Only is two letters shy of being lonely.
For the Morris boys basketball team, having only lost three players to graduation from a year ago, the Redskins have a chance to do something no other team in MCHS school history has done before.
If only they can win 15 games.
“Fifteen wins is the benchmark we set each year. We have to be careful with making a number the only thing,” Morris seventh-year head coach Joe Blumberg said. “What if we have a very talented team and only winning 15 would be underperforming? Or a weaker team and maybe winning 10 is an overachieving year?
“Numbers can be misleading, but 15 guarantees a winning season. It’s something that is important to our players – continuing to build a successful, competitive program. We are striving for 15 again this year.”
“I’d like to see us win the regional, to win 15-plus games and to become better basketball players overall,” Morris senior captain David Kneller said.
Only one other time in school history has Morris won 15 games for four straight years (from 1959 through 1963), Still, building on the team’s previous success will mean replacing the three players to graduate from last year.
“At first glance, we only lost three players from last year’s squad. (Ben) Ortiz, (Jason) Matteson, and (Jake) Hogan possessed a great deal of talent, athleticism and leadership, and will be tough to replace,” Blumberg said. “But we have some talent returning. We have ballplayers that worked hard this offseason and are much improved.”
Part of that core that Blumberg will be counting on to step up this year are senior center David Kneller, senior guard Sam Allen, senior forward Tanner Sampson and junior guards Austin Patterson and Even Bjelland. Allen, Kneller and Brock Kukman are the captains on the team this year.
“I think where we are going to do well this year is with Evan and Patty shooting threes, Sam bringing the ball up and then the big guys down low,” Kneller said. “I see us having an evenly balanced team.”
“For us right now, it’s about learning to play together and guys accepting roles. Everybody wants to take the shot and score. But there’s only one ball,” Blumberg said. “We need guys who have the desire to get the ball to our scorers, guys who have a strong desire to rebound the ball, and every guy needs to be strong defensively. Poor defensive guys just can’t be on the floor. If guys buy into their assigned roles, we can have a solid team.”
Seniors Kukman, Ricky Pelnarsh and Tony Rogalla, as well as juniors Jake Walker and Logan Ault, are expected to fill those roles early on.
“It’s been pretty fun this first few weeks trying to figure out who’s going to play what and who is going to fill what roles,” Kneller said.
“Depth will be critical. Kukman and Rogalla can knock down the 15-footer quite well,” Blumberg said. “Pelnarsh and Ault get after it defensively, and will have to take care of the ball for us.”
Others on the team who will be vying for playing time this winter are, senior Tyler Thuente, junior Jacob Brady, junior Cody Niewinski (injured), junior Will Dixon-Walton, junior Preston Kyles, junior Seth Jones and junior Bradley Nicholson.
“There are minutes to be earned on our team in practice,” Blumberg said. “Depending on how guys improve, get healthy, pick up our system, play within our system and work hard in practice, I think our bench can become even deeper.”
In addition to the regional championship Kneller mentioned earlier, Blumberg said his team also is eying a Northern Illinois Big 12 East Conference title.
“Championships are something we talk a lot about. Whether the conference championship or regional championship – those are two goals we have,” he said. “One involves playing well over the course of three months. The other involves getting hot at the right time. Our daily reminders to get better, improve fundamentally and play better together should allow us to contend for both.”
Blumberg said Kaneland is likely the frontrunner in the league this year, but he also mentioned the rest of the conference should contend well.
“Last year we were 5-5 and lost at the buzzer by one at Kaneland and Yorkville and lost by one at home against Yorkville,” Blumberg said. “If we play defense, we can contend.”