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Capital Region's college basketball scene goes beyond Division I teams

Capital Region's college basketball scene goes beyond Division I teams

Area rich with great basketball stories
Capital Region's college basketball scene goes beyond Division I teams
Assistant coach Mike Griffin, left, and head coach Brian Barnes speak to The Sage Colleges’ men’s basketball team.
Photographer: Photo courtesy mahimattphoto

Mike Griffin got to his point quick.

“Well, look,” Griffin said last year to his longtime friend Brian Barnes, “do you have any interest in having a tall, old guy join your program or not?”

The Sage Colleges’ men’s basketball head coach — that’s Barnes — did, especially if that tall, old coach was Griffin.

After all, Griffin had served as head coach at RPI for three decades, winning more than 400 games before retiring several years ago. It was toward the end of that run at RPI that Griffin had taken a chance with hiring a young coach — again, that’s Barnes — to his coaching staff after being impressed with his willingness to call him out of the blue looking for a job.

“He did such a good job on the phone,” Griffin said of Barnes, a 2003 University at Albany graduate who worked for two seasons as a director of basketball operations for the Great Danes before heading to RPI. “It only took me about 15 minutes to think he was the real deal.”

Barnes has proven to be that. He’s now into his second decade as a head coach, and such a run was one the 75-year-old Griffin figured Barnes would work his way into having.

“He really hustles,” Griffin said. “He’s just terrific.”

After leaving his post at RPI, Griffin became an overall area basketball fan for several years, but kept finding himself heading to watch Barnes’ teams.

“We’d become so close,” Griffin said. “I’d always kept in touch with him, but I hadn’t really said anything to him before about coaching.”

That changed last offseason when Barnes developed an opening on his staff.

“And he was a welcome addition,” Barnes said of Griffin, his boss-turned-assistant. “There isn’t a coaching scenario, a strategic scenario or a motivational scenario he hasn’t come across.”

But why did Griffin want to get back into coaching?

“The winters are so long in the Capital Region,” Griffin said with a laugh.

That’s true — and, perhaps, that partially explains the area’s overall interest in college basketball. Most of that attention is spent on athletes and coaching competing at the Division I level, but the Capital Region has quality college basketball that goes beyond the UAlbany and Siena College teams.

“The players that make up [the other levels], they were all the best players on their high school teams,” Barnes said. “They were all-county players. A lot of times, they were all-state players.”

And, often, they have a story to tell.

‘WASN’T EVEN PLANNING ON PLAYING’

Originally, Madison Graber was set to attend SUNY Oneonta and play on the women’s basketball team. Between graduating from Schalmont High School last spring and the start of semester last fall, though, Graber changed her mind and she ended up at Hudson Valley Community College.

“I wasn’t even planning on playing basketball here,” Graber said. “But then I met Coach and the team.”

And everything changed for Graber, now one of the HVCC’s top players. Mostly serving as a reserve for head coach Robert Coleman’s program, Graber averaged 15.0 points per game through the Vikings’ first 23 games of the season.

“I ended up going through the preseason with the team and fell in love with it,” Graber said. “Coach made me love it again. My teammates made me love it again.”

HVCC had a 13-game winning streak at one point this season. Besides Graber, the team also includes former Section II standouts such as Scotia-Glenville graduate Caitlin Estes and Catholic Central graduate Taylor Engster.

Graber is interested in pursuing a career in education, and wants to use her renewed passion for basketball to help further her goals after almost quitting the game just months ago.

“Now,” Graber said, “I want to try to get a scholarship and play at a four-year school after this.”

‘THIS WAS MY OPTION’

Raheem Felder delivers the line with an accompanying laugh.

“Growing up,” Felder said, “I always wanted to be the smartest guy around.”

The work ethic, though, didn’t match up with that desire. So when the Troy native graduated from Lansingburgh High School in 2012, his first attempts at heading to college didn’t work out.

“At that time, I really wasn’t focused on being a student-athlete and putting books before sports,” said Felder, who had short stints at Columbia-Greene Community College and HVCC.

Now?

