It’s not as easy as it looks.
Winning, that is.
It’s not as easy as Andre Cook made it look when he was coach of the Hudson Valley Community College men’s basketball team, or when he turned around the Hudson Falls High School program before that.
Cook, who was a standout player at Watervliet under George Mardigan, Section II’s winningest boys’ hoops, has become acutely aware of how difficult it can be since making the jump to Division II after taking Hudson Valley CC to the national semifinals in 2009.
At St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, he said he feels like he’s getting there, but it has been a challenge coming from a program where he was winning 30-plus games for a couple of seasons to a program and a level of competition where reaching half that number is a struggle.
“Let’s say if we had a down year at Hudson Valley, everyone would say, ‘Oh, it’s just a down year. Cook knows what he’s doing. He’ll get it figured out,’ ” he said. “Here, we haven’t had that breakout year, and that’s been difficult.”
St. Edward’s is mired in a six-game losing streak, but Cook had them on a four-game winning streak just before the skid, and he said he believes they’re close to breaking out of it. The Hilltoppers have lost two starters to injury, including a point guard with a broken hand and a power forward with a dislocated kneecap.
Last season, Cook guided the Hilltoppers to four straight wins to close the season, ending up 18-14 for his best mark since moving to Texas.
The support of the people in and around the program helps keep Cook positive and sure the Hilltoppers will eventually live up to their name.
“Our athletic director, Debbie Taylor, is a terrific person and puts it in perspective,” he said. “She understands. She wants to win, she was a coach. Being able to work for her, and when I see our kids do succeed and we get big wins, to be a part of that is really good.”
The challenge has been getting a handle on recruiting. At first, he went around Texas and got his and the school’s name out there, but was slow to develop fruitful relationships with coaches and players.
Now in his fifth season with the Hilltoppers, he has had some time to figure out the landscape of the Heartland Conference and has started landing recruits from Austin — despite the crosstown presence and shadow of the Texas Longhorns — and from other major metropolitan locations, such as Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.
He has a young squad with five freshmen and two sophomores, so he is excited about the future of the program.
It’s two of the upperclassmen, though, who stand out.
Seniors Matt Minor and Tyler Foster hail from Shenendehowa and Albany Academy, respectively. Foster was a role player for Division I Memphis before being lured to St. Edward’s. Both have been more than role players for Cook, he said.
“Tyler and Matt, they’ve been role players, but they’ve also been role models,” he said. “They are tremendous guys, terrific students, and I look forward to watching them walk the stage and graduate.”
Cook also said having the pair on the team was like having a small piece of home in Austin with him. When he wants to talk about Saratoga Race Course — one of his favorite places in the world — or Capital Region basketball, he’s got someone to shoot the breeze with.
He also still keeps in touch with Mardigan and his coach at Skidmore, John Quattrocchi. Playing for them and seeing the example they set for their athletes helps Cook through tough stretches.
He said there is one story he tells with some regularity about his time playing for Mardigan.
“I think it was my sophomore year, and we beat Cohoes, I think it was 115-50,” Cook said. “It might have been a couple weeks later, and coach was running out the door to go scout. I was like, ‘Coach, where you going?’ He said, ‘I’m going to see Cohoes play.’ I remember being a 15-year-old kid saying, ‘We just beat them by 65, take a night off. It’s going to be all right.’ That stood out to me. Here’s a guy who’s not leaving any stone unturned. That part of coaching, the preparation, the hard work. Even though our guys are in a little bit of a slump right now, I hope I’m setting the example that we’re going to keep fighting and get out of this. All that came from George Mardigan.”
Mardigan shaped Cook into a Colonial Council MVP in his senior season (1989-90), in which he averaged 24.5 points per game along with 5.7 assists. He was a Gazette All-Area first-team selection that year and the president of the student council.
He scored more than 1,000 points for Watervliet, then did the same for Quattrocchi at Skidmore.
Before his stint at HVCC, he coached for eight years at Hudson Falls, where he led the Tigers to their first ever league championship. When he took over as a 24-year-old fresh out of grad school at Union, they had compiled 14 straight losing seasons.
His past makes Cook’s future at St. Edward’s look brighter than some nights suggest. He sees that, and looks forward to reaching the top of the hill.
“I have to keep recruiting and figure out how we can get over the hump,” Cook said. “Because it’s been such a long battle to do that, when we get there, man it’s going to be sweet.”