Near the end of January, Ithaca boys basketball underwent a midseason coaching change. The reins of the 5-6 team were handed to former Little Red standout Lester McNair on an interim basis along with manager Kevin Cartmill. Since then, the team has had a positive record and successfully qualified for sectionals.
Things were looking bleak for the Little Red heading down the stretch, but McNair has uncovered what the team is capable of.
“The kids buckled down and got a little more serious about their season,” McNair said. “They wanted it really bad. We started out with a group of guys and sat down with them and came up with a plan to change up a few things. We started putting new wrinkles in practices, started letting the kids have more input on what they think would work.”
Making the team feel comfortable has been a big part of the run. No longer are the players facing consequences for playing the way they want to play, and that’s relieved a lot of the pressure on the Little Red.
“I haven’t said anything to them about shooting the basketball in three weeks,” McNair said. “If they can’t make plays and always feel like someone’s looking over their shoulder, that comfortability isn’t there. You have to let kids play sometimes.”
One of McNair’s favorite parts of the team so far has been the attitude displayed on and off the court. With depth being a primary positive aspect of the team, playing time can change on a night-to-night basis. With that in mind, spirits are consistently high.
“The most impressive thing is seeing these guys supporting each other and picking each other up,” McNair said. “Everyone is rallying together. It’s not just one or two guys; it’s the entire team saying, ‘Hey, we’re better than what we’ve been putting out and we can continue to do better.’ Once they see those results, they continue to push each other. Coming together as a team.”
Having depth is a huge boost in high school basketball. Many teams have a small handful of players they lean on for success, but the Little Red have a full slate of different players who can contribute each game.
“That’s the best part of our team,” McNair said. “We can play 10 players and on any given night, you have different guys contributing. We never have the same guy leading the charge. That’s a big thing. To have depth in high school basketball and having more than three or four guys who can contribute makes it a lot easier to put together a strategy.”
Having that many players with the ability to contribute does come with its challenges for McNair though.
“It’s really tough,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes to get good chemistry and keep guys motivated and keep playing. They’ve been doing such a great job with that. I know every night guys aren’t always going to be excited if they don’t get as much playing time as the night before, but we’re seeing a good change with that as well.”
One of the wins that the team achieved under McNair was against the top team in Class AA in Section IV, Binghamton. A win like that comes with a confidence boost heading into the playoffs.
“We’re pretty confident but don’t want to get too high on ourselves because any night the ball could bounce any way,” McNair said. “We are really confident in ourselves as far as knowing we can play really good basketball. We’ve had more consistent nights of better basketball. It’s not about being too confident, but staying even-keeled.”
No matter what happens in the playoffs, McNair considers the season a success. He cited resilience as the quality he’ll remember most about the team. It has been a success and a season McNair will remember forever.
“It’s a dream come true,” McNair said. “Coming back to the Ithaca community in 2006 from college, there two things I really wanted to do: 1) I wanted to come back to the community and help kids because I was able to get out and go to college. 2) I wanted to have the opportunity to coach at my alma mater where I played, and I’ve gotten that opportunity. It’s pretty surreal at times being on those sidelines.”
McNair has believed in this team since he took over. He still has “interim” in his title but is hoping what he’s brought out of the Little Red in less than half a season gives him the opportunity to have a full season on Ithaca’s sidelines. McNair believes a full season with him at the helm could “bring back excitement to Little Red basketball.”
The Section IV playoffs in Class AA will begin in March, where the Little Red have won sectionals just once since 1993. McNair’s philosophies have given the team a chance to buck that trend this season.
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