Just a day before the Toledo boys basketball team was preparing for their first set of games two seasons ago, Jake Cournyer found out he wasn’t going to be a varsity player.
Cournyer recalls that particular set of days, “like it was yesterday.”
Upset, but determined to still have a role on the varsity squad — even as a junior varsity starter — the freshman went into head coach Grady Fallon’s office to ask if he could be a manager or help with film for the varsity team.
The young and diminutive guard was shocked when Fallon asked him if he’d rather play after varsity starter Carlo Arceo-Hanson, an all-league guard, sprained an ankle in PE class the day before.
But for Cournyer, who made his first career start in his first varsity game against Friday Harbor after not even making the varsity roster the days prior, opportunity met preparation.
“That’s a fun story,” Cournyer said. “One in a million. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
The freshman Cournyer came out firing in the first quarter, drilling multiple shots from deep, and canning a shot from halfcourt at the quarter buzzer, in what he called the longest shot of his life to that point.
He scored 22 points in his debut, and Toledo finished second at the tournament in the San Juan Islands. It’s fueled him ever since.
But perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that Cournyer found immediate success on the court. He’s practically been living on one his entire life.
Now, two seasons later as a junior, he’s tearing it up as Toledo’s lead guard.
“I don’t know if surprised is the word,” Fallon said. “I’m not surprised because he puts in a ton of time and he’s a gym rat, and he loves basketball. He’ll text me and ask if I’m at the school and if he can come up.
“When we were all closed down he was on the middle school playground on those hoops in the evenings. Wherever there is a game, he’ll try to find a place to play … we’ll get off the bus after an away game and he’ll go into the locker room, change and get back to the gym and shoot. He’s as dedicated as they come.”
Cournyer is averaging 17.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.2 steals per game for the Riverhawks, who boast a 9-1 record heading into the new year.
Though the last two years were tough learning seasons, with plenty of growing pains, the junior is playing his best ball of his life, years in the making.
In his last outing, Cournyer dropped 27 points, using a barrage of left-handed layup moves to get past the Tenino defense for scores in a close 46-41 win on the road. If any game showcased his improvement over even the last three seasons, it was that one, said Fallon.
“His ball handling is excellent,” his coach said. “That Tenino game was just a spectacle of using your left hand. They weren’t wide open, they were guarded and up off the top of his fingertips. They are tough shots. That’s his off hand. It just shows he puts time in.”
Since he was 12 years old, Cournyer has spent six to eight hours in a gym every day, getting shots up, working to refine his craft and add new elements to his game.
Over this last offseason, in between a spring season and the 2021 fall season, he hit the gym in the morning and night to work on skills and shooting, and hit the weight room in the middle of the day between meals. For Cournyer, it was just a second home.
“I love to be in the gym,” he said. “I want to make my team and myself better. Spending time there is the only way I know how to do it.”
It’s not just the hours in the gym that sets Cournyer apart. Ask him about any hoops team at the 2B level, or even locally, and the Toledo guard could give you a full scouting report. It figures, with a family from Morton — a town with its own storied basketball tradition — that Cournyer is a basketball junkie.
“We’re a basketball family,” he said. “We go to Spokane every year, I’ve gone every year since third grade. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas it’s a staple at the dinner table, we’re talking about 2B basketball. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
And now, after a building freshman season and a sophomore year shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cournyer hopes to send his own squad to Spokane to play on those very courts he watched growing up.
To get there, the Riverhawks will need to run through the most competitive 2B league in the state.
But with a squad of equally driven teammates, Toledo is going to put itself in the best possible position to get there. Due to Cournyer’s drive, and other athletes like Wyatt Nef — who drove teammates in his van to weights over the summer regularly — that have put the work in, the Riverhawks are going to have a shot at it.
As for personal goals, well, Cournyer’s made that as clear and clean as his jumper.
“I want to play basketball at the next level, no matter where I go,” he said. “I want to play in Spokane. I love winning.”