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The Morgan boys’ basketball squad claimed the Shoreline Conference Tournament title after defeating Valley Regional 62-54 in the final on March 27. The Huskies also claimed a perfect record on the year finishing with a 15-0 mark. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain Robbie Zirlis had a huge impact for the Huskies throughout all of the playoffs as a dominant paint presence and impressive rebounder. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain Zach Johnson hit a go ahead three in the final minutes of the fourth quarter in the Huskies’ 62-54 home victory over Valley Regional to put his team ahead for good. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
The Morgan boys’ basketball squad claimed the Shoreline Conference Championship on the heels of an undefeated season. The Huskies triumphed over Valley Regional in the Shoreline final to put the bow on their 15-0 season, and they get to hoist the championship banner in The Morgan School gym after a historic campaign.
The top-seeded Huskies had home court advantage all the way through the postseason and claimed 70-45 win over No. 9 Hale-Ray in the quarterfinals, a 74-46 victory over No. 4 East Hampton in the semis, and a 62-54 win against No. 3 Valley in the final.
Head Coach Frank Rossi felt ecstatic to see all the hard work that his squad put in during this strange season pay off.
“When we started the season, we didn’t know if we’d even make it to the tournament. To put a focus on a number of wins or undefeated wouldn’t work. Our goal was to win everyday, and practice every practice,” said Rossi. “We just wanted to go as far as we could this season. We didn’t want to look too far ahead because COVID could do anything. Setting long-term goals was difficult. I think that helped us. It was always about the present.
“When you get to the tournament, that’s how you have to play. You can’t worry about future opponents you can only focus on who’s in front of you,” he added. “The season helped us do that.”
Being the undefeated team and prohibitive favorite coming into the postseason was a new experience for the Huskies. Ever since Coach Rossi stepped in as head coach, Morgan has been a scrappy underdog, looking to upset the heavyweights of the Shoreline Conference. Coach Rossi believed that knowing what it felt like in the other locker room helped his squad prepare.
“One of the things we talked about was that we were on the other side of the table looking to make the upset. Two years ago it was Cromwell, and we gave them a great game. Then last year we were the lower seed, and we won the game against Valley we had no business winning to face Old Lyme in the final,” Rossi said. “Now we’re the team that other teams were coming after. No one is giving us anything. I think that’s what got us there. We understood what was coming at us because we were those teams.”
On March 27, the Huskies and Warriors played a competitive finals’ contest. The lead changed hands until the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, when Morgan had a couple of strong sequences to solidify the victory.
Valley took the early advantage, leading 17-14 after the first quarter, but Morgan pulled ahead by a single tally at 31-30 heading into halftime. The Warriors were back on top after three quarters 43-42, but the Huskies were able to will their way to victory with a 20-11 fourth quarter en route to the 62-54 final.
Coach Rossi believed the game was decided after the final mask break of the fourth quarter. Senior captain Robbie Zirlis and junior Alex Fratamico had one thing on their minds: Corral any and all rebounds. That tenacious rebounding led to a big three-pointer by senior captain Zach Johnson that put the Huskies in the driver seat the rest of the way.
“From the mask break on, it was sheer will of two players on the boards. Robbie and Alex controlled the glass. Not a whole lot was said on the bench except one of the last things I told the kids was ‘Trust your abilities and trust your teammates,’” said Rossi. “With just under three minutes left, we took the lead. That game could have swung if Valley gets that rebound, but Alex knocked the ball away, Zach hits the three off the tip back, and I think that’s where the game was won.
“There were other plays after that, but that’s the one play we can look back on,” he continued. “That was our shining moment.”
Fratamico ended up leading the Huskies in the score sheet with 17 points. Johnson scored 14 points and junior Drew Nye scored 13. Zirlis added 14 rebounds to go with nine points, and senior Jason Cohen scored five points. Junior Connor Duffy, and sophomore Cooper Galdenzi scored two points apiece.
