Jalen Sullinger isn't your typical high school junior, and not only because of his abilities on the court for the Thomas Worthington boys basketball team.
Basketball is more than his chosen sport, it's a way of life in his family.
Sullinger's grandfather, Satch, was a longtime central Ohio coach who guided Northland to the Division I state title in 2009. That team was led by his uncle, Jared, who went on to Ohio State and played in the NBA for the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors. Another uncle, Julian, played at Kent State and now is an assistant coach in that program. Jalen's father, J.J., also played for the Buckeyes.
"A huge burden for him or weight on his shoulders is he has to live up to the Sullinger name," said coach Sean Luzader, who coached J.J. when the Cardinals last won a district championship in 2001. "Jalen comes along and everybody says, 'What are you going to do to outdo them? You have to be great.' I just think that's a lot of weight to put on a young man's shoulders, especially when he's a junior."
Despite the pressure that comes with being a member of a prominent basketball family, Luzader said Sullinger has handled it well while helping the Cardinals have another strong season.
"That's what I'm most proud of," Luzader said. "I'm most proud of the fact that he's handled that pressure. A lot of kids at that age would break down. They wouldn't be able to handle it. (But) he's handled it well, he's lived up to it. He's exceeded expectations as far as how he's handled that name."
Sullinger, a 5-foot-10 point guard, was averaging 17.1 points through 18 games this season while shooting 46.6 percent from 3-point range and 82.9 percent from the free-throw line.
"I've learned pretty much everything I know from my family. It's really just a blessing to have them in my corner and be able to look towards them for whatever," he said. "Whether it's basketball or not, they're always helping me. It means a lot to me, carrying the Sullinger name. I take a lot of pride in it, and I just want to put on for my family really."
Sullinger, along with key contributions from players such as 6-2 junior forward Omari Effiong, 6-7 junior forward Tyrese Hughey and 6-5 junior guard Isaac Settles, has led the Cardinals to records of 15-4 overall and 8-3 in the OCC-Cardinal Division entering a game against Dublin Scioto on Feb. 4.
The Division I district tournament draw is Sunday, Feb. 9. Sullinger helped the Cardinals go 17-8 last season and reach a district final.
Sullinger said he's learned a lot from his father, most importantly to focus on the two things he can control as a player: his effort and his attitude. He's working to stay dialed in on those two areas.
"You have control over those two things always," he said. "Whether it's a good attitude or a bad attitude, you're controlling it. As a kid, I always struggled with my attitude. It's not like I had a bad attitude, but I would always get down on myself if I wasn't performing well, or we were having a bad game. When I'm up and good, that's when I'm playing well."
Luzader said he's noticed a major progression in Sullinger's development as a player, and he believes Sullinger has "come a long way" since missing most of his freshman season with an injury.
Sullinger has grown stronger physically, Luzader said, and that has helped his game.
"I've seen Jalen come up and he's always been very skilled. But just this past summer coming into this year, he's really developed strength-wise and size-wise," Luzader said. "He's taller, he's solid, he's strong, so that's been the biggest thing in his development, but he continues to come in (and work)."
Watching and coaching Sullinger the past few years, Luzader said it's gotten to the point where he's starting to look like his father on the court, and maybe even surpassed him in terms of where both were at this point in their playing careers.
"I've joked with J.J. I've said, 'You've got nothing on your son skills-wise,' " Luzader said. "J.J. was an incredible player. ... Jalen is more skilled than him at this point. He is more skilled handling the ball and shooting the ball. J.J. was just more physical and bigger and played more of an all-around game, but (Jalen) has kind of bypassed him skills-wise from where he was."
Sullinger said one of his priorities heading into next season is to improve on the defensive side of the ball.
"That's going to be a big step for me this summer, trying to showcase what I can do, not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end, too," he said. "I think that's going to be a big thing for me coming up."
But for now, Sullinger and the Cardinals are locked in on this season.
"We've just got to play our game and don't get complacent," he said. "I think if we keep the gas on and keep playing our game and keep playing hard and going out every night trying to win, I think we'll be fine."
Multiple wrestlers performing well
Multiple members of the wrestling team have put together strong seasons.
Heading into a 40-36 loss to Scioto on Jan. 30 in OCC-Cardinal action, six Cardinals had winning records: sophomores Channing Thornton (120 pounds, 20-8), Michael Blain (132, 15-5) and Brayden Jamison (182, 19-8), juniors Majed Ahmad (160, 15-10) and Mason Gates (220, 20-6) and senior Nick Harris (145, 11-10).
The Cardinals, who are 0-6 in the OCC-Cardinal, will compete in Division I, Region 5 of the team dual tournament Saturday, Feb. 8, at Marysville. They are seeded ninth and will open against eighth-seeded Westerville South.
Girls basketball team snaps losing streak
The girls basketball team put up its second-highest point total of the season when it defeated Columbus South 75-38 on Jan. 29.
Leading the effort was junior guard Reid Dunbar with 20 points, followed by junior guard Lauren Gerber and freshman guard Chaneya Garner with 10 points apiece.
The Cardinals' highest scoring outing of the season was an 81-15 win over Whetstone on Dec. 28.
Thomas snapped a four-game losing streak. They fell to Hilliard Bradley 40-30 on Jan. 17, Delaware 61-36 on Jan. 21, Dublin Jerome 60-35 on Jan. 24 and Licking Heights 50-36 on Jan. 25.
The Cardinals were 5-14 overall and 0-12 in the OCC-Cardinal before playing Scioto on Feb. 4. They are seeded 35th for the Division I district tournament and play a first-round game Feb. 15 at 19th-seeded Jerome.
Below are the coming schedules for the Thomas boys basketball, girls basketball, bowling, gymnastics, hockey, swimming & diving and wrestling teams:
*Feb. 7 -- Home vs. Hilliard Darby. The Cardinals defeated the Panthers 64-40 on Jan. 7.
*Feb. 7 -- At Darby. The Cardinals lost to the Panthers 37-22 on Jan. 7.
Feb. 11 -- Home vs. Beechcroft
*Feb. 6 -- Pickerington Central at Capri Lanes
Feb. 6 -- OCC-Cardinal meet at Kilbourne
Feb. 12 -- Home vs. Marysville, Olentangy and Thornville Sheridan
*Feb. 8 -- Dublin Jerome at Chiller North
SWIMMING & DIVING
Feb. 8 -- Division I sectional at home. Winner of each swimming event and 27 at-large qualifiers in each event based on times from the Central, East and Southeast sectional sites advance to district Feb. 13 at Ohio State. There is no diving at sectional.
Feb. 8 -- Eighth-seeded Westerville South in Division I, Region 5 team dual tournament at Marysville. Winner faces top-seeded Dublin Coffman. Semifinals and final will be later that day. Regional champion advances to state Feb. 16 at Ohio State. The Cardinals are seeded ninth.
*Feb. 13 -- Home vs. Kilbourne