Despite losing out on a chance to compete for regional and state titles, the Thomas Worthington boys basketball team still experienced its best season in almost two decades.
Embracing their high expectations after losing in a district final last season, the Cardinals finished 21-5 overall, including winning nine of their last 10 games and capturing their first district championship since 2001.
Thomas was scheduled to play Westerville Central in a Division I regional semifinal March 12 at Ohio Dominican, but the rest of the regional tournament was postponed earlier that day because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. On March 26, the remainder of the postseason was canceled for boys basketball, girls basketball, hockey and wrestling.
If the Cardinals had beaten the Warhawks, they would have played OCC-Cardinal Division rival Hilliard Bradley for the regional title March 14 at Ohio Dominican.
"As far as this group, the most challenging thing from the preseason was they had a bull's-eye on their back and they were lauded as a group that was going to be really special and they had really high expectations," said coach Sean Luzader, whose team finished second (10-4) in the OCC-Cardinal behind Bradley (14-0). "Even through some adversity and some challenges, I think they definitely lived up to that challenge. You could even argue that they reached it and went beyond what was expected. I was really proud of them to deal with that adversity."
After winning five of their final six to end the regular season, Thomas entered the district tournament as the seventh seed and routed 36th-seeded Marion Harding 59-22 on Feb. 22 before escaping an upset bid by 32nd-seeded Olentangy, winning 49-47 on Feb. 28.
The Cardinals then faced ninth-seeded Olentangy Liberty, which reached a state semifinal last year, and won 70-50 on March 4 before edging fifth-seeded Pickerington North 52-48 in a back-and-forth district final March 7 at Ohio Dominican.
"It (felt) great (to win a district title)," said 5-foot-10 junior point guard Jalen Sullinger, whose father, J.J. Sullinger, played for the Cardinals the last time they won a district championship. "Honestly I feel best for (Luzader); I'm most happy for him. He always talks about leaving a legacy and putting numbers up on our wall. We did that for him and he played a big role in that."
Sullinger averaged 17.8 points in the regular season, followed by 6-7 junior forward Tyrese Hughey at 9.8 points and 6-5 junior guard Isaac Settles at 8.4 points. Sullinger was named first-team all-district and all-league and third-team all-state.
Hughey and 6-2 junior forward Omari Effiong were second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district, and Settles was honorable mention all-league.
The Cardinals will lose six players to graduation, but their top players are expected to return in 6-4 junior guard Maurice Collins, Effiong, Hughey, Settles and Sullinger.
"Part of me wants (the returnees) to (use) that hunger and that thirst for a regional championship or a chance to win the (state) title that they didn't get this year, through no fault of their own," Luzader said. "But I (also) want them to take the fact that they can take people's best shots and still come out ahead, and have the chance to win a league championship or a district championship. There's no doubt the returning group's going to work their tail off to get back to that point and to meet the goals that they have and we have as a program."