By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
CANAJOHARIE -- That the Canajoharie Cougars boys basketball team is a step away from playing for a Section II Class C championship is likely of some surprise to most observers.
For one thing, after an above-average regular season ago, the Cougars were a one-and-done entry in the 2012 postseason tournament.
Roster-wise, Ryan Hodge -- last year's leading scorer and best transition player -- graduated.
Perhaps the most notable red flag against predicting a big season for the Cougars, though, was the resignation of head coach Rick Palumbo, who was replaced by Phil Schoff, a rookie coach whose youthful look is more reminiscent of one of his players than of most of his coaching peers.
Yet, here are the 17-3 Cougars, about to take on top-seeded Hoosic Valley tonight at the Glens Falls Civic Center -- which is no surprise to their former coach.
"No, I'm not surprised at all," says Palumbo. "It's a special group of kids and I saw this coming. You've got to give Phil a lot of credit because he's done the right things and they've won a lot of close games, but I really figured they'd win their division and do well in sectionals. I really did."
His faith, Palumbo says, comes from the character of the kids making up the Cougars this season and their new coach.
"Phil is a basketball guy," says Palumbo. "He's been a gym rat his whole life."
That quality is shared by Schoff's group, which has spent countless hours in the gym this season, many of them not mandated by their coach. For example, Monday's practice started at 4 p.m., but the majority of the team was there at least 15 minutes early, with a handful of players shooting around in the open gymnasium starting an hour before the practice session's start.
"That's how they always are," assistant coach Dan O'Neil says.
"Those are the type of kids they are: They show up for everything," says Palumbo. "They want to be good."
If it is the players that provide the willingness to work hard, it is Schoff that provides the guidance.
On the court, Schoff's imprint is obvious. A former scholarship player at Le Moyne College, Schoff draws from a wealth of basketball knowledge to help his club. He says the key for him is putting his players through high-octane practices which challenge them physically and mentally.
"A lot of high school teams do not out-practice the pace of the game," says Schoff. "But I want to make sure our practices are always out-pacing the game, so that when we get to the game we're not surprised by anything."
But Schoff's biggest contributions for the Cougars likely come via non-basketball means. A teacher in the school, Schoff is more available for his players on a daily basis than Palumbo, a teacher at Fonda-Fultonville, was in past years -- something both the Canajoharie players and Palumbo point to as a positive.
"He's more involved with us," says junior point guard Dillan Veeder. "Him being ... a teacher here, it's much easier to talk to him."
The lack of an age gap probably helps, too. Schoff is not afraid to demonstrate on the court during practice, though he declines to take on any of his individual players too much.
"I would smoke him in 1-on-1," senior Kevin Shannon says is the reason why.
The rebuttal from the much-taller-than-Shannon coach: "That's not what would happen. We don't play because he doesn't want me to dunk on him."
Jokes aside, there is a healthy respect between the players and their coach. It is clear that each side has a certain reverence for the other.
"When you have good players, they'll execute, they'll listen and they're coachable," says Schoff. "But when you have great players, they listen and execute under pressure -- and these kids thrive under pressure."
"Coach Schoff is a great guy, a great individual and an even better coach," Shannon gushes, unprompted.
The Cougars take their mutual-appreciation society to Glens Falls tonight for a must-win game. While many might not have pegged Canajoharie for a club to make a visit to the Civic Center this season, hard work and a high degree of togetherness has helped the Cougars reach Palumbo's expectations.
"Our huge thing is our chemistry," says Shannon. "What's so good about us as a team is that we don't have one blatant star who comes out every night and is going to score in the 20s. One night, Dillan will be the high scorer, then Zach (Folts) will be it and I'll be it the next night. But everyone contributes and knows their role -- and that's been a big part of our success because we're all a part of it."