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Senior captain big man Robert Zirlis and the Morgan boys’ basketball squad hope to make a return to the Shoreline Conference Tournament final again this year with a slew of returning talent. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain guard Zach Johnson had a breakout year 2020 when he earned All-Shoreline Conference Second Team honors with the Huskies. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
Junior forward Alex Fratamico had a scorching playoff performance against Valley Regional in the Shoreline Conference semifinal last year, and he’s looking to take another step forward in 2021. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
The Morgan boys’ basketball team is gearing up for another strong campaign as the start of the winter season approaches. Last year, the Huskies posted an overall record of 16-8, which included advancing to the Shoreline Conference final and winning a game in the Division V State Tournament before the remainder of the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, Head Coach Frank Rossi’s squad will feature several experienced players including senior captains Robbie Zirlis and Zach Johnson, who had break-out seasons last year with both of them earning All-Shoreline Conference Second Team honors. Coach Rossi believed that Johnson and Zirlis are bound to be effective leaders for the Huskies.
“We picked our captains, Robbie Zirlis and Zach Johnson, in the fall. They were kind of the obvious picks as three-year starters. They are also four-year varsity players. They are the two with the most experience going back the their freshman year,” said Rossi. “Our selection process involved the players and they recognized their experience and leadership. We’re a senior-heavy team, so it’s great to see that their peers look up to them, too.”
Coach Rossi and his coaching staff want to approach this season with the same expectations for the year as if it weren’t taking place in the middle of a pandemic. Of course, the Huskies will stay safe and follow all the guidelines to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus among players and staff, but Coach Rossi doesn’t want his student-athletes to just be satisfied with being able to play some games. He wants the Huskies to win, and they have the personnel to do it.
“We’re focusing on winning the day and having a successful practice or game. We want to show up and get better every day. We have eight returning players from last year’s team, and with the season we had last year, I think we have to be one of the favorites in the conference. I don’t want to downplay that,” Rossi said. “A lot of people are approaching the season that we are just lucky to play, but we’re focusing on winning as many games as possible. We’re focusing on the goals that this class had before we got shut down last year. I don’t want to take that away from them.”
Morgan was able to take several teams by surprise last season, but there will be no unsuspecting opponents in the Shoreline this season. Coach Rossi is stressing that fact to his squad.
“There’s going to be a target on our back, and we’ll be expected to perform. We want to win all of the games that we play. That’s where we’re trying to get to, but we have to focus on our daily goals,” Rossi said. “Our practices will be intense even though we will be a little limited. We’re going to try to instill a sense of urgency. If we get shutdown for two weeks, we want to be at the highest level we can be, so if we step back in, we’re ready to go. There’s not a whole lot of room for error, and maintaining that intensity from the start is important.”
Coach Rossi knows he has plenty of talent available up and down the roster. The Huskies’ starting back court will most likely be Johnson at point and senior shooting guard Jason Cohen, who can shoot the lights out. Then if Rossi wants Johnson to play a bit more off-ball, Morgan has junior guard Drew Nye ready to enter as the de facto sixth man.
“We’re expecting it will be Zach and Jason to start, then Drew will come on as the sort of sixth man. He sort of came into that role late in the season. Drew stepped in a few games for Zach while he was dealing with a tough case of the flu last year. Drew proved that he was valuable on both ends of the floor,” said Coach Rossi. “Jason made 70 three-pointers last year, and he shot it at a 40-percent clip for us. Zach will primarily be our point guard like last season, but he will probably share those duties with Drew.”
In the small forward position will be junior Alex Fratamico, who can score in a variety of ways. He’s also a solid defender with a height advantage over a good chunk of his opponents.
“Alex really came on for us toward late last season,” Coach Rossi said. “Of course he was great all year for us, but he was particularly big for us in the Shoreline semis against Valley. We expect him to continue his growth as a player.”
The Huskies’ front court should be another position of strength according to Rossi. Zirlis will man the power forward position, where Rossi hopes to see more face-up attacks from the big man. Zirlis can also stretch the floor a bit since he has a decent outside shot. The man in the middle will be junior Connor Duffy, who at 6-foot-8 is a lot to handle for opposing bigs.
“Connor in the middle is great. His size alone sets him apart. He worked incredibly hard in the off season on his foot work. Last year, he started almost every game as a sophomore, but depending on the ebb and flow, sometimes he would play more or less. We can also go small if we have to at times,” said Rossi. “We’re hoping Robbie will play more facing the basket this year. He’s not a huge perimeter player, but he can pull guys away from the basket and open up space in the lane. He’s going to try to open things up for Zach, Alex, and Drew to flash to the rim.”
Other players who should make an impact for the Huskies will be seniors Alex Urban, Cam Carlson, and Gavin Krott off of the bench. Coach Rossi anticipates that given that teams will be competing while wearing masks, Morgan may have to plan to run a bit deeper this year.
“Playing with masks, we’re not sure how the players are going to respond. We’re fortunate that we already have eight to nine players at the varsity level contributing. We might have to play 10 or 11 players to make sure the go-to guys are comfortable from a breathing perspective, so they can finish a game with two or three minutes to go. It’ll be interesting to see how players respond and play. We’re fortunate to have so many returning with the senior class like Alex Urban, Cam Carlson, Gavin Krott,” said Rossi. “They’ve all contributed over the years, but they will step up this year as seniors to fulfill those necessary roles off the bench. All these guys have experience at the varsity level.”
Given everything, Coach Rossi knows that he can count on his returning coaching staff, which includes Junior Varsity Coach Jordan Bean and Freshman Coach Ryan Florentine. There will be no swing players this year to move between the JV and varsity teams, to limit the amount of contact players have with multiple opponents. That means that some players on the cusp may end up on the varsity team playing limited minutes when in years past, they could have logged varsity experience while seeing heavy minutes with the JV group, as well. It’s just going to be a different experience this season for everyone according to Coach Rossi.
“We have the separate freshmen, JV, and varsity teams. Some sophomores might come up with the varsity squad, who might have played every JV game. It’s going to be interesting, and it’s forcing us to be a bit more creative with our rosters and practices,” said Rossi. “I think the biggest challenge will be communication. We always stress you have to talk, even from the sideline. Now with a mask over our face, we might need hand gestures, or we’ll have to use our bodies. Most of all, we want to make sure if we’re not in a safe situation, or there’s anything suspect, we’re not putting kids on the floor.”