NEWINGTON - The high school basketball season this past winter was a bit of a struggle for Marly Zocco. The freshman’s talent thrust her into varsity action almost immediately, but for much of the season, she could sense a void on the floor.
That void was left by her sister Karissa Zocco, who battled injury for parts of the season, leaving Marly to navigate her new surroundings without the person she shared the hardwood with since early youth.
“We play better together,” Marly said. “During high school when she was hurt, it affected me a little bit because I'm so used to having her by my side…Without her, there's a missing piece.”
This summer, Marly and a healthy Karissa were back together on the Connecticut Spirit ninth grade AAU team, and the two regular starters celebrated their reunion with a United States Junior National Championship, which the spirit claimed in Washington D.C. on July 27.
With the help of Marly and Karissa, the Spirit finished tournament play with an 8-0 record and an overall record of 41-5 for the season. The championship was a special one for the Zoccos, as Marly had her sister back and Karissa had her health.
“We've played together our whole lives,” Karissa said. “When I'm not playing with her, I feel a little off. It felt so good to play this season because last AAU season I was out for the majority of it because I hurt my knee. I felt so happy that I was able to play the whole season this year and be there for my team.”
Marly and Karissa’s sibling chemistry helped the rest of the team, which boasts a number of contributors, like the Zoccos, who have played with the Spirit since the fifth grade. Together, the Spirit toppled some of the best teams in the country and Canada to claim the national title after blowing out Ontario 48-19 in the semifinals and taking down Saratoga (NY) 50-38 in the championship game.
“There are some girls that have been on the team since the fifth grade, and there are others that just started this year, but you would never be able to tell who is new and who is old,” Karissa said. “Our chemistry on and off the court is so good. We all just flow.”
The Spirit’s team chemistry helped the group take down a number of physically superior opponents, at least in height and size. Like the Zoccos themselves, the Spirit weren’t known for their collective height, but head coach Julio Ruiz preached togetherness that would make the opponent’s size obsolete, and the Spirit carried out their own rallying cry before hoisting the championship trophy.
“Some games were harder than others,” Karissa said. “We're really small, so some of the teams we played have girls that are six feet tall or 6-foot-3, so we have to find our way. Our coach always pushed us and said, 'it's not about the dog in the fight, it's about the fight in the dog.' We always used that quote and put it in our minds and tell ourselves that no matter how tall the other team was, we could do this. It was really cool to play these teams and to come out on top.”
The Zoccos and the Spirit stayed on top when they returned home to Connecticut, competing together in the Nutmeg State Games, claiming the gold medal to put next to their AAU national championship hardware.
“It was a good way to end the season and come together one last time,” Marly said. “We all miss each other when we're out of [AAU] season.”
The Spirit will miss each other, but the experience of winning a national title will likely be enough to hold them over until next spring, when they will begin their title defense.
“It was really fun,” Karissa said about the Spirit’s championship run. “AAU is so different from high school. It's cool to be playing with some girls from out of town because you build new friendships. We're like a family.”
New friendships were made, but for the Zoccos, the core of their team’s national championship was the opportunity to play together again and continue a dynamic that has been built since they first picked up a basketball, and share that bond with the rest of their Spirit teammates.
“It was really cool,” Marly said. “Our team worked really hard to get there and we really bonded. It felt good to play against really good teams around the country and come out on top.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org