Boys Basketball: Thomas Worthington Cardinals get boost from supporting cast
The Thomas Worthington boys basketball team has been playing at a high level, and a skilled senior group that includes Jalen Sullinger, Tyrese Hughey, Omari Effiong and Isaac Settles has played a large role in the success.
However, the Cardinals wouldn’t be soaring without a supporting trio that has flown under the radar compared to the upperclassman stars.
According to coach Sean Luzader, junior Cam Beatty and sophomores Joey Zalewski and Caleb Miller have made measurable contributions for a team that was riding a 12-game winning streak heading into an OCC-Cardinal Division matchup against Hilliard Darby on Feb. 12.
“They’re all contributing in a different way,” said Luzader, whose team was 14-4 overall and 8-0 in the league. “They’ve made us deeper and they’ve made us better.”
Zalewski, a 6-foot-3 forward, was averaging 8.9 points and had 97 rebounds through 18 games, second behind Hughey’s 132.
“He’s on the floor almost as much as anybody on the team,” Luzader said. “He’s scored the ball really well for us and, other than Tyrese Hughey, he’s our rebounding machine. He has a knack for the ball and gets us extra possessions and plays incredibly hard on both ends.”
Zalewski enjoys his role as a spark plug for a team that earned the No. 4 seed for the Division I district tournament. The Cardinals open the postseason with a second-round home game Feb. 26 against 37th-seeded Independence or 39th-seeded Briggs.
“(The) best part of my game right now I would say are just my hustle plays,” Zalewski said. “(Also getting) offensive rebounds, and I would say my post game right now is pretty good.”
Zalewski spent his freshman season mostly as the Cardinals’ sixth man, receiving significant minutes and contributing to a district title run.
“He was a huge spark when he’d come in games,” Luzader said. “There were probably three or four games where Joey would come off the bench and score, I’m not exaggerating, 12 or 14 straight points off the bench.”
An offseason in the weight room and honing his skills helped Zalewski improve his game and crack the starting lineup.
“I worked a lot on getting bigger and I know I’m pretty athletic, and I rely on that a lot, but now I have to work on other things like ball-handling,” he said. “Also in the offseason I got a lot more confident in my abilities.”
Beatty, a 6-0 guard, joins Zalewski in the starting lineup most games. The Cardinals have relied on him to stymie the opponent’s best player, Luzader said.
“He’s started for us most games in the last 10 or 12 and is a huge reason why we’re on a 12-game win streak,” Luzader said. “He’s been our defensive stopper. We’re able to put him on the other team’s best player and mostly shut him down.”
Luzader said Beatty’s offense has improved, too. He was averaging 4.6 points and had 26 assists through 18 games.
Beatty calls defense the “top part of my game,” and working against Sullinger in practice is a big reason why. Sullinger, a Kent State commit averaging a team-best 18.8 points through 18 games, doesn’t take it easy on his teammates.
“It’s hard. It’s really hard,” Beatty said of guarding Sullinger. “He does a lot and he can score. It’s a real challenge.”
“It’s horrible. It’s extremely hard,” he said. “Playing against Jalen is the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Guarding him in practice is just hell.”
But playing against Sullinger – and the rest of Thomas’ senior core – in practice has helped Miller, a 6-2 guard, improve his game.
“This year I’ve become a lot more of a versatile player and been able to do a lot more, mostly because of those guys and what they’ve taught me,” he said.
Miller said his defense and 3-point shooting ability – he was 11-for-30 through 18 games – have allowed him to make a consistent contribution.
“When I come off the bench I try to provide a spark of energy, and I try to really get our guys into a motion of things and not change what’s happening, just play extremely hard and play my role,” he said.
“Caleb Miller is one of the best shooters in the program, probably one of the better shooters in the area,” Luzader said. “He’s always been a great player coming up through at any level. He’s learning to play at this level and getting some meaningful minutes.”
Eight of the Cardinals’ 11 players are seniors, so if they are to continue their current trajectory next year, Zalewski, Beatty and Miller will have to lead the way.
“These three, they’re up next,” Luzader said. “It’s their team if they continue to work at and want it. They can be the future leaders of this program, no doubt.”