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The Suburbanite
  • Fuline, team finding direction, success

  • The former Jackson head coach, now leading the Mount Union Purple Raiders, added another entry to his resume with a college conference championship game appearance. This came after his squad staged an improbable run through the Ohio Athletic Conference tournament, losing 80-76 to Marietta in overtime Feb. 23.

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  • He isn’t where he wants to be just yet, but Mike Fuline is getting there.
    The former Jackson head coach, now leading the Mount Union Purple Raiders, added another entry to his resume with a college conference championship game appearance. This came after his squad staged an improbable run through the Ohio Athletic Conference tournament, losing 80-76 to Marietta in overtime Feb. 23.
    The end was a disappointing one for Fuline’s second season at the helm for the Raiders, but with seven freshmen and sophomores in the rotation, the team appears to be headed in the right direction under his guidance.
    For Fuline, the postseason run served as an affirmation of his decision to leave the high school ranks and make the transition to college, where he has posted a record of 24-30 (16-20 OAC) in the two seasons.
    SETTLING IN
    Even with a 95-42 record (.693) in six years at Jackson and a 2004 Ohio Division III Co-Coach of the Year to his credit during his time at
    Rootstown, Fuline said he wasn’t looking to climb the next rung on the coaching ladder as much as to take an opportunity that availed itself to him after the 2011 season.
    “It really was an opportunity that came along at the perfect time,” Fuline said. “We had a great season in the state championship year (2010), and after that we had a great group of juniors who had waited their turn to play and leaving them would have been difficult.”
    He described the Mount Union opening as appealing because it allowed him to make the leap to the college level without having to leave Northeast Ohio and his extended family — an important factor for a coach with five young children. Fuline also insists he didn’t take the Mount Union job as merely the next step toward a job at a higher level.
    “It was about coming to a place like Mount Union where facilities and people are great, and, really, I’ve never approached any job like that (a steppingstone),” he said. “I have always loved where I have been and, for me, it has always been harder to leave places — to have that mindset that you’re going to move on. I could see myself here for the next 30 years, but in this business, you never know.”
    Transitioning to the college level was a challenge, just as it had been for Fuline’s former players who made the same leap. The adjustments both on and off the court tested Fuline, including a daily schedule that didn’t include spending most of his hours in the classroom teaching freshman and senior English, as he had at Jackson.
    Instead, his day became all basketball, all the time.
    Page 2 of 3 - FACING CHALLENGES
    There was also the challenge of rebuilding a program that had fallen on tough times and learning the ins and outs of recruiting at the college level — a process he previously had  been on the opposite end of as a high school coach.
    “It does take some time to figure out recruiting and adjusting to the college game,” Fuline said. “Certainly, there are challenges that stand in the way, starting from scratch. We’ve been fortunate to now have had three great recruiting classes in a row and to advance to the championship game. Still, not being in the classroom is very different.”
    He inherited a team that included center Matt Kiger and talented underclassmen Stevie Griffin — who played for Fuline at Jackson on the school’s 2010 state championship team — and Nate Jacubec. Those were core players whom Fuline and his staff combined with the freshman class from this past season, which included former Green standout Evan Keeslar. With five freshmen playing significant minutes, the Raiders took some time to establish their identity before finding their way in time for tournament wins over Otterbein and Capital en route to the championship game.
    “We were blessed to have a couple of seniors who had been through the wars and started playing really well. Plus, (we had) Griffin and Jacubec who were all-league guys as sophomores,” Fuline said. “We really started figuring things out around mid-January.”
    Part of the challenge was blending a team full of successful high school players who were used to taking over in crunch time. Fuline had to convince them to play as parts of a team. It was a concept the Raiders grasped well in the latter stages of the season.
    EMBRACING SUCCESS
    Despite blowing a 40-25 halftime lead and missing out on a chance to play in the NCAA Division III Tournament, the year-ending momentum will allow the team to move forward. The championship game also showed the positive relationship the basketball team has built with Mount Union’s 11-time national championship football program and head coach Larry Kehres.
    Fuline has embraced the success of the football program. The football team’s success is a dynamic he has used to foster success in his own program.
    “People who know me will laugh when they hear this, but I’ve never understood that way of thinking,” Fuline said with a laugh. “We work at football games as the basketball team and in the weight room, we lift when they lift so we can see what they do and what makes them successful.
    Just as Fuline and his team have supported the football team, the football team has supported them. Kehres and his players chartered a bus and traveled to Marietta for the championship game along with the women’s basketball team. Those students added to the atmosphere as more than 50 football players, faces painted, cheered loudly for their basketball team.
    Page 3 of 3 - LOVING SUPPORT
    There is a part of Fuline that misses the high school environment, being in the classroom and around his fellow teachers. A trip to the state boys basketball finals earlier this month brought that reality back to the forefront, but there are benefits to being a college coach - and not just the salary.
    Each day starts with dropping his two youngest children off at his in-laws’ house. This gives Fuline more time with them on days when he may be out late recruiting or in the office watching film in preparation for an upcoming game. Plenty of understanding from his wife Amy also helps, although Fuline humorously admitted that there are days when her patience is stretched thin with the demands of being the wife of a coach.
    He is hopeful that a tough end to his second season collegiate coaching season and the support of his family will help make next season another improved campaign for his team.
    “You come in and try to breathe a breath of fresh air and fortunately, I have some guys who want to breathe that breath of fresh air with me,” Fuline said. “Especially with that pill in our mouth, that bitter taste from the championship game, I’m hopeful that will motivate us.”

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