Coach Rossi expected to see the game come down to the wire, but he knew his team had the grit to be able to claim the crown in the end. Morgan couldn’t prepare for the added wrinkle of Warriors’ star Jeremy Arnum making a return to the lineup for the playoffs after missing several games.
“We expected it to be close. We watched Valley in the quarters and semis. They were playing with a ton of confidence down the stretch, and getting Arnum back lifted them even more. I think losing Arnum actually made them better since some of their players ended up playing more and with more confidence,” said Rossi. “We really only had one day to get ready for them. We tried to focus on the little things. They attack rim well, and shoot the ball well. We focused on stopping the three and taking away lay ups, but Valley is a really strong defensive team, and we made some mistakes early. Then we threw the game plan out the window. By the end of the first half, the key to game was the rebounding. We thought, whoever won the rebound battle would win the championship.”
Morgan did win the rebound battle the rest of the way, and it resulted in the victory.
Earlier in the week, Morgan notched huge wins against other Shoreline foes. On March 23, the Huskies claimed a 70-45 win over Hale-Ray. Morgan got out to a 20-13 lead after the first quarter, and the Huskies’ advantage ballooned to 37-18 by halftime. Morgan outscored the Noises 33-27 in the second half en route to the 70-45 lead.
Zirlis scored 17 points in the win, while Cohen provided 14 points. Fratamico supplied 13 points, and Nye scored seven. Johnson and Duffy each added five points, while seniors Mason Smith and Gavin Krott score two points apiece in the quarterfinal victory.
Coach Rossi thought that even though the scored looked lopsided, Hale-Ray played well. The Shoreline Conference had plenty of parity this season.
“Our league was so balanced this year, all the seeds came down to tie-breakers. Hale-Ray was the No. 9 seed, but they could have been four or five. They played us in a zone, which we hadn’t seen throughout the year,” said Rossi. “Early on we were having a hard time finding our rhythm, then we made some adjustments at halftime. We did a better job of getting Robbie the ball down low, and as the kids got some rhythm, it broke their zone. We shook off some of the mistakes that we were making toward the end of the season, and it was a good starting game for the tournament.”
On March 25, the Huskies defeated East Hampton in a similarly decisive fashion, but the game started out much closer than it would appear by the final tally. The Bellringers took a 17-13 advantage in the first quarter, but Morgan edged ahead 27-26 by halftime. The Huskies took over in the third, outscoring East Hampton, 25-8. Morgan held a 52-34 lead heading into the fourth quarter, and ultimately claimed a 74-46 semifinal victory.
Zirlis had another outstanding scoring effort with 19 points, while Nye and Fratamico scored twelve points apiece. Cohen added 11 points and Johnson provided eight points in the win. Cooper Galdenzi (5), Cam Carlson (3), Duffy (2), and Smith (2), each added points in the win.
Coach Rossi thought the Huskies got out to another slow start, and while that can be a dangerous formula, the most important thing is how they finished the game.
“East Hampton is a well-coached team that plays incredibly hard. They are guard oriented, and it gave us trouble early. We committed a ton of fouls in the first quarter, and we had to go to the bench early. We didn’t have great rhythm defensively, either,” Rossi said. “In the second quarter, we controlled the ball a better. We stopped fouling, and we played better defense, which made for better offense. We got some easy baskets as a result. We had a lead at halftime, and that was really it. It gave us a good road map for the second half and we played one of best quarters in the season in the third. All of the games, it was simple adjustments at halftime.”
Another big factor for Morgan was getting some of the players’ family members in to make some noise. Home court advantage meant something for the Huskies, thanks to the support of their fans.
“It created a good atmosphere. It wasn’t going to be the same as a packed gym, but the parents were phenomenal,” said Rossi. “They had signs. They were fans. They started the chants, and they were great. I don’t know how different it would have been without them.”
As they celebrate their title together, the Huskies will have some big shoes to fill, but there is plenty to be optimistic about.
“Where do we go next year? We have a great core coming back playing with this senior class,” Rossi said. “I’m excited for the boys now, and I’m excited about what’s to come.”