The post-Cassius Winston era began Monday at U-D Jesuit.
At the high school’s first official boys basketball practice, kicking off the 2016-17 season, there was a noticeable absence in the Cubs’ gym.
“It’s tough to lose someone of his caliber,” coach Pat Donnelly said of Winston, his departed senior who led U-D to a 28-0 record and Class A state championship last year. He was named Mr. Basketball and now plays for coach Tom Izzo at Michigan State.
Despite losing arguably the program’s greatest player, the Cubs have no intention of giving up their state crown.
“We’re going to embrace it,” said senior guard Scott Nelson, also a standout football player. “People won’t be able to say, ‘They won it just because they had Cassius.’ ”
Nelson intends to play college football and the receiver/safety narrowed his finalists to Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin. But for the next few months, his only focus will be helping the Cubs defend their basketball title.
“We definitely have a shot,” he said. “We have high expectations for ourselves and that’s the biggest thing. Every team is going to have us circled on their calendar. It’s going to be a huge test all season.”
Not to mention: no more Winston, a four-year starting point guard.
“He did phenomenal things for our program,” said Donnelly, who enters his ninth season at U-D. “He was a leader and taught our younger guys how to carry on. We’ve got a point guard, (sophomore) Julian Dozier, and we’re handing the keys over to him. We’re excited to get going in the post-Cassius era.”
Dozier, who suffered an ankle injury before the state semifinals, doesn’t expect people to forget about his good friend and former teammate.
“Cassius is like a big brother to me,” Dozier said. “He took me under his wing and showed me everything. He told me to take over the team and get another (state title).
“Of course, it’s tough to replace a Mr. Basketball. There’s going to be a big hole in our team, but we can fill that hole with the pieces we have. We just have to put everything together and work hard.”
The Cubs return senior starters Ike Eke and Greg Eboigbodin, both 6-foot-9 forwards. Eke signed to play basketball at Marquette, while Eboigbodin signed with the University of Illinois at Chicago. Junior shooting guard Elija Collins also returns with starting experience.
Though Cassius Winston is gone, his younger brother, Zach Winston, should be a contributor. Zach, a 6-2 junior guard, played on varsity a year ago.
“Zach shoots the ball extremely well from the perimeter and really developed his game this year,” Donnelly said. “He’s a different player than Cassius, but Zach is going to make a name for himself.”
The Cubs open the regular season Dec. 5 at home against Detroit Edison Public School Academy.
Practice started Monday for high school boys basketball, bowling, skiing and wrestling. A look at first practice dates for winter sports:
Oct. 31: Gymnastics, hockey.
Nov. 7: Girls basketball, competitive cheer.
Monday: Boys basketball, bowling, skiing, wrestling.
Nov. 21: Boys swimming.