For a team still seeking its identity, the Morris basketball team may have had its defining moment of the summer on Thursday. Playing at the 28th annual Morris Shootout, the Redskins completed day one with a 2-1 record and then opened play in the championship bracket by playing heavily-favored Stevenson down to the wire.
Though it goes in the books as a one-point loss, the performance by the Redskins opened the eyes of many in the District 101 Recreation Center.
“We’ve had our ups and downs this summer. We’ve been having trouble playing together as a team. We are forcing too many shots,” Morris senior Brock Kukman said. “Then there are times, like against Stevenson — which is a really good team — we play well. That shows how far we’ve come since the beginning of summer. At the beginning, we were all individuals, but we did come together as a team today.”
Morris was right there with Stevenson the entire game, and even when the Patriots went out to a nine-point lead late in the game, the Redskins rallied and were in position to win before a coast-to-coast runner secured a 41-40 win.
The Redskins later lost their final game of the day to Pekin, 42-35.
Action at the shootout marks one of the few times this year that Morris has competed in tournament action.
With 16 players on the summer roster, keeping a tight practice schedule seems right in line with where the Redskins are at as a team these days.
“To be honest, we’re trying to do less. We did travel once. With the girls shootout here, there was no gym space for two days so we went to Olney,” Morris coach Joe Blumberg said.
“We played eight teams that I imagine we will never play again, but we stayed overnight in a hotel and that was a good bonding experience for us. But that’s the only time we’ve gotten on a bus and traveled anywhere this year.”
That leaves the bulk of the summer schedule for good old-fashioned practice for the team.
“I do like our summer schedule and what we are doing as a team. We are bonding,” Morris senior Ned Kneller said. “A lot of our practices are focused on fundamental stuff. Coach likes to see us sprinting up and down the court because we have a deeper bench this year than the one we had last year.”
“We’ve got good numbers right now, but this is summer. Hopefully everyone stays out,” Kukman said. “We’re able to go really hard in practice because we have enough bodies to go against each other. We also are able to get breathers and stuff. The numbers is a good sign because last year we didn’t have numbers at all. At the beginning of the season we didn’t even have enough to go 5-on-5.”
Morris has six seniors listed on its summer roster in Sam Allen, Kneller, Kukman, Tyler Thuente, Tanner Sampson and Tony Rogalla. That means there are 10 sophomores turned juniors on the team at the moment.
“The sophomores that are coming up, now juniors, have a lot more people than we had last year,” Kneller said. “It’s nice to have a big sophomore class coming up. It really helps out. Because we have a deeper bench, I think it takes the pressure off the seniors.”
Blumberg said that is why he has been emphasizing practices so much this summer.
“We care about improvements and seeing different combinations. Trying to give the coaching staff an idea of what kinds of sets and schemes we need that we think will best serve our personnel come November,” he said. “Individual skill development and getting our players familiar with each other is a lot more important than summer results to us.”
Kukman says that, other than returning regulars Evan Bjelland and Austin Patterson, getting to know the rest of the junior class has the highest priority.
“Playing with them for the first time, we have to get to know them. They have strengths and weaknesses and they figure out their roles at the varsity level,” Kukman said. “Some of them may be coming in as scorers, but at the varsity level, they may not need to score. They might just need to be a passer or a facilitator.”
The Redskins are feeling pretty good about where they are nearly five months before the “real” season tips off.
“It feels good when we play well. There’s always people out there who will doubt the team, but we’ve shown that we can play even with tough teams like Stevenson or Plainfield South and others,” Kukman said. “It actually shows the fans that there is something to look forward to.”