You�d be hard-pressed to find a player anywhere whose own growth has meant more to a program�s growth
DURHAM � Joe Morrell looks back to his freshman year on the Oyster River High School basketball team and remembers the crowds.
Or, more accurately, the lack of them.
�We�d have maybe seven people in the stands that weren�t our parents or our siblings,� he said.
Coach Lorne Lucas remembers one of the first games Morrell played that freshman season. With time ticking away in a tight game, he took an all-advised 3-pointer.
�I remember it very clearly,� Lucas said. �We were down two, the crowd started that early chant and he launched an NBA 3. It didn�t come anywhere near the basket.�
Three-and-a-half years later, you�d be hard-pressed to find a player anywhere whose own growth has meant more to a program�s growth.
A 6-foot-3 point guard, Morrell helped the Bobcats reach the D-II championship game as a sophomore and finish first in the league as a junior. He scored his 1,000th career point last month and, two days later, announced his commitment to continue his basketball career at St. John Fisher, a Division III school in Rochester, N.Y.
�I think every year I�ve added more and more to my game,� said Morrell. �It�s made me more versatile offensively and defensively. But I honestly think the biggest thing is my mentality and my mindset. There are great players, but great players don�t always get the (results) they want because they�re not checked in and mentally focused.�
The Bobcats take a 4-4 record and two-game win streak into Friday�s game at Kingswood that will close out the first half of their season in Division II. If January was marked by injuries and unevenness, they�re hoping what they achieve in February can position them well for the big games in March.
�The frustrating part was that we knew we had the pieces; we just weren�t fitting them together,� said senior guard Kyle Miller, a co-captain with Morrell. �The past two games, I feel we�ve really put the pieces together.�
The key piece is Morrell, whose anticipated senior season was slowed by a sprained thumb he suffered during a holiday tournament game against Spaulding, and then an illness that limited his effectiveness during part of the team�s stretch of losses to Milford, Pelham, Pembroke and Hanover.
�I think we�re definitely a different team than we were against Milford and against Pembroke,� he said. �If you watch our practices, the energy�s way higher and everything�s way more intense.�
A second or third scoring option the last two years playing with guys like Max Lewis and Kyle Landrigan, Morrell has not only been the go-to guy, he�s also meshing with a group of guys who were largely second-team players a year ago.
�He always had a lot of talent around him,� noted Lucas. �The group he�s playing with now is pretty much our second group the last couple years. He�s done a great job incorporating the young kids.
�The best compliment I�ve heard in a while came last week against (Bishop) Brady. They said, �His knowledge of the game is just noticeable out there.� A lot of these high school kids are just running up and down the floor trying to play basketball, but you can tell Joe is thinking, trying to get people in position.�
With Miller averaging 11 points a game, he and Aidan Kelley providing additional ball-handling, and the athletic Hayden Marshall logging big minutes, the Bobcats have found their core.
There was never a question about their leader.
�He�s bringing confidence, he�s bringing leadership and he�s bringing the ability to score when we need it the most,� said Miller. �When we need someone to spark the fuse, he�s always there for us, both verbally and the way he plays.�
As a leader, Morrell says he�s taken things from each of the captains he played for � Devin Sawtelle and Ryan Coxen his freshman year, Cam Thibodeau and Lewis his sophomore year, and Lewis and Landrigan last year. Also from Lucas, who�s guided a program that finished dead last in D-II three years ago into the highest reaches of the league.
�I�ve taken things from all of them,� said Morrell. �And the biggest thing I�ve taken stuff from has been Coach. He�s been that consistent piece for me. He�s probably the only one who�s been to every one of my games, seen all my baskets, seen all my mistakes throughout my high school career.�
�He�s been foaming at the mouth to be a leader of this team for a while,� said Lucas. �It�s his team.�
The points of emphasis going forward, said Lucas, are defense and reducing turnovers. The latter was one reason they were upset in last year�s quarterfinals on their home court, a result that�s been recycled into motivation.
Of the Bobcats� 10 remaining games, only two are against teams that currently are at .500 or better. So there�s the potential to do some serious climbing.
Led by a guy whose career keeps climbing.
�Looking back on my whole career, and I know it�s not over yet and I hope to do some more big things, but I�ve had really great support from everyone in this community,� said Morrell. �You can see it. When I was a freshman we were 2-16. … That�s the thing I�m most proud of. We�ve built a program here.