Northeastern turning to Mulbah, Rizzuto for leadership
- Fred Mulbah is coming off a sophomore season in which he averaged 9.8 points per game, third on the Bobcats.
- Junior Antonio Rizzuto will be expected to build off his strong sophomore year in which he put up 7.9 points per game.
- Northeastern went 14-0 in Y-A League Division II and 21-3 overall in 2015-16.
If any high school coach can help it, he or she would love to have an arsenal of experienced seniors to rely on and not have to depend on underclassmen.
Last year, Northeastern boys' basketball coach Jon Eyster had it, with players like Kobi Nwandu, Donovian Maxfield and Jeff Reynolds leading the Bobcats to a perfect 14-0 mark in York-Adams League Division II and a berth in the District 3 4-A tournament.
Northeastern was hit with the graduation bug last spring, so Eyster won't have the same kind of senior leadership he had a year ago. Instead, he'll have the next best thing.
Waiting in the wings are two juniors who are more experienced than your average juniors going into a season and will be expected to perform at the level of seniors.
Those two players are Antonio Rizzuto and Fred Mulbah. Both were key figures in Eyster's loaded rotation as sophomores in 2015-16 and will now be starters this season.
"Some people think I should've played them as freshmen," Eyster said about the two juniors during Y-A League winter sports media day earlier this month. "They're good players. We had to mix them in last year. They mixed in with more experienced guys and this year, they are the experienced guys. As juniors, they're going to be part of our leadership."
It's hardly a role your average 11th grader will be thrown into right at the start of a season. Typically, if a junior stands out, it comes later in the season after he has time to get his feet wet with his first regular taste of varsity experience. Of course, these things also go on a player-to-player basis, with special talents like Rizzuto and Mulbah dipping their toes into the varsity pool as 10th graders.
Whether it was part of Eyster's plan to throw them into the rotation a year ago, knowing that he was going to have to rely on them heavily this season, or not and couldn't deny their talents, it'll pay off for him this season.
Both Rizzuto and Mulbah realize that it was important for them to see valuable varsity minutes as sophomores, especially if it means becoming leaders as juniors and seeing their roles expand.
"It matured us," Rizzuto said about playing varsity as a sophomore. "It gives us an advantage as if we didn't play last year."
Added Mulbah, "We know what we're going into. We know how difficult it is."
It's not like when Rizzuto and Mulbah got into games last year, they were hidden on defense and stayed out of the way of the offense, either. They both contributed in ways well beyond their grade level. Mulbah was the third-leading scorer on the Bobcats, using his quickness to average 9.8 points per game, while Rizzuto showcased his ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor and put up 7.9 points per game.
On the defensive side of the ball, both were tasked on various occasions with having to guard quality players, such as York High's Jacquez Casiano, Trey Shifflett and Montrel Morgan or Spring Grove's Eli Brooks and Darin Gordon, and being more than capable of holding their own.
It seems unlikely that Northeastern will repeat its perfect league play record and 21-3 overall mark this year, especially after losing three crucial players from that squad and moving up to a much more difficult Division I.
But, with Rizzuto and Mulbah possessing experience not often seen out of juniors, their sheer presence should make any potential step backwards less substantial.
"Competing at a varsity level, it's just different," Eyster said. "The game is different. You can't replicate it, not even in practice."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org