Morton faces early season test

Morton faces early season test
December 7, 2011, 9:37 pm
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Rocco Balcaster, the leading scorer on Morton's unbeaten and unappreciated basketball team, was trying to be objective while sizing up his team's pluses as he prepared for Friday's West Suburban Gold showdown with highly rated Downers Grove South in Cicero.

"Our team is looking pretty good even though we haven't played much competition yet," the 6-7 senior said. "Our defense is strong. In four games, we have held all of our opponents under 40 points. That's our goal: to keep opponents under 40. And we want to keep doing our thing on offense--running motion sets and getting a lot of inside baskets."

Balcaster is used to winning at Morton, which isn't the way it used to be. Today's generation doesn't relate to former coaches Norm Ziebell, who produced two state championships in the 1930s and 1940s, or Jim Vopicka, who had winning teams in the 1950s. Morton was known as a baseball school with five state titles to show for it.

But current coach Tony Martinucci had only one losing season in his first 11 years. He is closing in on 200 victories in his career. His last four teams were 24-4, 23-6, 16-10 and 18-10.

"When I got here, basketball was serious. The varsity was 24-4 and we just tried to follow them, do what they did, fill their shoes," Balcaster said. "I was tempted to go to St. Patrick but I decided to stay at Morton. I wanted to get a good education and get out of the neighborhood but I stayed because of the basketball program and my older brother Joe was on the varsity and he encouraged me to stay. I'm glad I did."

That has been the key to Martinucci's success--keeping local kids at home. A Morton graduate of 1982, he learned his trade from coaches Tom Richardson at Nazareth and Gene Pingatore at St. Joseph. After serving as Morton's freshman coach for two years, he was promoted to the varsity.

"I always heard that you can't win at Morton. We were good in baseball and coming on in soccer but we could never win in basketball, I was told," Martinucci said. "No one remembered the good years with Ziebell and Vopicka, just the lean years in the 1980s and 1990s."

The problem was the most talented athletes went to St. Joseph in Westchester or Nazareth in La Grange Park or Fenwick in Oak Park, not Morton in Berwyn-Cicero.

"I had to change the attitude and stop losing kids," Martinucci said. "And I had to build some excitement in the program."

He did that. This year, for example, he promoted promising freshman Wiesner Perez to the varsity. The recipient of a national scholarship, he could have gone to any high school. But both of his brothers who are at Morton and Wiesner chose to stay at home.

"He will be very good, the best player we have had in a long time," the coach said.

Balcaster is the leader of the senior-dominated squad, averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game. Other starters are 6-4 junior Walter Perez (17 ppg), 6-4 senior David Chatman (9 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-0 senior point guard Anthony Lewis (12 ppg, 4 assists) and 6-4 junior Rodrigo Nava (8 ppg).

Wiesner Perez, 5-10 sophomore Greg Carter and 5-10 senior Letech Lewis come off the bench.

"The bench is the key," Martinucci said. "How well will they play in big games? How well will the young kids handle the pressure in big games? Friday will be a measuring stick going into the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"This could be another 20-plus victory season. This team could be in a class with our 24-4 team. But we've toughened up the schedule. This is the toughest our conference has ever been with Proviso East, Downers Grove South, Morton and Hinsdale South. It could be the strongest conference outside the Chicago Public League."

That's the kind of challenge Balcaster and his teammates are looking forward to. The conference may be tough but they know the route through the regional, sectional and supersectional is even tougher.

"Our goal is to get Downstate," Balcaster said. "The regional and sectional are always tough and we know we will have to get past Simeon (in the supersectional) to get to Peoria."

"We have to be prepared. That's why we play about 200 games with each other in the summer. We are a big team with four starters who are 6-4 or bigger. We feel we have a rebounding edge. My role? Score the most points. Eighteen points per game is all right now. That's all the matters as long as we are winning."