TUSCOLA — Resentment could pop up among members of the Tuscola boys’ basketball team.
That’s not how the Warriors operate around Jalen Quinn, their Division I centerpiece and a player who gives them real hope of a possible deep postseason run well into March.
“They’ve all got a pretty good sense of humor where somebody is always the butt of the joke every day, and it never even really stops when you’ve got Division I coaches (around),” fifth-year Tuscola coach Justin Bozarth said. “They’ll give it to Jalen, and he’ll dish it back out. It keeps you laughing and on your toes because you never really know who they’re going to go after.”
Quinn signed with the Loyola men’s basketball program last week. He’s the reigning News-Gazette Player of the Year and has been the focal point of opposing defenses throughout his prep career.
But Quinn can’t man all five positions on the floor. He can’t single-handedly drag the Warriors to any postseason hardware, as was shown during the 2019-2020 campaign in which Tuscola racked up 26 wins but lost in a Class 2A regional championship game.
A host of fellow Warriors must also be at their best for Tuscola to experience a little more success in the Quinn era.
“Jalen’s a great player, obviously, but he also helps the people around him a lot,” senior guard Rajan Patel said. “We’ve all become better just watching him. At practice, when we guard him, we’ve all gotten so much better playing defensively. He just makes everyone around him better.”
The Warriors have compiled a 59-21 record in his three seasons so far, plus a 2A regional title when he was a freshman.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound guard has been a starter since Day 1 and will continue as one this season, beginning with Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. home game against Paxton-Buckley-Loda.
The rest of Bozarth’s starting lineup isn’t set yet since he’s replacing the likes of guards Cole Cunningham and Grant Hardwick after they graduated last spring.
And Bozarth is totally fine with that.
“We feel like if we have the bodies to do it, then the style we try to play both offensively and defensively will utilize our depth and our energy,” Bozarth said. “Just the sheer amount of guys we can use to not have a drop-off when guys are subbing in and out (is important).”
Vying for those other four starting positions are Patel, seniors Preston Brown, James Parsley, Haven Hatfield and Thomas Brown, juniors Easton Cunningham and Colton Musgrave and sophomores Jordan Quinn and Josiah Hortin.
“It’s been really energetic practices,” said Cunningham, a guard. “We’re just trying to hit the floor, get the ball in the basket (and) play some defense.”
“We all try to push each other to show what our greatest strengths are as a team,” added Musgrave, also a guard. “It’s been very competitive whether it’s 1-on-1, 5-on-5 (or) just drills in general.”
Bozarth said he’s come away impressed from Tuscola’s initial preseason workouts because of how his team is responding to the opportunity to join Quinn in the starting lineup.
“We feel like we’ve had maybe one down practice and (otherwise) the energy was where it needs to be, maybe even exceeding our expectations,” Bozarth said. “The optimism of this group is at a high right now, and we’re looking forward to eventually playing some games to see what we need to work on from there.”
One particular Warrior is especially relishing the chance to run the floor alongside Jalen Quinn: his younger brother.
A high ankle sprain hindered Jordan Quinn during the condensed 2020-21 season, but he’s eager to have a memorable final high school season with big brother.
“This year, it’s an honor to play with my brother. Family comes first above everything,” said the younger Quinn, a forward. “I just want to go out this year and have a good time with him and enjoy it while I can.”
Bozarth’s athletes have learned how to handle pressure by playing on a team with a future D-I talent. Tuscola was ranked in the Associated Press Class 2A state poll for part of the previous season, and Quinn’s play was hot-commodity viewing for college coaches prior to him signing with the Ramblers on Nov. 10.
“Our preparation’s been the same,” said Preston Brown, a forward. “We’ve been getting pushed a little bit harder in practice, but that’s just because our expectations are set so high. Coach told us, ‘It’s better to have a lot of expectations than none at all,’ like we did a few years ago.”
“It’s of course nice and something that we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for Jalen,” added Parsley, a guard. “But, at the same time, you can’t really treat it any different. It’s just a normal game that we’ve got to go out there and execute our plan.”
Hatfield, a forward and close friend of Quinn, outlined the Warriors’ expectations with a roster that includes 10 players with previous varsity experience.
“We’re great players. We have a group of great coaches around us. We can do really good things,” Hatfield said. “Our goal is to win a conference (title) and win a regional and then hopefully carry on from there — hopefully win a sectional and win a super(-sectional) and go to state.”
One idea Bozarth is drilling into the heads of his players — specifically those not named Jalen Quinn — is making themselves uncomfortable during a game.
“You fall into a bad habit at times of standing around and watching him and seeing what he can do with the ball in his hands,” Bozarth said. “We’ve put a huge focus this year on off-the-ball movement, so people are forced to move their defender around, so not everybody can just stand there and look at Jalen.”
The Warriors have enjoyed the publicity surrounding their basketball program in recent years. And this group is ready to bring everyone’s attention to Douglas County once more this winter.
“It’s great. Obviously, it can’t be done without Jalen, but us around him every day, we’ve just been putting in the work,” said Hortin, a guard. “Just hard work, that’s what it is.”
“We have a really good chance of doing some great things and going really far in the season,” added Thomas Brown, a forward. “It’s just a great group of people, and it’s fun to have practice and be around them and play with them.”