Bob Zeh has been around the local basketball scene since The Beatles were topping the Billboard charts, but more than 50 years later, the Jefferson native is still finding success as the Unatego girls basketball coach.
Despite the Spartans’ 2019-20 season being cut short because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Unatego managed to put together one of its most successful seasons to date. Returning all but two players from the 2018-19 team that advanced to the Section IV Class C finals, Zeh guided the Spartans to their first section title in 35 years.
For that, Zeh is The Daily Star Coach of the Year for girls basketball.
“Our season was kind of up and down,” Zeh said. “We started out really well, I think we had a high curve right around Christmas where we played really well at the Dick White Tournament. We kind of hit a wall and the flu bug kind of hit us and we lost a few players and we dropped a little bit, [but] our last six games, I think we won five of those.”
The Spartans started out 4-0, with the fourth win of the season giving Zeh No. 600 for his coaching career as the Spartans defeated Walton on Dec. 10. In its next game, Unatego took its first loss in a tightly-contested game against Class B Oneonta, 48-46, at Drago Gymnasium on Dec. 13.
But the Spartans lost just two games the rest of the way while picking up impressive wins against Duanesburg and Syracuse Academy of Science, as well as two over Delhi in a pair of highly competitive bouts. Zeh felt the team’s 48-39 win over SAS at the start of the New Year, specifically, was a sign of things to come for the green and white.
“A highly rated team, highly ranked team, they came down to our place and we played really well,” Zeh said. “Probably our biggest game of the year.”
Perhaps the most memorable storyline of the season, though, was the Spartans’ rivalry with Midstate Athletic Conference opponent Deposit/Hancock. The Eagles were responsible for Unatego’s other two regular-season losses, with the first coming on the Spartans’ home court in early February and the second taking place at Binghamton University with the MAC championship on the line.
As two of the section’s top teams in Class C, the stars aligned for a third meeting between the rivals in the section semifinals. The third time was the charm for Unatego as it won the rubber match, 45-42.
“That was a big win for us,” Zeh said. “It was our chance and our time. We made a shot and they didn’t and it gave us a chance to play for a sectional championship at the end.”
The Spartans took care of Union Springs in the final to claim the section crown three days later, which afforded them the chance to play Cooperstown, the Section III champions, in a regional final. Unfortunately for both squads, their seasons were called off before that matchup could come to fruition, a conclusion Zeh said left his team “super disappointed.”
Defense was the Spartans’ calling card during the season and key to their overall success. In the section final, Unatego surrendered just 26 points.
“They knew that defensively, we talked about it every game, if we defend and rebound, we talk about those two things a lot,” Zeh said. “We worked on those two things a lot in practice. We know we have to defend and rebound if we’re going to have a chance against anybody.
“I’m kind of old-fashioned,” Zeh continued when asked about his coaching style. “I believe in ball control. If we have the basketball it’s hard for the [opposition] to score. If you look at teams throughout the country, the best defensive teams can control the ball on offense.”
Zeh also credited the team’s three seniors, Mallory Frazier, Paige McCoy and his “kingpin,” Hali Lucia, for helping to build a program where they can consistently compete. Juniors Meghan Perry and Jenna Faulkner, along with Lucia, earned All-MAC Second Team nods. Junior Morgan Perry was named to the All-MAC First Team.
The section title caps Zeh’s fourth season with Unatego and the 55th overall season of his coaching career. A 1963 graduate of SUNY Cobleskill, he most notably led the Oneonta boys and girls programs for a combined 38 years, in which he compiled 527 total wins before retiring in 2010.
After a six-season stint as a volunteer assistant coach for the Hartwick women’s team, Zeh came out of retirement when he was hired by Unatego in the summer of 2016.
This marks the sixth Daily Star Coach of the Year award for Zeh over his high school coaching tenure. The New York State Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Famer won three as the OHS boys coach (1987, 1994, 1997) and two as the Yellowjackets’ girls coach (2009, 2010).
It would be easy to understand if Zeh, 77, is eyeing a return to retirement in the near future, but the local legend maintains his desire to coach his still as potent as ever.
“I love the game, I love working with young people,” Zeh said. “I have a tremendous passion for the game and I’d like to keep going.”