Little more than a couple months ago, Seth Koenig was picking up where Smokey the Bear leaves off, and Rusty Blair really didn’t know what his basketball team was going to look like.
Blair, the Cuesta College men’s coach who’s fast gaining a reputation for welcoming international players to San Luis Obispo, was left hanging by two of his best foreign freshmen from last season’s conference championship team — all-state shooting guard Tom Schumacher, the Cuesta men’s athlete of the year, and all-conference post player Frank Muller.
That, along with the departure of 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Josimar Ayarza, led Blair to say publicly that the Cougars had no expectations for this season. Foul-prone backup Xavier Mylleville was the only “big man” left on the team.
Koenig, a former all-county honoree at Templeton High, played one season for Cuesta in 2005-06 but became disenchanted with the team and spent the past three years away from organized basketball and instead on the front lines of the perennial fight against California wildfires.
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Koenig was out braving flames as late as October but thought it would help his firefighting career to come back to school in search of a four-year degree, something basketball could potentially help him pay for.
No one saw a star in Koenig’s 6-foot-3 frame, but the fortunes of Cuesta’s men’s basketball team were reversed for the better with the addition of the severely undersized center, one who’d matured in ways that can’t be taught on the court.
Now, even if he doesn’t have the height, Koenig has proven to be that desperately needed post player and helps lead a very grown-up and successful group into Western State Conference play, which begins tonight as the Cougars host L.A. Pierce at 7.
Cuesta (14-4) won its first eight games for the first time in program history, is ranked 16th in the state coaches’ poll and enters conference play with the best nonconference record in the WSC North Division.
After averaging fewer than three points and three rebounds a game last season, Mylleville has developed into a team leader, and the other international players who stuck around are playing well enough to make people forget about the two who did not return.
“That’s why we are where we are,” Blair said. “They understand my system, and they’re the ultimate team players, as you can see from the stats. No team can really key on one guy because everyone fits in their own role.
“That generally doesn’t happen in junior college. Everyone’s out there trying to get their own and get to the next level and not so worried about the team.”
That’s the reason Koenig left the Cougars in the first place.
He played on a Cuesta team that was led by sophomore guard Mecklen Davis, a former Tribune County High School Player of the Year at Atascadero who went on to finish his career at Montana State.
That team, Koenig said, was the most talented he’s ever seen, but could not control its egos and ended up sacrificing team success.
“We had a ton of talent,” Koenig said. “We just weren’t jelling as a team, which is what I was worried about coming back. I like to play as a team, and I love winning ... It’s kind of strange because of the makeup of our players. People are going to think, ‘Oh, Cuesta’s not that good,’ and we’ve shocked some people. But we haven’t shocked ourselves.”
The most shocking thing is that the Cougars have so far done it without near as much height as expected for an elite team.
Aside from the 6-7 Mylleville, no one else is taller than 6-5.
The solution to that problem has been a sophisticated defensive scheme and an offense that has gotten breakout performances from everywhere.
Sophomore swingman Roger Guardia leads the team with 12.8 points per game and has scored a season-high of 36, but four other players have led the team in scoring as well and all five of them average better than nine points.
Koenig, who leads the conference at 53 percent on field goals, has scored a season-high 32 and is second on the team with 12.5 points per game. Mylleville, the conference’s top rebounder with 9.1 per game, had 21 points and 19 rebounds in his best outing.
Shooting guard Phillip Jimenez’s season high is 27 points, and sixth man Henok Yizsaw, the conference’s leading 3-point shooter at 41.8 percent, had 24 points in one game.
Sophomore point guard Christian Koutras’ season scoring high is just 13, but he leads the conference with 7.1 assists per game.
“Maybe it’s not nice to say, but I have a lot more fun this year,” Mylleville said. “Everybody fights for each other. The last tournament I didn’t play very well, but the other players had my back. I’m sure when the next time Seth doesn’t play well, I’ll be there to help him out.”
Part of that at least has to do with the international students being more comfortable after their first year of college in the United States.
Blair, who had a storied professional playing career in Belgium and Holland in the 1970s and 80s, had coached international players at Cuesta before.
But it wasn’t until last season that he put together a team that was made up almost entirely of players from out of the country.
That experiment ended with a disappointing first-round exit from the state playoffs, and as evidenced by the departures, the jury was still out on the revolutionary measure.
So far this season, however, the overseas investment seems to be paying off.
“Last year it was the first year, all the internationals,” said Guardia, a Barcelona, Spain, native. “It was nice because we were like a family, but it was all new for us. This second year, we are not freshmen anymore. I don’t want to say it is easier, but you know where you live. You know where everything is. I’m getting more fluent in English, so everything is changing and getting better.”