By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
Rocco Morabito realized pretty early on that he was going to have to work harder than everyone else.
Playing in a showcase event before his ninth-grade year at Shipley, Morabito went up against guys like Ahmad Nowell (Imhotep), Khaafiq Myers (Neumann-Goretti) and Deuce Jones (St. Thomas Aquinas, N.J.).
He had a long way to go if he wanted to compete against the best players in his class.
“I went in there and I was pumped up,” Morabito said in a phone call last week. “I worked out a couple days before and then I just remember going there and getting completely smoked. Completely smoked, and that just like opened my eyes. I was like, ‘Wow, I'm not where I thought I really was.'
“I came to my dad and said, ‘You got to help me out here'. He was like, alright, well, it’s not going to be easy.”
Archbishop Ryan's Rocco Morabito received a full scholarship to Gannon University. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Morabito’s father Lance was a standout football player, wrestler and track star at Liberty in Allentown before playing college football at William & Mary, where his teammate was current Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
He described his father’s workouts “like a full-on Rocky scene.” It included weight lifting, running hills, jump rope and the dreaded burpees. He turned himself from the chubby kid who entered high school into one who now sports a six pack. He’s also turned himself into a player who thinks he belongs on any court.
Morabito, who is now about to enter his second season at Archbishop Ryan, will take that drive and work ethic to Gannon University after this season. He received a full scholarship from the PSAC program and announced his commitment last week
“I think that's unique about me,” Morabito said. “I'll let anyone know I'll work hard and I don't care. I'll sacrifice whatever's in my way to get to where I want to get to.”
Like many, Morabito had Division I dreams. He’s been a prospect on the D-I radar throughout the past several months. Programs from the Patriot and Ivy League checked in, but there was never any sustained contact
Gannon men’s basketball coach Jordan Fee took over the Erie, Pa. program in April after eight seasons at D-II power Nova Southeastern (Fla.), where he helped the team to a 36-0 mark and a national championship as the associate head coach last season.
Fee and his staff first reached out to Morabito around his third or fourth AAU tournament with Philly Revolution this summer. He received a scholarship offer after his visit Sept. 28.
“They just love my game and they really love what I bring to the game of basketball," Morabito said. "Not just scoring, play hard defense, give it 100 percent, play smart.”
Fee’s Nova Southeastern team led NCAA Division II in scoring with an average of 102.5 ppg last season. Morabito said the plan for Gannon is to play similarly high-paced positionless basketball. They play man-to-man press all game, trap all the time and get up quick shots. Players need to be prepared to make quick decisions and force others into bad ones.
Morabito had the chance to play pick-up with the team on his visit. While he realized he will still have to work even harder to get in the kind of shape it takes to play that style and level of basketball, he felt like he belonged.
“It really just opened up my mind to different styles of playing this game,” Morabito said.
“They heavily recruited me and they showed tons and tons of love, and I just felt like it was a great fit for me. I can play more freely here. I can thrive here. I thought I played really well against the players that they had. … I can help them win games.”
After two seasons at Shipley, Morabito averaged 7.1 ppg and 2.6 apg at Archbishop Ryan last season. The Raiders bring back most of their rotation, but with point guard Michael “Zaire” Paris gone Morabito should have the ball in his hands more frequently and see his role expand.
Gannon went 3-23 last season, including a 3-19 mark in the PSAC. Fee brought in a large group of transfers, including four graduate students on the roster. The Golden Knights added four freshmen, including Father Judge product Ernest Shelton.
Morabito has eyes on bringing a Philadelphia Catholic League championship to Archbishop Ryan this season. But after that his focus will be helping Fee turn Gannon into a winner.
“I'll tell you this right now, you will hear from Gannon basketball later in the future because I have such great faith from what coach Fee is going to bring, and I know that he's just gonna bring straight dogs,” Morabito said.