Seven years after forming, the SUNY-ESF basketball program continues to grow

Despite not having an on-campus gym and early struggles, the Mighty Oaks have developed under head coach Scott Blair.

You’d never guess that Ben Russ IV plays on a basketball team too small for the NCAA.

Russ, a freshman bioprocess engineering major at SUNY-ESF, is a center on the school’s USCAA basketball squad. Standing at 6-foot-6 with broad shoulders, he’d blend in physically on most collegiate rosters.

Ten games into his career, Russ has made an immediate impact on the ESF program, averaging 9.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest. But to him, his experience can’t be summed up by statistics.

"I was literally looking all over campus to try and find students who could play ball."
- ESF head coach Scott Blair

“Basketball changes you as a person,” Russ said. “I hope that it can make me a better person in general. It makes me feel good, it makes me work up to something. Hopefully, as I move on, that can come out in my character.”

He said that while making his college decision, he was searching for schools that had both an academic and basketball program where he was a fit. Russ, who speaks confidentially and delivers refreshingly honest, intelligent answers to questions, said that he could have continued his playing career at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, or Clarkson University. Russ ultimately picked ESF because it best met both of the criteria he was looking for.

But, just seven years ago, SUNY-ESF wouldn’t have been a match for Russ as the school had no basketball program, not even a club team. All that changed with the arrival of Scott Blair and Tim Hornstein on campus, and a conversation the two had in the school’s library.

Blair was hired to oversee the school’s academic support services in 2008. He brought a basketball background with him, having served as an assistant coach at NCAA Division II Kutztown University, in Pennsylvania, for two seasons and then for three seasons in the same position at nearby Onondaga Community College.

Scott Blair on the ESF sideline during a game against Paul Smith's College

Scott Blair on the ESF sideline during a game against Paul Smith's College (Photo: Bryan Cereijo)

With no basketball program at his new school, Blair was left with few options to continue his coaching career. But, he had an idea: building a basketball program from the ground up at ESF.

For most of Blair’s first year and a half at the school, that’s all it was: just an idea. Then he saw Hornstein walking around ESF in 2009-10 wearing a St. Lawrence basketball T-shirt.

“I was literally looking all over campus to try and find students who could play ball,” Blair said about seeing Hornstein at the school. 

Hornstein, who grew up in the Syracuse area, had just transferred to the school from St. Lawrence, where he was a member of the university’s NCAA Division III basketball program. After not receiving much playing time at St. Lawrence as a freshman, he decided to enroll at ESF because of the school’s academic reputation.

Hornstein was in Moon Library studying one afternoon during his first year at ESF while Blair was passing through. Blair approached Hornstein to see if he’d be interested in trying to form the school’s first basketball team.

“The idea to move forward with it really happened that day,” Blair said. “I had it floating around in my head for a while. But, I was like, ‘you know what, I’m going to go. We’re going to start looking.’”

Hornstein, who was playing in three rec leagues at that time, said the conversation in Moon Library changed the course of his college experience.

“I’m coming in as a transfer, I don’t really know anyone on campus,” Hornstein said. “That was the turning point [for me]. Not only do I enjoy the drills and playing basketball, but that led to my friend group at ESF.”

Sitting in a booth at Varsity Pizza nearly seven years later, he can still vividly recall the interaction, and repeated Blair’s opening line verbatim.  

“[Scott came up and said], you’re pretty tall, did you ever play basketball?” Hornstein said Blair asked him.

Within minutes, the beginnings of SUNY-ESF’s program had taken shape and Hornstein soon started looking for other interested players for the 2010-11 season. He already had someone in mind: fellow transfer Derrick Knudsen.

Knudsen had spent his first semester of college playing for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, before transferring to ESF. His team and Hornstein’s competed in the same conference their freshmen years and the two often saw each other playing pick-up at Archbold Gym. When Hornstein told Knudsen about the new team, he quickly came aboard.

As for the rest of the roster, things weren’t so easy. Knudsen went around campus searching for anyone who would be interested in playing basketball. Hornstein — who was an orientation advisory during the summer of 2010 — said he started recruiting incoming freshmen who were tall and looked like athletes to come and try out for the new team, which competed on the club level its first two seasons.

But, by the time practice began in the fall of 2010, Knudsen estimated that just five players had competed on their high school’s varsity team, and everyone else had little to no basketball experience. That didn’t bode well for the team’s chances of being competitive.

“Our shooting guard was a lacrosse player,” Hornstein said. “There were football players who had never really played organized basketball. So, it wasn’t a talented group of basketball players.”

The biggest challenge of putting a team together may not have even been filling out the roster. The ESF campus lacks any athletic facilities, so just finding practice time was difficult. The team rotated to different gyms on the Syracuse University campus, before they opened for students. Players were forced to get themselves out of bed and be on the court by 6:30 a.m. most mornings. The current team still follows this schedule.