The 25-year-old Felder has become a model student-athlete at SUNY Schenectady, both on the court for the school’s men’s basketball team and away from it. While he has studied culinary and hotel management at SUNY Schenectady, he has scored more than 1,000 points in his two seasons playing for head coach Harry Rolle. Above his individual successes, Rolle credits Felder — his team’s only sophomore — for the time he has spent mentoring the team’s younger players this season.

“It’s hard to get guys to come together in that short period of a time,” Rolle said. “But when you have someone who is their peer leading that process, it helps tremendously.”

Felder worked a variety of jobs before returning to school. His goal is to head to a four-year school from SUNY Schenectady, continue his basketball career and work toward becoming his own boss.

“I needed to educate myself,” Felder said. “So this was my option.”

After years away from school, Felder knew when he started it might not work out the way it did.

“But I needed to give it a shot,” Felder said.

‘I TRY NOT TO DO THAT’

The toughest part of going vegan for Karissa Birthwright, a senior on The College of Saint Rose women’s basketball team?

Finding teammates to eat with her.

“My girls love chicken too much,” Birthwright said.

But the 21-year-old’s cool with that. Birthwright has noticed her teammates do enjoy the vegan cupcakes and cookies she’ll bring around, but she doesn’t push anything on them.

“Everybody who's vegan wants to talk about it,” Birthwright said. “So I try not to do that.”

Birthwright, though, is passionate about the lifestyle change she made nearly nine months ago.

“I did it,” the Rochester native said, “and I never looked back.”

Birthwright used last summer to figure out how her new diet would mesh with her active lifestyle. She ran several miles each day, and figured out an eating pattern — “I’m constantly snacking” — that left her feeling strong and healthy.

“It was like any diet,” Birthwright said. “Once you start doing it, you have to learn about your body and what it needs. Like, now, I drink so much water.”

Birthwright said she feels healthier and more alert after her diet change. On the court, she’s been one of Saint Rose’s top players, averaging 9.0 points and 4.8 rebounds through the team’s first 24 games.

“Being a senior has definitely hit me in the last couple of games, just because your four years fly by and now we’re almost to the playoffs,” Birthwright said. “We’ve had some tough losses, but we’re having fun and that’s what college basketball is all about.”

‘IT’S JUST BEEN AWESOME’

Years ago,  Edvinas Rupkus headed from his native Lithuania to live with a host family in Pennsylvania, not sure how things would work out for him as he attempted to further his academic and athletic career.

“But we tried,” Rupkus said, “and we succeeded. We got lucky.”

Really, it was Skidmore men’s basketball that got lucky.

Rupkus, an All-American and the reigning Liberty League Player of the Year, is Skidmore’s all-time leading scorer and led the Thoroughbreds to a program-record 15 Liberty League wins as a senior. Skidmore hosts the conference semifinals and championship this upcoming weekend, as Rupkus and his teammates look to build on a five-game winning streak.

“We have some momentum going right now,” said Rupkus, who scored his career’s 2,000th point earlier this month on his birthday. “We’ve beat some really good teams.”

Under trying circumstances, too — that is, for Rupkus.

Last week, the 23-year-old Rupkus was studying game footage with his coaches and teammates when it happened. All the sudden, Mom and Dad — who never had seen their son play a college game in person — were standing there, a surprise for Rupkus.

“And how do I look at the film after that?” Rupkus said. “It was definitely so shocking.”

With his parents watching, Rupkus led Skidmore to wins against Clarkson and St. Lawrence. Winning, he said, is all he has wanted from his college career.

“One of the main reasons I chose Skidmore was because I knew it was a winning program,” Rupkus said. “Coach [Joe] Burke has done such a great job building a program that’s nationally respected, and when I’d visited the guys here were like-minded [to me]. They had such a winning mentality and cared so much about basketball.”

There are important games left in Rupkus’ college career, still more for him to accomplish in a Skidmore uniform.

He tried. He succeeded. Perhaps there was some luck involved, too.

“Didn’t expect any of it. Couldn’t have expected this at all,” Rupkus said. “It’s just been awesome.”

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

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