Sports Person of the Week
Elpi Always Puts His Team First
Senior guard Justin Elpi finished his career with Branford boys’ hoops by making the All-SCC East Division Team on behalf of the Hornets this winter. (Photo courtesy of Justin Elpi )
During his freshman season, Justin Elpi received a call from Branford boys’ basketball coach Chris Burnham, who told Justin that he was going to be a varsity starter. While the news came as a surprise, Justin went to become a full-time starter and continued in that role through a senior season that saw him earn All-SCC honors for a resurgent Hornets’ squad.
Three years ago, Coach Burnham called Justin and told him that he was getting the start prior to a matchup versus Platt. When Justin got into the game, he had to tie one of his shoes in the corner. The ball was passed to Justin and, without missing a beat, he caught it and promptly scored his first varsity basket.
It was an unusual debut, but a moment that helped ease Justin’s nerves and gave him some early confidence.
“I was shocked. I wasn’t prepared at all for it. I never really thought of starting a varsity game. I was really nervous,” says Justin. “I was tying my shoe in the corner, and I hit my first basket. From there, it all became reality. I started to gain confidence and started playing more.”
Before he joined the Hornets, Justin competed in the Branford rec league. Justin began playing in 3rd grade and then joined the town’s travel team in 4th grade, participating in both leagues through his 8th-grade season. As he was getting started with basketball, Justin’s uncle John taught him a lot about the sport.
“He was a big inspiration. He would come over and teach me how to dribble when I was just getting started,” Justin says of his uncle. “He played all his life. He taught me everything. He always encouraged me. In middle school, he would come to my games. He always supported me. It helped me a lot.”
Justin started to enjoy basketball more as he continued playing the sport. He began making friends through basketball and formed bonds with them both on and off the court.
As he saw more playing time in his freshman year, Justin found that there was a big difference going up against older competition. However, once he gained more experience, Justin was relishing the challenge of taking on the upperclassmen.
“It was different playing against all these juniors and seniors. I never really played up a grade. It was a big transition,” says Justin. “Once I got used to it, I didn’t mind playing bigger and better competition. I gained a lot of confidence my freshman year. It definitely helped.”
Things started to click for Justin as his freshman season progressed. He started putting in extra work and did everything he could to come back stronger for his sophomore campaign. As he entered his sophomore year, Justin was named the Hornets’ starting point guard.
Justin continued playing the point for the Branford through the next three seasons. This year, the senior helped the Hornets post a record of 8-6 and earn a win in the SCC Division II Tournament. For his efforts, Justin was named to the All-SCC East Division Team alongside freshman Jake Palluzzi.
In the middle of his senior season, Justin was forced to quarantine and missed a few of Branford’s games. Following one victory, he sent a congratulatory text to Coach Burnham and told him to keep racking up the wins.
Even though he wasn’t on the court, Justin still wanted to see his team succeed. While he was happy to make All-SCC, the most important thing for Justin was that the Hornets had a solid year.
“This year, we had seven seniors. We were all really close. I didn’t really care about myself. I only cared about the team and if we won or not,” Justin says. “We set a goal for ourselves to win eight games. We ended up doing it. I didn’t want to be selfish, because it’s bigger than me, and the wins matter more.”
Burnham served as Branford’s head coach during all four of Justin’s seasons with the team. He still remembers how excited Justin was when he called him about starting varsity.
Burnham calls Justin a focal point of Branford’s offense and says that, despite his abilities, he never wanted to be in the spotlight.
“Elpi was a part of my first win at Branford against Platt. From that moment on, he stuck into that role. When he became a sophomore, we really just had to hand him the ball,” says Burnham. “We were very tough on him and had high expectations. He just had so much potential, and I knew he could handle it. He was such a team player, never showed any jealously. It was never about him.”
In addition to playing basketball, Justin joined the Branford baseball team as a freshman. Now, Justin is getting ready to play center field for the Hornets in his senior season.
Justin says playing two varsity sports for Branford helped him become both a better athlete and a better teammate. Justin plans to pursue a degree in athletic training in college, where he will look to play basketball at either the club or the intramural level.
Ever since he stepped on the court, Justin knew he wanted to play basketball for as long as he could. As he continued honing his skills, Justin found that basketball taught him just as much about life as it did the X’s and O’s.
“This sport means a lot to me. Over the years, I felt like I grew as a player and as a person,” Justin says. “There’s so many qualities in basketball and with my team that made me grow as a person in general.”