Before I even met Zack Tobler, I thought I liked him. I enjoyed watching the crowd go bananas when he entered the game – keeping fans engaged well after the result was certain. He seemed to feed off that energy, looking for an open look without forcing up a terrible shot. Now that I’ve met him and heard stories from his high school coach, I love him. And the Bearcat Nation should love him, too.
I. Making Zack Tobler
Zack grew up in Ft. Wright, Kentucky. For high school, he attended Covington Catholic where he played basketball, starting his junior and senior seasons. In addition to basketball, he was a goalie for the lacrosse team.
Before Zack’s senior basketball season he developed some back issues that, according to his high school coach, often left him lying on the court at the end of practices because of debilitating pain. To lighten the mood, his coaches and teammates used to joke that Zack was a teenager trapped in a 40 year old man’s body.
Zack grew up a lifelong Bearcats fan, as did many in his family. In fact, his uncles are diehard UC fans, and love to harass their nephew about his scoring output during holidays. While his favorite Bearcat player of all time was Deonta Vaughn, he also enjoyed watching Sean Kilpatrick light it up. Who didn’t?
II. Choosing Cincinnati – “Mick’s Friend”
Because of his junior and senior seasons (he had better numbers his junior year), Tobler had a number of offers to play basketball in college. Wittenberg, Transylvania, and Mount St. Joseph all recruited him, but he was dead set on going to UC, even if that meant only playing pick up basketball. Zack and his family made plans for him to enroll in Fall of 2013.
Then, something cool happened.
During the summer following his senior year, he was hanging out with his friend Nick Frederick in Nick’s backyard. Nick’s dad was outside chatting with them when the topic of UC and whether Zack wanted to play in college came up. Nick’s dad was friends with Coach Cronin, and said he’d mention Zack to Coach.
A week later Tobler received a phone call inviting him to come to an open gym to play with some of the UC players. He showed up for the first time and found himself playing against all of the guys he grew up watching – Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson, and Titus Rubles. To Zack, they were not only great players, they were also good guys. Like a bad habit, Tobler kept showing up, kept being persistent.
While he knew Coach Cronin had invited him to the open gym, he was not certain of anything else. Zack didn’t know whether he was going to be invited to play on the team, or just to more open gyms. So like any other freshman college student, Tobler moved into his dorm room with three other guys he’d never met and started going to class.
III. The Phone Call
Then Zack received the call of a lifetime. In the middle of September of 2013 he was sitting in his room with two of his roommates (Jack Fitzgerald and Joey Steele) when his phone rang. He answered and Mark Berger, UC’s director of player development, was on the other end. Mark told him to come up to practice at 3:30 PM that day, and that the program would outfit him with all of the necessary gear. Tobler was on the team.
IV. The Rest Is History
Now Tobler is in his second season with UC, and he’s even scored a basket. He has had some great times as a Bearcat, and some less-than-great moments. His favorite moment so far was the last second shot Rubles hit to give UC the win over Pitt at iconic Madison Square Garden.
For that moment, scroll ahead in the following video to the 2:00 mark…
His least favorite moment occurred during last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to Harvard. The reason? First, Zack hates seeing UC lose. Ever. Second, he said it was difficult seeing guys like Justin, Sean, and Titus struggle through losing because of how much they invested into the program.
V. Looking Forward
What became clear to me during my conversation with Zack is that he has no delusions of grandeur. He likes his role on the team. As he’s improved his basketball skills, he’s gotten more reps in practice. He can tell he’s getting better. When he’s helping the team prepare for the next opponent, he likes playing the other team’s big man and helping the bigs prepare for physical games.
And he loves getting game opportunities. When I asked him how he feels when the crowd starts chanting his name, he laughed…and said it’s a great feeling. That’s all I could get out of him.
His high school coach Scott Ruthsatz had this to say about Tobler, “He was never trying to be the man; he just did whatever he could for the team.” Ruthsatz continued: “Zack had a pure drive to help his teammates in any way. You’re never going to get complaints out of him.”
VI. Let’s Keep Tobler Trending
Last week I wrote an article in which I said:
“…I have two aims with Mr. Tobler. One, I want to thank him. As a walk-on for a top flight basketball program like UC, he has to compete all week, often for little playing time. The bottom line is you cannot be a walk-on without being a team guy. Plain and simple. Two, I want to reward him for his contributions to the program by helping him build the Tobler brand. I’m not sure how I’m going to go about this, but I’ll have a better idea once I figure out what makes the young lad tick…I’m hopeful that by the end of his senior year, the Tobler support from the stands and Cincinnati community reach a fever pitch.”
To my first objective, let me say thank you, Zack, for sticking around Cincinnati. You have somehow made the end of a lot of games ridiculously fun. To my second objective, I now realize there is no Tobler brand because Zack is a team guy – through and through. I could tell by talking to him. His high school coach effusively said the same. So for now I’ll table the delusions of grandeur I had for him and just go bananas whenever he gets on the court this season. Tobler! Tobler! Tobler!
By Brian Fox
Bearcat Nation, if you can dream up ways to keep Tobler trending in Clifton, building momentum and memories for all UC fans, message or tweet me @bearcatsradio.