Mike Fuline is in his third season as men’s basketball coach at the University of Mount Union and has the Purple Raiders playing at a high level entering their biggest game of the year.
While Fuline is pleased with the progress the program has made under his direction, he understands he has some work to do to catch up to the program down the hall.
“Make no mistake, there’s not a program around like our football program,” Fuline said. “We’re just trying to win our 11th game, not our 11th championship.”
A win tonight against the defending Ohio Athletic Conference champion, Marietta College, would give the Purple Raiders (10-2, 6-0) just that, plus a victory over a team that ended their season last year in heart-breaking fashion.
Mount Union watched a 19-point lead over Marietta in the conference title game evaporate over the final 14 minutes of regulation and eventually lost 80-76 in overtime.
“It hurt, there’s no doubt about it,” Fuline said. “But that hurt is what got us to where we are now.”
Right now the Purple Raiders are looking down at the rest of the conference, but with Marietta (10-3, 5-1) just a half-game behind them in the standings, first place will be on the line tonight.
Struthers graduate Nate Jacubec is in his junior season with Mount Union and was part of Fuline’s first recruiting class when he was hired by the school. Fuline said he was late to the recruiting process with Jacubec and didn’t get a chance to make his pitch until late-April, after many of the top Division III programs had already shown interest in the Wildcat.
“I think he believed in the school, the coaching staff, and knew what we were trying to build here,” Fuline said. “He will always be very special to me and without him, I don’t know if we have Cody Dillon, either.”
Dillon, a sophomore, graduated from Newton Falls and the Valley basketball connection helped him make the decision to become a Purple Raider, too. Dillon averages a team-best 13.4 points per game to go along with 4.2 rebounds. Jacubec also averages double figures with 10.2 points, 3 assists and 2.8 boards.
The toughness and loyalty those two exhibit is what Fuline said he likes about recruiting kids from this area.
“I think what makes northeast Ohio, and Youngstown in particular, unique is that it’s such a family-based community.” Fuline said. “I mean, I grew up at my grandma’s house [in Youngstown] on weekends eating spaghetti.
“You don’t want to leave that and I think the players are the same way.”
Fuline, an Akron Manchester graduate, helped guide Massillon Jackson to a state championship in 2010 before switching to the college ranks. At Mount Union he’s developed a staff made up of long-time high school coaches with the aim of recruiting some of the best local talent.
Dave Spires joined Fuline’s staff at the outset after spending 12 years as an assistant boys coach at Boardman High School. Then, prior to this season, the Purple Raiders welcomed a third Fuline to the bench in addition to Mike and his father, Dan, who helps with keeping statistics.
Long-time Struthers boys coach Joe Fuline joined his nephew and brother after retiring last year and Mike said the timing could not have been more perfect.
“There’s a lot of Fulines and a lot of yelling on the bench,” Mike said. “I’m sure we’ll look back years from now and have a few laughs about it, but it’s good to have them by my side.”
For a program that’s won just one conference championship (1996-97) over the past 71 years, a win tonight would go a long way toward what Fuline’s trying to build at Mount Union. Although it’s going to take a few more generations of Fulines to match the football program’s success.