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Junior Zach Johnson and the Morgan boys’ basketball team defeated Valley Regional 70-62 in the Shoreline Conference semifinal on March 3. Johnson scored 28 points and made a pivotal layup to tie the game and send it to overtime. (File photo by Susan Lambert/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
Junior Rob Zirlis and the Huskies lost a 72-50 contest to Old Lyme in the Shoreline Conference final on March 5. Zirlis received All-Shoreline Conference Second Team honors prior to the game. (File photo by Susan Lambert/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
Sophomore Connor Duffy played a pivotal role in the paint during the Huskies’ 70-62 semifinal win over Valley Regional on March 3. (File photo by Susan Lambert/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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The Morgan boys’ basketball team got deep into the Shoreline Conference Tournament bracket last week. The No. 3 seed Huskies defeated No. 2 seed Valley Regional in a 70-63 semifinal contest. After that, Morgan moved onto the final round to face top-seeded Old Lyme and lost a 72-50 decision against the Wildcats. The Huskies’ overall record moved to 15-8 on the year as they prepare to play in the Division V State Tournament this week.
The Huskies have a younger squad this season, and reaching the Shoreline final was a huge boost to the team’s confidence. Morgan had taken defeats in both of its regular season matchups with Valley Regional, and many believed it was a foregone conclusion that the Wildcats and the Warriors were on a crash course for the final. Head Coach Frank Rossi was proud of his squad for reaching the ultimate contest of the tourney and battling Old Lyme hard.
“I believe our kids walked out of the gym disappointed, but proud in their effort,” said Coach Rossi. “The loss was hard. You get greedy when you get to a final, and you want to win the whole thing. We’re still focused on the big picture as a young team.”
On March 5, the Huskies headed to Polson Gym in Madison to take on Old Lyme and dropped the 72-50 contest. Prior to the game, juniors Zach Johnson and Rob Zirlis were recognized with All-Shoreline Conference Second Team honors.
Morgan hung in against the Wildcats for the entire first half and led 15-13 after the first quarter. In the second, Old Lyme started to get out in transition, and took a 28-20 lead halfway through the quarter with a 14-3 run. Morgan responded with a 9-1 run, and the half ended with both teams knotted at 29-29.
Coach Rossi and his squad knew the Wildcats well as the two teams played in the final week of the regular season. The Huskies had a gameplan, and they executed it during the first half.
“We played them just over a week ago. We were down big early, but we played them close to even in the second half. At practice, we focused on what worked, the things we needed to execute, and our strengths,” Rossi said. “We tried not to be rattled by the moment and go out, play, and enjoy the game. We tried to contain the penetration and slow the transition. We know you can’t stop them, but we tried to control the tempo of the game.”
Unfortunately, the wheels came off a bit in the second half. Old Lyme got out and ran, and Morgan had a hard time replicating its first-half success. The Wildcats scored the first nine points of third quarter as part of a 19-4 run. Old Lyme entered the final frame up 56-41 and expanded that lead to 72-50 by the end of the fourth. Coach Rossi thought his team looked a lot different in the second half.
“Unfortunately, it looked like we weren’t ready to start the half. That’s the problem with Old Lyme: they score so quickly. They fed off that first minute. We got caught in a wave, and we couldn’t swim out of it,” said Rossi. “They move so quick and so well, it got a little overwhelming for us. I think our inexperience versus their experience really played a part.”
Sophomore Alex Fratamico led the Huskies in scoring with 18 points to go with four rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block. Junior Zach Johnson provided 11 points, five assists, two rebounds and a steal, while fellow junior Rob Zirlis added six points, three rebounds, two assists, a block, and a steal. Sophomore Connor Duffy had five rebounds, two assists, and two points. Junior Jason Cohen supplied eight points, two boards, and a steal, and freshman Andrew Nye had five points.
After the final, Coach Rossi thought that his team received a boost of confidence that should help them in the upcoming state tournament, but even moreso for the future of the program. Rossi believes that Old Lyme’s style is what the Huskies can aspire to.
“Old Lyme is a very similar to us in that they do a lot of things that we want to do well. Aedan Using is a great player of course, but they don’t have any one specific thing that you can take away,” said Coach Rossi. “They are where we want to be the next year and the following year. The blueprint we are using to build our program is similar to what they are doing right now.”
On March 3, Morgan pulled off an upset in a 70-63 overtime, semifinal contest against Valley Regional to pave its path to the conference final. While a No. 3 seed like the Huskies beating a No. 2 seed isn’t out of the ordinary, the fact that the Warriors defeated Morgan in both of their regular season games made the Huskies’ semifinal victory notable. Coach Rossi believed the best course of action for his team was to hit the reset button.
