting like they wanted me. I just wanted to go where I was wanted the most.”