Editor’s note: This story also appears in the February edition of Preston Hollow People.
It’s been a rapid rise to prominence for the boys basketball program at Yavneh Academy, but whether it’s been surprising depends on whom you ask.
Some observers anticipated a rough transition and a lengthy rebuilding process when David Zimmerman took over in 2012 as the head coach and director of co-curricular activities at the small Orthodox Jewish school near Preston Hollow.
But Zimmerman didn’t see it that way, and neither did his players, who have bought into a more up-tempo, team-oriented style that has brought the Bulldogs some national attention.
Yavneh is ranked in the top 10 nationally in the Jewish Hoops America high school poll. The Bulldogs placed second in December in a tournament in Baltimore, Md., and have scored victories over a handful of larger public schools including Thomas Jefferson, Sunset, and Celina.
It isn’t the first time the program has garnered widespread acclaim. In 2003, Itzy Ribald surpassed 3,000 points for the Bulldogs and became the 12th leading scorer in Texas high school basketball history.
“There was a solid foundation laid before I got here that helped put Yavneh on the map,” said Zimmerman, whose father was a longtime rabbi at Temple Emanu-El. “Most people believed that we were getting ready to take a step backward and it was going to be a rebuilding process.”
Instead, Yavneh finished with its highest winning percentage in any season since the school was founded in 1993. But as an independent team with no district affiliation, the Bulldogs didn’t have any postseason reward for their efforts.
So Zimmerman decided to renew the school’s affiliation with TAPPS after a 13-year absence. He said the decision has provided a more competitive and more structured schedule, and also has given the Bulldogs playoff aspirations for the first time in more then a decade.
The TAPPS renewal came following a 2012 controversy involving another Jewish school, Beren Academy in Houston, which originally was denied the opportunity to reschedule its state semifinal game that fell during the Sabbath.
A lawsuit and public outcry caused TAPPS to reconsider its decision, and led to the eventual adoption of regulations allowing for more flexible scheduling for similar instances of religious observance.
“Then it became a no-brainer,” Zimmerman said.
So Yavneh’s improvement on the court has come at the ideal time, with the players responding to Zimmerman’s system that involves more offensive balance and less reliance on a single superstar player, like Ribald in former years.
“It’s more of a team game now. Everybody makes a big contribution,” said senior captain Sam Kleinman. “That philosophy has really caught on with everybody.”
Kleinman and fellow captain Adam Karnett — two of seven seniors on the roster —have played for more than 10 years for Zimmerman, an SMU graduate who has coached teams at the Jewish Community Center and Levine Academy, as well as at the semipro level.
“I think people’s commitment level has gone up because of the style we play,” Karnett said. “Everybody knows they have a job to do. It doesn’t matter who scores. It just matters that the ball goes in the basket.”
Zimmerman hopes the new Yavneh approach will position the school with just 123 high-school students for long-term success.
“The expectations have grown higher,” Zimmerman said. “I’m thrilled with how quickly it’s happened. The kids have worked really hard.”