“You know what you’re getting into going to Valley. It’s a tough place to play, and they are a great team. We approached it like it was the first time that we played them,” said Rossi. “We went zone to contain the penetration. We wanted to keep them away from the rim. Gavin Grabowski hurt us getting to the rim in previous games, and Cade Ensinger does a great job of getting into the paint and getting the ball out to other players. So we made sure we were matching up and forcing contested jumpers.”
That strategy worked defensively, and on offense, the Huskies had two talented bigs in Zirlis and Duffy to wreak havoc in the paint.
“They really pushed us around those previous games. We knew we had a strength with our inside game. In the first half, we started with Connor and Rob on the floor and eventually alternated them to keep them fresh,” Rossi said. “I thought if we scored into the upper 60s, that’s to our advantage. As good as Old Lyme is, Valley could be the best defensive team in our league.”
Valley got out to a 17-16 lead after the first quarter, and the teams were nearly even at the half with the Warriors holding a 27-26 edge. Morgan went ahead 38-37 after three quarters. In the fourth, Morgan was down 52-50, and Johnson grabbed a defensive rebound with 10 seconds remaining in the game. Coach Rossi gave Johnson the green light with room to roam on the court, and the junior tied the game with a layup with two seconds remaining to send it to overtime. In the final frame, Fratamico went off offensively as the Huskies went onto the 70-62 win.
Johnson had a huge game scoring 28 points to go with 10 rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Zirlis provided 13 points, five boards, two blocks, and two assists, while Fratamico had 11 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and a steal. Nye (8) and Cohen (4) also scored points for the Huskies.
Coach Rossi believed that the win against Valley was a big step for Morgan. Even though the Huskies wouldn’t ultimately go on to win the final, this experience will go a long way toward building a successful program.
“That game gave us a lot of confidence. It really helped validate the mindset that we’ve been trying to instill all season. All year we’ve heard, ‘It’s Old Lyme. It’s Valley,’ and that we’re part of that next group. As we were getting closer to March, I didn’t think there was that big of a gap between us,” said Rossi. “It proved the point that we are able to play with the best in our league. We’re still young and growing. We made some mistakes, but I think that Valley game was a big leap forward. Prior to that game, it’s easy to talk, but it became tangible with that Valley win.”
This week the Huskies begin play in the Division V State Tournament this week and enter the bracket as the No. 9 seed. Morgan’s state tourney run begins with a home game in the first round versus No. 24 seed Parish Hill on Monday, March 9 at 6:30 p.m. A win in that contest would send Morgan on the road to face No. 8 seed Montville on Wednesday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. for a second-round matchup. The quarterfinal is set to take place on Friday, March 13 at 7:00 p.m., where Morgan could potentially face Old Lyme again. The semifinals will be on Tuesday March, 17, and the finals are slated for either Saturday, March 21 or Sunday, March 22 at Mohegan Sun Arena.
From the Sidelines
The Morgan boys’ basketball team’s roster features senior captains Nic Colebank and Jon Fiorillo; juniors Joshua Bardinelli, Cam Carlson, Jason Cohen, Zach Johnson, Gavin Krott, Mason Smith, and Robbie Zirlis; and sophomores Dominic Cacopardo, Dante DiGianni, Connor Duffy, Michael Fragola, Alex Fratamico, Brady Fritz, Cameron Johnson, Timothy McComiskey, and Andrew Nye.
Frank Rossi is in his second season as head coach of the Huskies. Morgan’s assistant coaches are Jordan Bean and Ryan Florentine.
Morgan’s wins during the regular season came against Coginchaug (62-58 and 64-53), North Branford (81-60 and 59-33), East Lyme (48-45), Portland (64-50), Lyman Hall (56-44), East Hampton (72-53), Haddam-Killingworth (67-52), Hale-Ray (67-50), Westbrook (54-48), Cromwell (55-40), Old Saybrook (76-71). The Huskies’ regular season losses were to Valley Regional (69-56 and 59-34), Platt (67-48), Cromwell (47-43), Amistad (43-31), Haddam-Killingworth (65-63), and Old Lyme (67-50).
In the Shoreline Conference Tournament, Morgan defeated Hale-Ray (82-73) in the quarterfinal. In the semifinal, the Huskies defeated Valley Regional (70-62), and in the final, Morgan lost to Old Lyme (72-50).
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