MORRIS – When the boys basketball season started, Morris coach Joe Blumberg faced a familiar disadvantage. Many of his players entered the first game having had very little time to prepare due to the football team’s extended run to the Class 5A semifinals. That is something that many schools face, though, so Blumberg and the Redskins refused to look at it as an excuse for any early-season woes.
Morris lost its first game to Gardner-South Wilmington in the Coal City Turkey Tourney, but rebounded to finish second in the tournament. The Redskins continued to hover at or near the .500 mark for the remainder of 2016, eventually finishing sixth in the 24-team Plano Holiday Classic.
Throughout the early season, Blumberg worked with different variations of the starting lineup, the constants being senior guards Matt Shaw and JaQuan Boxley. Those two, along with junior post player Tyler Spiezio, had the most experience coming off last year’s team. Spiezio was part of the football contingent that was late in joining the club, leaving the leadership roles squarely on the shoulders of Shaw and Boxley.
When the Northern Illinois Big XII portion of the Morris schedule kicked in, the Redskins knew they would have their work cut out for them. As a Class 3A team, they were going to face such teams as DeKalb, Sycamore, Kaneland, Ottawa, LaSalle-Peru and Yorkville, all of which are traditionally powerful programs.
Even Rochelle had one of the best teams it had boasted in recent memory. The end result was a tough finish in the NIB 12 for the Redskins en route to a 13-16 overall record, and many of the losses came down to the last minute or possession. Those types of losses can wear on a team’s psyche, Blumberg said.
“If you look at strictly won-loss records, this group of seniors didn’t have an successful career,” Blumberg said. “But there is always more than the win-loss total. Always. They faced a lot of adversity. They persevered. They were very competitive. ... Much more competitive than the final record indicated.
“We’ve talked a lot lately in our program about the difference between fun and rewarding. Too many young people chase what is fun. They chase instant gratification. And they aren’t really focused on what is rewarding. 5:30 a.m. lifting, running sprints, working hard during a losing streak.
“Those things aren’t fun. But when you continue to work on your work ethic, character, level of responsibility and respect, become a better teammate... those long-term traits will lead to a more successful life – and that makes the season rewarding. And I’d say that even if we didn’t hoist the regional plaque. But that part was fun. ... It was the rewarding work through the dog days of January and February. It was learning from all the tough losses. Our guys stayed together and I’m very proud of them for that.”
Morris got a few more wins toward the end of the regular season, hoping to parlay that success into postseason hardware. A win over Streator in the Class 3A Coal City semifinals and another win over Pontiac in the title game allowed the Redskins to hoist their third regional championship plaque in the last eight seasons, a streak unprecedented in Redskin history.
Shaw was the leader of the group, pacing the team in scoring at 15 points per game. Next was Boxley, who scored at an 8.8 clip after rarely seeing the court last season. Stutzki made up the three-guard triumvirate and scored 4.5 a contest while leading the club with 2.3 assists per game.
“It was cool that we got to take that next step and play in the sectional,” Boxley said after the Redskins’ regional title win over Pontiac. “Everyone on this team knew their role and played it. We didn’t care who scored, as long as someone did.”
Other seniors on the club were Jordan Olson, Michael Feeney, Keagan Sobol, Josh Lain and Nate Halcomb. Feeney and Sobol did not play basketball in their junior seasons.
“Individually, we are losing quite a bit,” Blumberg said. “Jordan Olson didn’t play as much as he would have liked, but he worked extremely hard in practice, pressuring our guards, battling guys bigger than him, and our team needed his practice intensity. Keagan and Michael Feeney... Talk about high-character guys.
“All state football players, but guys who came off the bench for us. Not many people can handle that drastic change in athletic roles, from the go-to guy to the bench mob. Yet I never heard those guys complain once. In fact, they were the opposite – positive in practice, extremely hard working.”
Meanwhile, junior Spiezio benefited underneath from the tutelage of Lain and Halcomb.
“Josh and Nate Halcomb... they didn’t put up eye-popping numbers,” Blumberg said. “But they did the dirty work. Boxing out, absorbing the elbows, setting great screens, finding open teammates. They each hit some big free throws, grabbed really important rebounds, and had some huge baskets. Both had big games against Streator in the regional semi.”
That left the three starting guards – Shaw, Boxley and Stutzki – the focal point of the Redskins’ traditional guard-oriented style of play.
“I’m not sure where we’d be without Delaney,” Blumberg said. “This is, I think, the third or fourth year in a row that we’ve had guys take their junior year off and come back and play significant roles their senior year. Delaney stepped into the starting point guard role and ran with it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for ‘D.’ ”
While Stutzki was a pleasant surprise as a varsity newcomer, Shaw and Boxley knew what to expect and wanted things to be better than they were the previous season, when the Redskins ended at 10-18.
“Matty and Quan... when I think to where those guys were as freshmen, to the players they worked themselves into...they deserve all the credit for their hard work,” Blumberg said. “They bugged the heck out of me for gym keys during the summer and combined, they scored more than 700 points. Matt faced no help defenses, diamond and one, box and one... teams were physical with him.
“JaQuan really developed the ability to get to the lane and finish. He frustrated the opponent’s best guard with his perimeter pressure, and often set the tone on defense with his intensity.”
Shaw summed up his career as a Redskin pretty succinctly.
“I am so glad I got to finish my senior year with a regional title,” he said. “I love this group of guys.”