The Ithaca High boys basketball team is undergoing a youth movement, and not just on the court.
When the Little Red opens its 2012-13 campaign at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Vestal, it will do so without seven graduated seniors from last season and under the direction of 28-year-old Jobe Zulu, who last winter coached Ithaca’s junior varsity squad.
Zulu — a 2002 graduate of Ithaca High who played at Cayuga Community College and Cazenovia College — takes over the varsity program from long-time coach Brian Stone, who stepped down at the end of last season. Ithaca finished 7-10, including a home loss to Vestal in the first round of the Section 4 Class AA tournament.
With just about every major contributor from last season gone, Zulu figures to have his work cut out for him. But as he found out at some of his team’s offseason events already, coming up with a winning formula won’t be his only task in his first season.
“People have mistaken me for a player,” said Zulu, who played under Stone at the junior varsity level at Ithaca High. “People can’t believe that I’m the head coach, or say I’m too young or won’t be able to command the respect of the players.
“I guess it’ll be about proving the doubters wrong,” added Zulu, an academic support specialist at the Ithaca Youth Bureau. “But that was nothing I was ever really concerned about.”
What Zulu says he is concerned about is getting to know his players and “just trying to get the kids to buy into what we’re doing and buy into the system.” That task has actually been easier because of his age, Zulu said.
“I think one of the advantages is that I have a lot of energy and a lot of passion,” said Zulu. “I feel like kids really respond to that. They feel some of that passion and they really want to step up, not just for me but for the school pride we talk to them about.”
With the majority of Stone’s rotation from a year ago now graduated — including primary scorers Eisah Nunn, Daquan Rockett and Jason Ohadike — a number of new faces will get a shot at showing off exactly how much Little Red pride they have under Zulu this winter.
And perhaps none is poised for a bigger jump than senior point guard Bruce Green, who played sparingly as a junior after transferring from Lansing. Zulu says his starting point guard “needed to get used to the speed of the game” last season, but has since made important strides and accepted a key leadership role.
“When I evaluate a point guard, I’m looking for an extension of myself,” said Zulu. “He’s really done that and made this team his own. And I say his team because I’m not going to be out there running the floor and making passes. I’ve told him, ‘You are the head of this team.'”
Senior forward Dondre Sweat, whom Zulu calls a “great rebounder with a great attitude,” will see an increased role this season. And senior guard Jaedon Henderson should continue to see considerable minutes after being a regular contributor under Stone.
When it comes to the player with the most upside, Zulu points to senior big man Miles Herman, whom he has labeled as Ithaca’s “X-factor.”
“He’s a 6-foot-6 center, and when he plays to his ability, when he focuses and knows what he’s doing out there, on a scale of 0-10, this kid is a 9,” said Zulu. “But when he’s joking around and not focused, he goes to being a 2, so you never quite know what you’re going to get out of him. If we can figure out a way to get a consistent effort out of him, his potential is huge.”
As far as Zulu is concerned, the same goes for the Little Red as a team, which he says despite the outside perception could catch some people by surprise.
“People have asked me if this is a rebuilding year or if we’re starting from scratch,” he said. “I don’t see it that way. Yes, we are putting new players on the court and a new system in, but I don’t want my guys to feel like being mediocre and not competing is acceptable. We’d like to be over .500 and we’d like to be eligible to play in sectionals. That’s definitely one of our goals.”
After Friday night’s game at Vestal, Zulu will make his home coaching debut against Corning on Wednesday before Ithaca hosts Union-Endicott next Friday. The school is holding a “White Out” event that week, inviting fans to wear white in the stands or purchase themed white T-shirts at the games.