Now that standout forward Jae'Sean Tate's high school career officially is finished, the Pickerington Central boys basketball team gets to figure out how it will move on.
Tate, a 6-foot-5 senior and Ohio State signee, sustained a torn labrum in his right shoulder last May but played the first 15 games this season. He underwent an MRI on Feb. 6, and the team confirmed after a 73-65 win over Groveport on Feb. 7 that he will need season-ending surgery.
Tate averaged 20.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
"We're a completely new team without Jae'Sean Tate," interim coach Eric Krueger said. "He's the best player in Ohio. He's a guy we can't just simply replace, but we're going to collectively do our best to pick the pieces up. We have a lot of good guys still. 'Next man up' will be the mantra for us from here on out."
Central's other Division I signee, Arkansas State-bound Connor Kern, has proven capable of carrying the team. Before a Feb. 11 game at Pickerington North, Kern was averaging 18.3 points as the Tigers were 15-4 overall and 10-2 in the OCC-Ohio Division.
"He's definitely a big leader on our team," Tate said. "With me being out, he'll have to step up in a lot of respects. I know Connor can do it. A lot of guys are going to have to fill in a lot of roles. But as far as I'm concerned, this is just a bump in the road to state. These guys are going to be fine."
Krueger said he will continue to juggle the starting lineup beyond Kern, Rodney Culver and Jalen Tate. Other recent starters have included junior Eric Johnson and sophomore D.J. Tyree at point guard and sophomore forward Jaylin Bannerman in Jae'Sean Tate's place.
Central, which is trying to win at least a share of its third consecutive league title, plays Gahanna on Friday, Feb. 14, at Otterbein University. Gahanna was 17-3 overall before playing Mansfield Senior on Feb. 11 and is 10-3 in the OCC-Ohio.
Central and Newark were tied atop the OCC-Ohio before Feb. 11, when Newark played at Grove City. The Wildcats play host to Lancaster on Friday, Feb. 14.
Kern had 29 points and five rebounds in the first game against Gahanna, a 62-58 win Jan. 10. Jalen Tate added 14 points, five rebounds and four steals.
Javon Bess, a Michigan State signee, had 15 points to lead the Lions.
Central lost a chance to take control of the OCC-Ohio when it fell at Newark 66-63 in overtime on Feb. 4. Culver had 21 points, including a tip-in of a missed 3-pointer as the fourth quarter expired to force overtime, while Jalen Tate had 16 points and Kern added 14.
Against Groveport, Culver had 15 points, Corey Taylor had 14 and Kern had 13.
"Jalen, I am asking him to do a lot more with Jae'Sean out," Krueger said. "He is taking on some more responsibility and doing a great job. I will ask more of him going forward. Rodney has had a great year overall, and now that we're into the last week of the regular season, I will keep putting more pressure on those guys to do more and more."
On Feb. 9, Central earned the sixth seed in the Division I district tournament draw. The Tigers play host to 36th-seeded Columbus West in a first-round game Feb. 21.
"We have a lot of work left to do this season," Krueger said. "Nothing's going to be easy."
North coach continues to see improvement
Three losses by 10 points or fewer last week dropped North to 3-18 overall and 2-10 in the OCC-Ohio before Feb. 11, but coach Jerry Groves credited his players for persevering and continuing to buy into the system he has sought to implement in his first season.
"I think our young guys are starting to improve," Groves said. "We're playing a lot of sophomores and juniors now. I've been pleased with the overall play of Bryce Montes. I thought he has really stepped up. Zach Montes (and) Austin Hence are stepping up and Andrew Butt is playing even better. Our kids haven't given in.
"We've shown signs. We haven't been able to put that into wins but it's been nice to see that even with our record, the kids have every night still tried to compete."
North lost 77-67 to Groveport on Feb. 4, 52-46 to Gahanna on Feb. 7 and 49-41 at Dresden Tri-Valley on Feb. 8. Bryce Montes had a career-high 24 points at Groveport and led the team with 12 against Tri-Valley.
Zach Montes had 14 points and Bryce Montes had 13 against Gahanna.
North is seeded 38th for the district tournament and will visit third-seeded Upper Arlington for a first-round game Feb. 21.