But, Hornstein said that the odd practice times may have been a positive, as it required everyone to be 100 percent committed. The players formed a bond that first year, despite not winning a game.

“It wasn’t perfect, but we made it work,” Hornstein said. “The whole time we were going through this, we could tell we were on the right path of building something. That someday, this is going to be a program.”

The first signs of progress came in the club’s second season, when the team went on the road and captured its first victory, a 20-point win over the Culinary Institute.

To most programs, that win would have been insignificant, just any other game. But, to a team just beginning to form, it was a big deal. Both Hornstein and Knudsen say that the victory was a tremendous milestone and the whole team left the gym with positive feelings.

But, that didn’t last for long. Just hours later, on the ride back to campus, the team’s vans broke down on the side of the highway. They had been running on biodiesel fuel produced at the school and, because of the cold weather that night, the team stalled out in the middle of the ride back.

“We were all saying ‘jeez, we’re in our second year together, we just got our first win,’” Knudsen said. “And we felt like hell freezes over, our bus broke down halfway back… It was a really funny, comedic time for us. It was unbelievable.” 

The team managed to make it back and continued to grow. In 2012-13, SUNY-ESF transitioned to a varsity program that competes in the USCAA Division II level.

The USCAA, a collegiate athletic governing body outside of the NCAA, was established in 2009 and is an organization for small programs to compete against each other. Other schools in the USCAA are similarly growing teams like ESF. Blair said that the program could potentially move to the NCAA Division III level sometime in the future.

Blair and his assistant coach, Brandon Haughton, no longer recruit from orientation. ESF now has a roster with players who all have high school experience and it qualified for the conference tournament a season ago, the first playoff berth in program history.

Blair believes that the program never would have made it to that point without Hornstein and Knudsen.

“We are where we are now because of the sacrifices that Tim’s group, that the team that was with Tim, made to put us in this position,” Blair said. “At first it was just an idea… It was a staff member with a plan, but at the end of the day you need to have students and he was the one. Forever indebted to Tim.

ESF even had a USCAA All-American honorable mention performer last season, Ryan Caldwell, who averaged 15.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.

Ryan Caldwell attempts to block a shot in a game against Paul Smith's College

Ryan Caldwell attempts to grab a rebound against Paul Smith's College (Photo: Bryan Cereijo) 

This year, Caldwell has been even better. The 6-foot-4 forward is up to 21.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per contest. He has broken the program’s single game scoring record on multiple occasions and often times, he is the best player on the court. But, without a basketball program at ESF, he may never have been able to extend his playing career.

“I wasn’t really recruited heavily [out of high school],” Caldwell said. “I really love basketball. Coach gave me an opportunity to play and I jumped at it…I’ve made a lot of great friendships, met a lot of great people [at ESF].”

Now, the team plays its home games at both Syracuse’s ITC High School and at Onondaga Community College, depending on gym availability. A few hundred people attend each game, and the school runs a fan bus to some match-ups. This may not seem like much, but it marks tremendous growth for a program that did not exist before 2010.

“Let's put it this way, you knew the fans that were going to be there,” Hornstein said about the early years of the program. “Home games we’d have some of our friends. But it was like 30, 50 at most. Empty gyms, very empty gyms.”

Both Hornstein and Knudsen say that they’ve followed the program’s growth since graduating from the school. Hornstein served as an assistant coach under Blair for two seasons and he said that helping to put the team together is one of his biggest accomplishments. 

“The program is still growing,” Hornstein said. “That’s going to be my legacy at ESF. That’s my proudest thing.”

At a midseason practice in early December, Blair walks his team through zone-defense drills in preparation for a game at Onondaga Community College the next night. It’s early on a Sunday morning and, without practice, most of the players would have been sleeping in, but no one seems to mind.

The mood was light, as the team was coming off a 65-52 road victory over Alfred State the day before. Blair keeps his team for about an hour, ending with free throw shooting before the players head home. 

“I love basketball,” Russ said following practice. “I wouldn’t play it if I didn’t. Every day I get to come out here and do something I love.”

ESF Basketball

Great article about a great program. As a parent of a player in the program, I am proud to be associated with such a great group of people - coaches, players, parents, grandparents, etc. Thank you for the article!

Thank you!

Thanks E.Jay Zarett for involving me in this story and bringing light to one of the proudest moments and movements of my life. I love the game, I love community, and there's nothing better than a sports program that helps bring good people together all working towards a common goal!

Really proud of my friend

Really proud of my friend Scott, a lot of hard work and determination to get this program where it is. I'm proud to have served as his assistant coach those first three seasons. Glad I got the chance to know guys like Tim, Derrick, and the others. It hasn't always been easy, but Scott's love for the game, and more importantly, his desire to see these young men grow in character and academics as well as athletics, is why he's been so sucessful. #feartheforest

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.