June 15, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Two-sport star Cooper Stearns determined to help Irvine basketball team reach playoffs

Cooper Stearns in the Irvine High School basketball team room, is setting high team goals this season. (Photo: Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone).

Junior is also a standout golfer in the Pacific Coast League.

Irvine High School junior Cooper Stearns has found a way to excel in two sports during his first two years at the school, both on the basketball court as an all-league player and on the golf course as a two-time league MVP.

These days, Stearns’ focus is on getting ready for the basketball season and helping the Vaqueros reach the CIF playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

The 6-4 Stearns exuded enthusiasm and confidence for the upcoming season during an interview after practice last week.

“We’re starting to work more as a team and our offense is starting to look a lot better,” Stearns said. “Guys are starting to make better passes, we’re looking for each other more. From last year, where we had two options to score, now we four or five options to score, which is really hard for teams to guard. Our team is playing more confident and we’re more hungry to win since we fell short of making the (CIF) playoffs last year.”

The Vaqueros had some big wins and captured a tournament title finishing 14-13 overall but they also had tough losses at the end of the season and weren’t selected as an at-large team for the CIF playoffs as they had hoped, which led to disappointment, Stearns said.

“Last year, we were looking good and then fell short in league a couple times where we had the lead and we lost the game,” he said. “It really stung and then having the chance to be an at-large bid and having none available really hurt.

“This year, our main goal is just to try and go and make the playoffs because once we make the playoffs, we are going to be a dangerous team for the division we are in. Hopefully go far and make a name for this school that hasn’t had a name really for the past decade or two (in basketball). As long as we have a chance to hang a CIF banner, that’s all I really care about.”

WELL RESPECTED ON TEAM

Stearns, coming off a big sophomore season, is well respected among his teammates and coaches, including head coach Harry Meussner.

“Cooper Stearns is an intelligent, skilled and disciplined student athlete,” said Meussner. “He excels in basketball, golf and in the classroom. His work ethic is relentless. His selfless mindset is a gift to our team as his main goal is to win. His performance helped lift our team to the first winning record for Irvine basketball in some time. One of his more memorable performances was an incredible stat line of 38 points, 23 rebounds, five assists, one steal and four blocks including the game winner against Costa Mesa in triple overtime at home.

“Recently, the most fun part of coaching Cooper has been witnessing the comradery between him and his teammates. This team is having fun, working hard and setting high goals. Cooper always stands out, but he would be the first to say he would prefer the team to have success.”

The 6-4 center was second team all-league as a freshman and first team all-league as a sophomore. Last season, he averaged 22 points and 14.8 rebounds a game.

Stearns plans to be a leader again on the court and be productive offensively for Irvine, which opens play on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at Mission Viejo.

SETS PERSONAL GOALS

“I’m going to have to score efficiently and get the buckets when they’re open and go play basketball offensively the way I’ve been playing,” he said. “But I think most importantly, my role is going to be the rebounding part and the team leadership. My rebounding I feel is probably my strongest suit, especially when we play smaller teams because I can just go and crash the offensive glass.”

Stearns started playing basketball when he was four or five at the encouragement of his father, who is a “huge college basketball guy in general.”

“I played rec (recreational) and didn’t start playing club until I was about 13. Then I started taking basketball a little more seriously in my seventh and eighth grade years.”

GOLF STANDOUT TOO

His father also encouraged him to compete in golf.

“My dad played at (University of) Kansas so he’s a Division 1 college golfer,” Stearns said. “When I was young, he would take me out. Every Sunday at 6:30 a.m. tee time and then after that, we would go and eat donuts on the porch. He hasn’t forced any sport on me. Ever since I was young, he would take me out for fun, he said, ‘I don’t care if you don’t play in college or don’t play at all, just play for fun, I just want you to play the game.'”

Stearns has done it well, not only with his Irvine team which has CIF competition in the spring but outside of school.

“I qualified for the California Amateur Championship, which is a huge tournament for a junior to play in. I did terrible in that tournament ….. I shot 83 in the first round and the wind was gusting and then I brought it back with a 74 (in the second round) which was a respectable score,” he said. “And then the very last day in May I qualified for the Southern California Amateur, which was another huge tournament and I birdied four of my last six to get in on the number, which was really special.

“I made the cut (the top 50 percent of players out of two rounds advance to the final two rounds) out of the best 84 players who qualified, I made the cut out of the top 42 which was really, really huge. And then I played a couple good tournaments here and there.”

‘STEADY AS THEY COME’

“Cooper is as steady as they come on the golf course, which serves him well,” said Irvine golf coach Keith Szczudlak. ” I never have to remind Cooper to practice a weak spot in his game, I know he will address it because that’s the type of athlete he is. 

“In his two years at Irvine High School, he has captained the golf team; as a freshman, he was the PCL individual champion and league MVP, first team all-league; last year, he was the league MVP and first team all-league.

“His goals are to help push the team to a league title, but his sights are set on a CIF individual title run these next two years.”

Stearns has some time to figure out his college plans, but he believes at this time he will devote his energy to golf in college.

At this time, Stearns believes he will focus on golf in college.

“I think it is going to be the sport I’m going to pursue in college,” he said. “If I could go play basketball at some high major Division 1 (program) and be a walk-on guy, I would probably take that but most likely I think I can go and play golf at a very high level. I’ve done well these past couple of years and slowly improved my game so I’m hoping this year I can get a boost. I’m going to be working a lot with my coach this off-season which I haven’t really done before.”

Stearns said he enjoys competing in both sports, which are quite different.

As for a favorite, he said:

“I think I’m leaning more towards golf just because of the way I’ve been hitting the ball recently. But in basketball, I really love the team aspect, especially here with my friends being on the team and kind of being around them every day. I miss that with golf since it’s so individual. In basketball, I love kind of being around my teammates; also it’s competitive and loud and you have people to help you.

“In golf, it’s just you out there. In basketball, you can make one mistake and you can go get it back on defense. In golf, you make one mistake most of the time, you’re qualifying round is done because can’t get back low enough.”

LOOKING AT JOURNALISM

Stearns hopes to be involved in sports when he enters the work force down the road.

“I’m actually learning about journalism right now,” he said. “Probably the profession I would like to go into is broadcasting or sports journalism, because I like sports; I want to be around it. But in school, I think history is one of my favorite things, I like learning about history.”

His focus now is on trying to help the Irvine Vaquero basketball team make a little history.

“If we can go get a CIF banner, that’s my biggest goal for the year; go do something special for the school,” he said.

—Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone; timburt@ocsportszone.com