High school basketball teams committed to staying sharp during shutdown

Thursday, December 17, 2020 | 4:33 PM

Christian Zilli had his junior baseball season ripped away. The back end of his senior football season also was a casualty of the coronavirus, which dug in its claws and forced the cancellation of two games.

But the Hempfield senior is bound and determined to have a basketball season in his final year of high school.

“There’s no time to sit around and sulk about all of the misfortunes 2020 has brought,” said Zilli, who played quarterback for the Spartans. “It is what it is, and nothing can be changed now. I try to keep a winning attitude and a winning work ethic to get better every single day.”

With Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide restrictions putting WPIAL basketball on pause until Jan. 4 — all told, a three-week delay — athletes like Zilli are on their own when it comes to staying in basketball shape.

Hempfield won’t be able to return to practice as a team, so the onus in on the Spartans’ players to stay ready for their eventual opening tip.

“I have been going on runs to keep my endurance up, doing lots of push-ups and sit-ups to try and maintain physical strength,” said Zilli, a Seton Hill baseball commit, “and shooting in my driveway until I can’t feel my fingers.”

Snow and cold weather obviously limit what players can do at outdoor courts. High schools are closed, which means so are their athletic facilities. And with recreational gyms also shuttered, or at least supposed to be, access to weights and training equipment for the players is limited.

Not everyone has a hoop in his driveway or a treadmill in his basement.

“You just hope they put in the work and stay in shape,” said Penn-Trafford girls basketball coach John Giannikas, whose team was one of the few to play last Friday before the state restrictions went into effect Saturday at midnight. “Whatever they can do: push-ups, sit-ups, whatever. We trust they will do their best so we can play.”

Some teams will continue to use Zoom meetings to stay in touch with players and keep up with face-to-face interaction. Belle Vernon girls players recently had such a virtual get-together, the girls offering thumbs up to coach Kaitlyn Slagus while giving their teammates a glimpse of their Christmas trees in the background.

Franklin Regional boys coach Steve Scorpion had amped up his schedule with games against Quaker Valley, Baldwin and Aliquppa, but those matchups are likely not going to happen with the season tightened and section games the priority.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “We were in the middle of practice getting ready for Norwin (last Friday night), then my AD (Zach Kessler) came in and told me. I wish we were playing, but I understand we’re just trying to be safe.”

Scorpion also is frustrated that he can’t be with his players during the shutdown.

“It will be important to stay in shape while we can’t do anything,” he said. “It’s important for the kids to understand the season isn’t canceled. It’s just postponed. So guys have to be responsible and stay ready for when we do start up again.”

Outdoor enthusiasts

Even with limits on small gatherings, baseball and softball players found places to hit and catch in the spring, but that was when the weather was turning pleasant. The winter could create issues for outdoor training. And again, only a small number of people are permitted to be together indoors, outside of immediate family.

“We’re going to have to get creative,” Penn-Trafford junior forward Ben Myers said. “We know someone who has an indoor court, so maybe we can go there. We want to keep playing if we can, but we also want to be safe so we can come back.”

In early August, Wolf recommended there not be “any sports” until Jan. 1. But the fall season, despite a number of postponements and cancellations, stops and starts, was concluded through the PIAA playoffs.

More recent restrictions from Wolf’s office name high school sports specifically — and the mandate they be paused.

Penn-Trafford first-year boys coach Doug Kelly half-jokingly said maybe his team could get together at the nearby municipal courts for an outdoor workout.

“Teams are going to want to get together,” Kelly said. “But they have to stay safe, too. I know our guys will work hard on their own. They like what we did (in the opener) and see what we’re capable of, and they want to keep the momentum going. They don’t want to slip up.”

Penn-Trafford knocked off Class 6A No. 3 North Allegheny, 61-50, last Friday night.

Helpful hints

Tim Cortazzo runs FSQ Sports Training in Trafford. He offered some free advice for the shutdown.

He said players should focus more on quick-burst runs and jumps while avoiding long runs and burpees.

“Things you can do without equipment are sprints and jumps,” Cortazzo said. “Both of these exercises check so many boxes in sports performance. Sprinting and jumping are both crucial in developing speed, power, explosiveness, and resiliency.”

Specifically, Cortazzo recommends finding flat ground that covers 10 to 20 yards and sprinting at full speed, walking or jogging back to the starting point.

“Maximum-effort sprints with long rest intervals are great for improving speed,” he said. “To improve conditioning, shorten the rest period and/or add reps. Hill sprints are great for acceleration and making sprints feel a little more difficult.”

As for jumps, Cortazzo said vertical, broad, lateral and counter-movement jumps are best for basketball.

“Focus on being explosive and landing under control,” he said. “Other beneficial exercises include single-leg squats, lunges, push-ups and pull-ups. If you want to add some weight to these exercises, load up a backpack with books or rocks to make your own weighted vest. Or fill up some water or milk jugs and pretend they are dumb bells.”

In practice

When Jan. 4 rolls around, teams will have to figure out how many practices they need before they can suit up and play a game.

Teams were required to complete 15 practices before playing their first game. Those that managed to reach that number will need four additional practices before suiting up, per a new PIAA policy.

That means the earliest a team can play after the shutdown is Jan. 8.

Until then, it’s a self-serve situation.

“The most important thing,” Cortazzo said, “is to work hard, have fun and enjoy your training.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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