UTICA — The Utica College men’s basketball team is preparing for its season-opener on March 1 when the Pioneers travel to face Elmira College.
“The excitement of practice is kind of wearing off,” UC head coach Sean Coffey said. “They just want to play games at this point. The guys are competing hard. We’re just grateful to be back in a gym after almost a year away.”
Coffey, entering his fifth year at the helm of the Pioneers, said that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, he was excited about this season.
“The narrative has been that we were young for so long. Now we’re one of the older teams in the league,” Coffey said.
UC has one grad transfer, two seniors and four juniors on the roster. Five sophomores return to the Pioneers and they are bringing in three freshmen, including the all-time leading scorer in the Rome Free Academy boys program, Damien Call.
“I think we’re going to be all right this year,” Coffey said. “But who knows, it’s tough to prepare for some of these teams because of the lack of film. It’s going to be a lot of adjusting on the fly,” Coffey added.
Coffey talked at length about the former RFA standout turned Pioneer.
“He’s been great,” Coffey said. “People know him for his athleticism, but I’ve been more impressed about him coming in, being humble, his willingness to learn and be coached. He’s taking the right approach for his development as a player and with our system on both ends of the floor.”
Coffey said that with Call being at UC, it’s a blank slate for him.
“He’s a good kid and I’m excited that he’s here,” Coffey said. “His attitude has been perfect, and he’s still competing and attacking people. We want him to put his stamp on our program.”
Other local athletes on the UC team are Tommy Morreale, a sophomore from Whitesboro, and DJ Harter, a sophomore from Holland Patent.
“Tommy was the rookie of the year last year,” Coffey said about Morreale. “He’s solid as always. He’s always in the right spot, an automatic catch and shoot guy. He’s a great cutter, a great rebounder. He’s going to play a major role for us, and I’m excited for his second year.”
“We have a lot of good players on this team,” Coffey said. “We have a lot of threats on the floor.”
Coffey said that Harter has put a lot of time into his body during the offseason.
“He’s bigger and stronger,” Coffey said. “Fundamentally, he’s sound. He can play three to four positions for us. We have tons of confidence in him. And he’s one of those self-made players. He’s a great kid with a great personality. He brings a good nature feel to the group.”
As for the Empire 8 league this year, Coffey said that UC should be in the top four of the league.
“Nazareth is going to be good. They’re returning some good players. St. John Fisher lost the player of the year, but they’re always in the mix. Sage has some good players returning, but we’ll be in the mix,” Coffey said. “Alfred is always a tough out. They play really hard, but they did lose some good players.”
Coffey said that Naz and Fisher have been their “bug-a-boos.”
“We’re right there each time we play,” Coffey said. “It always comes down to a possession that can make or break the game.”
Last season, the Pioneers finished with an 18-8 record and lost in the first round of the Empire 8 conference tournament to St. John Fisher.
Call spoke on his transition to the college game from the high school game.
“I think it’s going well,” Call said. “There’s a lot of plays and stuff that I need to know. I’ve been picking it up well, and it’s getting better the more we go along.”
“It’s been a smooth transition,” Call said. “I’ve known coach Coffey since my sophomore year of high school. I’ll make a mistake, and he’ll coach me.”
Call said that he and coach Coffey have been working a lot on his shot.
“We’ve been working on my shot form and footwork,” Call said. “I’m not trying to pause at the top anymore. I’m trying to be more fluid. Overall it’s been a smooth transition.”
Call said that he’s been seeing time at the 3 or the 4 for the Pioneers.
Going into his freshman year, Call said that a goal that he has is to just contribute as much as he can, when he can.
“We have a lot of good players,” Call said. “One goal that we have as a team is to win the conference. Personally, I want to get out there with the experienced guys and learn the game of college basketball. I’ve learned a little bit from practice, but it’ll be different once we get out there and play games.”
The Pioneers will have their home-opener on March 5 when they host Alfred.