The University of Mount Union is known nationally for its elite football program. But its men’s basketball team is also beginning to build a powerhouse. The Purple Raiders are ranked 7th heading into this weekend’s Division III Tournament. They have a 17-game winning streak and a 25-3 record overall.
WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto says the team has been led for the past nine seasons by former Stark County high school coach Mike Fuline, who has found his recipe for success.
Finding the right coach
If you've heard anything about Mount Union sports, it's likely been about the football team. The Purple Raiders have won 13 national Division III titles under coaches Larry and Vince Kehres. It's difficult to match that kind of success. But Terry Pluto said that didn't mean Larry Kehres, who's retiring as the school's athletic director, wasn't trying.
"He was frustrated losing to John Carroll and some of these others. So a couple people told him about this young guy coaching down at Jackson (High School), Mike Fuline, and they won a Division I national title down there and he's got great local contacts. Larry Kehres brought him in and interviewed him and hired him."
Before Fuline was hired, the men's basketball team had only been to the NCAA tournament once. They were coming off of six consecutive losing seasons.
"It was never dreadful, but it was a study for the most part of mediocrity," Pluto said. "Larry Kehres won like 94% of his games in football. For a guy like that, a .500 record just feels like, 'We stink.'"
Fuline had losing records in his first two seasons. Since then, the Purple Raiders have won at least 20 games four times in the last six years.
Pluto said the key to Fuline's success has been to find good players locally and to recruit them without being able to offer scholarships like in Division I. "It took a couple years to do that, but he's very connected with high school coaches and the vast majority of the players are from Northeast Ohio."
A lacrosse player and a YouTube star
One of the standouts is Stow graduate Nathan Bower-Malone, the MVP of the Ohio Athletic Conference. "Mount Union was looking at him and Ohio Northern, and that was it. So, he was trying to decide between the two of them. So when the Mount Union coaching staff showed up at a couple of his lacrosse games, he figured, 'We'll go with that.'"
The team also has a star player and YouTube sensation, D'Vontay Friga. The Cuyahoga Falls grad has 104,000 subscribers on YouTube. "He was another kid that was kind of not looked at very much," Pluto said. "His first year he ended up playing mostly on the JV team. Now he's in the starting backcourt."
His YouTube videos of the players having fun have hundreds of thousands of views.
"One game in Marietta, some family drove from Philadelphia with their kids to get his autograph and take pictures with him. And Malone, who's in the backcourt with him, says people want his autograph now, too, not because he's the best player in the OAC, but because he's the star in the videos."
Pluto said that while the coaching staff is monitoring what Friga is posting, the overall feeling is that it's all fun and good for the program. "They've got a bunch of seniors (and) this is their year here to do something special."
Mount Union hosts Cairn (Pa.) Friday at 7:30 p.m.