CRYSTAL FALLS—In Gene Dziubinski’s years as Forest Park boys varsity basketball coach, he never got the break that Chris Nocerini got in his first season of leading the team.
That gift? More time.
When the Trojan football team lost in the regional finals Nov. 11, it meant Nocerini could start working with his team two weeks earlier than Dziubinski usually did, after trips to the state grid finals.
A former youth grid coach in Forest Park, Nocerini feels bad the grid team didn’t reach the state semifinals. On the other hand, it gives him more time to work with his players before the season starts.
“In seven years, we’ve never started this early,” he said last week. “It’s an opportunity we have this year that we haven’t had in the past.”
(Hey, Chris, a piece of advice: Don’t get used to it!)
Nocerini was hired three years ago as Forest Park JV coach when Dziubinski became varsity coach. “At that time, Gene said, ‘I’m going to go three to four years, and then maybe you’ll be willing to take it over.’
“Three years came, and here I am.”
The kids who were freshmen on his first JV team are seniors now, “so I know the players very well. They’re a great bunch of kids.”
“And I had a good teacher: Coach Dziubinski and Rob Emo, who aren’t with us this year. I’ve learned a lot from both of them and feel very confident in taking the job. But I’ve got a long way to go.”
Two “new” faces will be on the bench, aiding him. Dave Graff is the new JV coach. “I’m going to be leaning on his 16 years of football experience.” Jason Price will be a volunteer assistant. “We’re really excited to have him as part of the program.”
As for the new coach, he is a 1990 graduate of Forest Park who got his degree at Kalamazoo Community College. “I decided I wanted to come home and build things.” He is now facility manager at Fortune Lake Lutheran Camp just outside of town.
This year’s team has 14 players, including eight seniors: Jake Divine, Ben Painter, Michael Smithson, Kody Thrasher, Cody McGregor, Jacob Siler, Alex Takala and Tyler Lovato.
L.J. Burns, a junior, also played on the varsity last year. The team has four other juniors—Derek Aberly, Zach Painter, Chris Hilberg and Jeff Willman—and one sophomore, Austin Snell.
Most of the team played football and are recovering from the lumps and thumps of the grid season, along with shedding their “football legs.” The Trojans only lost two players to graduation last spring, so they have all seen court time. “Whether it adds up, we will see.”
The top priority for the team this season is improved shooting—shooting problems from the floor dogged the Trojans all last season. “Coach Graff and I, with both JV and varsity, are working with shooting—a lot of the fundamental stuff.”
He was at Dziubinski’s side last year and saw for himself. “The varsity last year struggled putting the ball in the hole. We’re working to improve that—that’s our No. 1 goal this season.”
If that can get turned around, the Trojans should be a strong team. The players are big, tall and athletic. “A very tall group, very energetic. That’s their strength.”
So is something else: their work ethic. “They got two days off from football season—they walked into the gym, and the senior leadership was there right away. They want to improve. They want to be a better basketball team.”
Teams to watch for in the Skyline Conference? “Everybody.” He is especially wary of North Central, but added, “Everybody is a worthy opponent. There’s nobody on that schedule that’s a slouch.”
Happily, the part of the job that Nocerini enjoyed most of all as JV coach will still be there as he leads the varsity. And what is that?
“The relationship with the kids,” he said. “The practices, the bonding. When you start coaching, you think of wins and losses, but I never knew the relationships you establish with the players along the way—unbelievable. The different personalities, the different kids.
“It’s been a great joy so far.”
• The Trojans open their season next Monday, Dec. 5, at Mid Peninsula and travel to Republic-Michigamme on Dec. 8. (Note: The Trojan JVs play Negaunee’s freshman that night at Republic.)
Forest Park’s home opener will be Dec. 12 against West Iron County. It’s also Parents Night.