Fuline keeps Jackson connection at Mount Union

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent
Former Jackson High School basketball coach Mike Fuline has turned Mount Union into a Division III national power.

ALLIANCE  A decade removed from his successful run as the head coach of the Jackson Polar Bears, Mike Fuline is still winning games and fittingly enough, still doing so with a purple and gold connection.

Now in his 10th season leading Mount Union men's basketball, the veteran coach has his squad off to a 3-0 start in a season that has already been shortened at its start and as of this week, at its conclusion. The Purple Raiders are ranked second in the most recent NCAA Division III poll and it's thanks in part to a handful of local players whose number includes former Jackson standouts Logan Hill and Ethan Stanislawski.

"It's been incredible .. the best thing about both guys is the people they are and you really like being around them," Fuline said. "The good news is that they're special players too. It's great to recruit all around the surrounding area so the kids' families can be part of it. That's what it's all about and we've had a lot of success with NEO kids ... there's a high quality of basketball around here."

Combined, Hill and Stanislawski are averaging 22.6 points and 10 rebounds per game and have started all five of Mount Union's games so far. Both played for current Jackson head coach Tim Debevec, who was on Fuline's staff when the Polar Bears won their first state championship in 2010.

The style of play that has defined the Jackson program has had much of the same basketball DNA between Fuline's tenure and Debevec's and produced a second state title in 2017, when Hill and Stanislawski were part of the program. Now that the duo have reunited at Mount Union, key parts of their game can be traced back to their high school careers.

"There's always a toughness around them and it (winning) means something to them," Fuline said of what stands out about former Jackson players. "They want to win and they're just guys who know what it takes to win games and win championships. They have that work ethic in the offseason that drives them and that really parallels to Jackson."

Former Jackson High School basketball coach Mike Fuline has turned Mount Union into a Division III national power.

Players from other successful local high school programs such as St. Vincent-St. Mary, Hoban, Hoover and more have brought some of that same mindset to Mount Union over the past decade and helped the Purple Raiders capture two Ohio Athletic Conference titles during that time, including last season.

Capturing another one this season would both mean a lot and bring less of a return. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the regular season has been shortened to 12 games. After that, the OAC tournament will decide the league's champion, but it won't send that champion to the NCAA Division III tournament.

That's because the NCAA announced last week that the national championships for all winter sports had been canceled due to a low number of member schools participating in the season.

That means no possible quest for a national title for the Purple Raiders, but Fuline and his team have learned to deal with such developments during this most unusual season.

"We just have come to accept that we have to control what we can and we can't control anything else that happens, as cliched as that is ... if anyone gets sick or if we have to quarantine, all we can control is to beat the team we play when we're allowed to play them," Fuline said. "We have a pretty mature group who's been through a lot and learned to be thankful for the opportunities we have to play."

Along the way, the lesson has been to also enjoy the moments that come along, such as the one in which Mount Union's season-opening two-game series came against a Baldwin Wallace team that is led by another former Jackson player, sophomore guard Anthony Mazzeo. Mazzeo put up big-scoring nights in both games, but Mount Union walked away with the win.

It's sure to spur future friendly barbs between Mazzeo and Fuline, who keep in touch and like to bust each other's chops from time to time. Playing in front of empty gyms continues to be weird and while Fuline has advocated for players' parents to be able to attend games, so far that hasn't happened.

He expects the OAC tournament's usual intense atmosphere to be just as amped this season even without fans and given that the tournament will represent the end of the season and the only chance at a title for the winning team, to perhaps have an added level of intensity. Getting to that point will represent something of a victory for all involved and if the Purple Raiders can hoist the trophy, it will add a new chapter to the far-reaching impact of Jackson basketball on the local hoops scene.