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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Not your average big man: 6-foot-10 center Juan Morel has blossomed during his senior season at Waterford

    Waterford’s 6-foot-10 senior center Juan Morel, left, attempts a shot during a boys’ basketball game Feb. 7 against East Lyme. The Lancers and Vikings will meet again at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the first round of the CIAC Division III tournament. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Waterford’s Juan Morel (35) blocks a shot by St. Bernard’s Tyler Mangual during the ECC Division I boys' basketball tournament semifinals Feb. 24 at Waterford High School. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Waterford — Naturally gifted with a 6-foot-10 frame and electric athleticism, Waterford High School senior center Juan Morel is finally hitting his stride. After an All-Eastern Connecticut Conference season with the Lancers, Morel is making his case to be a dominant big man.

    “I’ve always known what I’m capable of on the court but my confidence wasn’t always there so I wasn’t really taking advantage,” Morel said. “Sure, I’ve grown and gotten stronger and all that, but the biggest thing for me was not letting the little things get to me and focusing on the main goal which is winning.”

    After being cut from the basketball team during his freshman year of high school due to poor grades, Morel realized that he had to take things seriously if he wanted to make something of himself during this new chapter.

    At only 14, having to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic while assimilating to a new school took a toll on Morel, but he claims the hardships of his freshman year set the tone for the remainder of his high school career.

    “That whole year (2020) was a blur to me. I had no motivation to do anything. I didn’t play any sports really, we only went to school two times a week, so I wasn’t doing any schoolwork; I just wasn’t being good about school at all. It all came around though. After getting cut that year I started taking basketball serious and once we were back in school my grades came around too.”

    In that sophomore season, the first real organized basketball season of Morel’s career, he would learn a lot about the nuances of the game and what it meant to work like an athlete.

    A moment that stood out among the rest of that year was a matchup with the soon-to-be NBA lottery pick, Donovan Clingan, then of Bristol Central High School, in the state tournament quarterfinals. It was a lopsided game in favor of the undefeated and undisputed state champion Rams but a great learning experience for Morel.

    “I went into the game thinking, ‘I got nothing to lose. He’s going to UConn next year and I’m a sophomore. I’m just going to try my best.’ I might’ve had 10 points, got dunked on a couple times, but everyone was getting dunked on by him,” Morel said. “I learned a lot from that game. The biggest thing I learned was just not to back down from anybody, just play your hardest and something will come out of it.”

    Morel wouldn’t end up facing anyone like Clingan for the rest of his high school career. Morel, however, got the opportunity to play high-level basketball once again the following year, this time overseas.

    After earning an All-ECC honorable mention selection his junior season, he took his talents to the Dominican Republic, where he played as a part of the U17 national team.

    While he did improve as a basketball player because of the hard adjustment to the FIBA league rules, the most notable moments happened away from the game, while learning about the lives of his teammates.

    “Having to adjust to FIBA rules was definitely the hardest thing for me in terms of basketball; it’s a completely different way to play the game. But what will always stick with me is my experience with my teammates. I don’t mean to offend them because they’re my guys, but they don’t really have anything except basketball. For the week and a half that I was there we had times with no power, having to shower with buckets of water. It was just a struggle sometimes.”

    Playing against teams from other countries and competing at a national level was “different” and “a great time,” as Morel described it, but the humbling experience of sharing the locker room with his Dominican teammates molded him into the blossoming leader that he has become.

    Waterford head coach Bill Bassett has been close with Morel throughout his athletic career. He remembers the first time meeting him, seeing the 14-year-old, 6-7 freshman walk through his math class. Now, four years later, Bassett has seen Morel’s development first-hand, going from a wiry teen with little ambition to the student-athlete he is today.

    “The first thing I could remember about him was literally reeling back at how tall he was. To think he’s grown nearly four inches since then is insane,” Bassett said. “The biggest progression he’s made is up here (mentally). His confidence is so much better than what it used to be, and he’s not affected by the little things anymore. He’s still growing, but he’s become a great leader for this team.

    “When we got him to realize, ‘this is what you can do,’ and the whole team pushed that, he reached a different level. When he realized, ‘I need to take a step forward’ and started to realize that he could put this team on his back, that’s when he took that next step in his game. He’s not anywhere near where he could be, but he’s well on his way.”

    In his final season as a Lancer, Morel has helped the team to a 10-12 record, 6-0 in ECC Division II and a league championship. To go with that, Morel also earned a spot on the Division II All-ECC first team.

    Waterford, the No. 22 seed in the Division III state tournament, will play at No. 11 East Lyme in a first-round game scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday.

    East Lyme has beaten Waterford twice, 71-56 on Jan. 30 and 61-57 on Feb. 7.

    “We need to lock in on defense over everything, ‘defense wins games’ as they say,” Morel said. “It starts in practice but we need to come ready to play defense on Tuesday and make adjustments to what they try to do. The offense will flow if we lock in on defense.”

    z.cunningham@theday.com

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