March 9, 2004
by Joe Licandro
It may have taken him a little longer than he anticipated, but right now Rick Cornett is making his presence felt when his team needs him the most.
After a tough home loss to No. 8 Pittsburgh on February 7 in which Notre Dame saw their Big East record drop below .500 to a disappointing 4-5 mark, any postseason prospects looked grim with five straight games against the top teams in the conference.
Making matters worse, the team’s most dominant inside player, sophomore center Torin Francis, suffered a herniated disc in his back that put his playing status for the remainder of the season in doubt. With their leading rebounder and second-leading scorer sidelined, the Irish desperately needed someone else to rise to the occasion and replace the tenacity of Francis in the post.
Enter Rick Cornett, who in the absence of Francis has proven to be more than just temporary filler, but an indispensable contributor whose hustle and intensity on the glass has propelled Notre Dame back onto the NCAA Tournament radar screen. During a stretch in which they registered wins against Connecticut , Seton Hall and Syracuse, Cornett averaged 7 points and 4 rebounds per game.
“My job is to just do the dirty work,,” Cornett says. “We need somebody to just go down low and do whatever it takes to win. With Torin out, its been my turn to go in there and mix it up. I don’t mind matching up and banging around with bigger players. I feel I am capable of doing any job the team needs me to. I just try to be a team player. If I’m out there five minutes or thirty minutes, I want to do everything I can so that at the end of the game, I want to be able to say I left it all out on the court. That’s my mentality.”
Playing at small Homewood Christian Academy in the Chicago suburb of Country Club Hills, Illinois, Cornett entered Notre Dame knowing he had something to prove the moment he arrived on campus. The biggest adjustment from high school was preparing his body for the rigors of college basketball. Prior to the fall conditioning of his freshman year, he had never lifted weights.
In just one year, under a steady workout routine and strict diet regiment, he bulked up from 230 to a rock-solid 250 pounds. The increased muscle has enabled Cornett to become an intimidating force in a conference known for its physical style of play.
“I played against tough competition in high school,” Cornett says. “But I wasn’t physically ready to perform at this level yet. It was difficult for me to go from playing all the time in high school to watching on the bench as a freshman. My confidence wavered a little bit last year, so I just had to give everything I had in practice. The persistence and hard work in the weight room helped me regain it so when this year began, I was ready to go.”
At the beginning of the season, Cornett showed flashes of his potential, providing a spark off the bench with his rebounding and defense. But in practice on December 13, one day before the DePaul game, he suffered a sprained ankle, which kept him out of the lineup for the next few weeks. Coming back from the injury, Cornett would had to earn his way back into the regular playing rotation.
“It was really frustrating,” Cornett says. “You know what your capabilities are and it was a just a matter of time until I started contributing. Then the injury came and set me back a little. I just had to be patient. Sometimes things don’t always happen in the time we want them to happen. It took a little while to get back into the swing of things, but I just kept battling in practice every day. I knew I could make it back in the rotation.”
Looking to earn it fourth NCAA tournament bid, Cornett is confident that with a strong showing in the BIG EAST Championship, the Irish can convince the NCAA Selection Committee that they belong in the NCAA field of 65.
“It’s been very frustrating at times this year especially after making the Sweet 16 last year,” Cornett says. “We’ve had a tough schedule this year and have been punched in the mouth a lot of times. These last few weeks have been a testament to our resiliency.”