CLAREMONT, Calif. - As a senior captain who has played both cornerback and safety this season, Mackenzie Cooney has been in a position to mentor the younger CMS players in the defensive backfield this season.
He just happens to have already had a lot of practice with one of them.
Mackenzie's younger brother, Benjamin, joined the Stags this fall for his freshman season, moving into the starting lineup by the season's second week, and the Cooney brothers are making the most of their one season as collegiate teammates. CMS currently stands alone in first place in the SCIAC at 4-0, and with wins at home against Whittier this Saturday (1 p.m., Zinda Field) and next Saturday against Chapman, CMS can claim its first SCIAC title since 1987 before even crossing the street for the finale at Pomona-Pitzer.
The Cooney brothers have both started in each of the last six games, and the Stags have allowed 10 points or less in five of them. In fact, the duo helped set the tone for the SCIAC season right from the very beginning. On the first defensive play from scrimmage against La Verne on Sept. 29, Mac stuck a tackle and forced a fumble, and Ben came out with the ball from under the pile, as the Cooneys kept the season's first SCIAC forced turnover all in the family. CMS scored a touchdown with the short field and never trailed as it went on to a league-opening win.
Since then, the Stags have allowed 10 points against Cal Lutheran, 10 against Redlands and seven against Occidental. The last two touchdowns the defense has allowed have also been pretty much meaningless, one with 33 seconds left against Redlands which cut the CMS lead to 20-10, and one midway through the fourth quarter against Occidental to make the final 27-7.
It's been a big turnaround since an opening-day 45-35 loss to Puget Sound, but Mac Cooney said that it didn't take long to fix what went wrong in the opener. He and fellow defensive captain, senior linebacker, Mitchell Allan took on the responsibility of fixing what went wrong, and their leadership paid immediate dividends.
"We took a lot of it on ourselves. A lot of the mistakes we took responsibility for and tried to mitigate going forward," he said. "We just got back to basics. Stop the run, make a team one-dimensional, and go from there. It's just a very basic, simple philosophy: we do what we do, and we do it right. That's how we're effective."
Mac Cooney might be used to mentoring his younger siblings, but he had to step into a new role this year mentoring a defensive backfield, following the graduation of last year's senior starters, Geno Quaid and Victor Bunce. In addition to his brother, freshman Stiles Satterlee has started every game at safety in his rookie season, while sophomores Sachi Mindich (safety) and Cade Moffatt (cornerback) have had major roles as well as underclassmen.
Mac said playing behind last year's veterans has prepared him well for the role he has now.
"I had a bunch of questions for them, and they answered every single one," he said. "Geno was probably the smartest guy I've played with to date, and he's definitely passed that down to Mitch and I. We would consistently ask him questions to the point that he would get annoyed with us, but he'd answer them so we could get better, and ultimately we're able to pass that down to these younger guys that ask us questions."
Ben has been particularly grateful to have an older sibling as a mentor in his freshman year, but he said that Mackenzie has been helpful to everyone in the defensive backfield, particularly in the grind of preseason practice, when things can get overwhelming to freshmen.
"He was a huge help," he said. "There's a lot more information to take in for college football, a lot more coverages, and all the different stuff you have to take in during a short amount of time. He's probably one of the smartest guys out on the field at all times, so any questions any of us had, we really went to him. It's kind of like having another coach, just between us. Pretty much all of us just look up to him."
Mac was just as effusive in his praise of the job that his younger brother has done as a freshman.
"He's playing amazing. He's been playing 10 times better than a lot of us have," he said after the 17-10 win over Cal Lutheran. "I'm so impressed. I'm so happy that I get this year to play with him. He's really stepped up for us."
As a freshman, Mac Cooney was part of a 7-2 team that was one win away from the SCIAC title, and after a bit of a setback a year ago in a 4-5 season, he and the senior class have brought the program back into title contention. There are big games still to play, beginning with Saturday against Whittier, but being back in this position again has been particularly meaningful.
"It's meant a whole lot," said Cooney. "There's not a lot of seniors on this team, so it really means something to the eight or nine guys who have stuck around to do this for the last four years. It's been a pleasure to play with all these guys, and I'd say this is one of the closest teams that I've ever been a part of."
And a team that is close to its first SCIAC title in 31 years.