The young men of Ithaca High School haven’t pulled much respect on the hardwood the past few years.
Twenty wins in three years, no sectional titles in more than 20 and a stacked conference has made credibility seem like a pipe dream for the Little Red boys basketball team these past several seasons. But with fourth-year coach Lamin “Joeb” Zulu entering his veritable senior year at STAC University, the team’s prospects look ripe for a turnaround.
“Every year, I look at a team I wouldn’t want to play,” Zulu said. “Last year it was Horseheads. The year before, it was U-E. Two years ago, it was Binghamton. They all won sectionals those years. I would not want to play Ithaca this year.”
Building a culture worthy of that praise has taken Zulu, a 2002 IHS alum, quite an effort, but it’s been a goal he’s been hungry for. Just one year removed from his debut as coach of the junior varsity squad, Zulu had an abysmal inaugural campaign four winters ago, winning only three games. He doubled that effort the following year, winning six. And though he lost eight seniors from last year’s playoff squad that notched 11 wins — and all but one of his eight losses coming by single-digit margins — Zulu thinks the 2015-16 team has the potential to be something special.
Though young with just four seniors (one of which is a newcomer), this year’s Little Red comes packed with experience, bolstered by three second-season juniors and five juniors moving up from a JV team that lost just two games last year, on top of netting a pair of wins against U-E and Binghamton. He also counts a not-so-secret weapon in his corner, sophomore guard Jordanny Cuevas Marte, who moved up as a freshman in the final four games of last season and made his mark instantly, leading the team in scoring in his varsity debut.
“He’s going to be a major contributor for what we’re trying to do,” Zulu said. “He’s truly coachable and he’s a lefty with a lot of skill. His basketball IQ is very high for a sophomore.”
What the team is trying to do is simple; they simply want to run the other team out of the gym. Zulu said he plans to play a full-court game, emphasizing a tenacious man-to-man defense and a free-flowing, fast-break offense he hopes will average anywhere between 60 and 70 points per contest (above their average pace of 55 ppg last season.)
The team’s depth will aid in this, with Zulu saying he expects 10 to 12 guys to see a fair amount of action this year. Returning seniors Caleb Klausner, Turner DePalma and Jordan Ayers are expected to set the tone, but the Calipari-styled platoon brand of small ball, Zulu hopes, will help Ithaca finally make a name for itself in Section 4’s top conference.
They’ll be tested early, with a tough three-game stand starting Wednesday against Owego Free Academy, followed by home games versus conference rivals Binghamton High School and defending sectional champion Horseheads. But with a versatile squad and three years of hard-knock education, Zulu feels this is the year the Little Red establishes itself.
“The thing about this team, it can be anybody’s night out there,” Zulu said. “This is probably the most talented team I’ve ever had, from top to bottom.”
Groton finished just 5-12 last season and faces stiff competition in the Interscholastic Athletic Conference North Small division, where no team other than Moravia did well in 2014. Last year could have been a teaching year for the young squad, which had no seniors last year. With senior Andrew Ferris and junior Paul Brecht stepping into veteran roles, the Indians could be a wild card this year. Look for the maturation of Canaan Bowie, who joined the team as a freshman last year, to be an interesting storyline headed into the season opener against Weedsport, out of Section 3; He was a consistent double-digit scorer last season.
Last season got away from the Bobcats, falling to 6-9 and a fourth-place finish among North Large schools after winning the division the year before. Though they lost five seniors, including 6-foot-3 all-star forward Logan Osterman, they still have an IAC all-star guard in Zach Detrick and maintain some height in junior Zach Walker.
Newfield comes into this winter looking to defend its sectional title despite the departure of a talented trio of all-stars, including reigning MVP Brian Barrett (15.7 ppg), Devin Cooper (now at Keuka College) and Dekhari Stewart (10.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg). All-star guard Cole Banfield will be expected to step up in a big way this season, which tips off at home Friday against an Elmira Notre Dame team that finished 15-5 last season.
Big man Ali Abel-Ferretti looks to have a solid senior campaign for the Purple Lions, expecting to eclipse 1,000 career points this season while trying to improve on the output earning him his Section 4 all-star nod last year. A young squad last winter with just two seniors, a more experienced team on the floor could mean a big improvement from last year’s 11-8 finish. A big game Monday at Groton will be a good early indicator of how this team will perform, but late-season tests against Ithaca and Cortland will be this team’s true litmus test.
The Blue Raiders will look to build on a surprising 12-win 2014-15 campaign on the back of returning IAC Large North Division most valuable player Austin Grunder. The all-state junior swingman averaged 24 points and 12 rebounds a game last year while leading the turnaround of a team that, in the two years prior, had won just two games. They face a very tough test at home on Monday to open the season, facing a Moravia team returning two all-state players in Gabe Short and Jared Lyon.
This year’s Panthers squad will be a completely different team from last year. Whether that’s going to be good or bad news remains to be seen. S-VE lost nine seniors from last year’s 8-8 team, including sole IAC all-star Brandon Morgan and most of their height, though returning 6-foot-5 forward Quinn Barry and rising 6-foot-3 juniors George Rosvold and Mark Newill could prove to be major assets in the paint.