Greenmen battled through uncertainties of new coach, disease

Steve Batko
Aurora's Mason Bizjak was one of two seniors for the Greenmen this season.

There was a message that resonated after the young Aurora boys basketball 

team had its season come to an end in post season action. It was pride.

With a first-year head coach, new philosophies, and athletes having more important roles on the court, the 2020-21 campaign was going to be challenging enough.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the student athletes to not only grow on the court, but off the court as the program faced adversity and the coaching staff had to constantly adjust.

Without the benefit of a full off-season, a complete pre-season and countless hours of practice sessions, first-year head coach Greg Rodi and his coaching staff had to absorb some graduation losses and teach a young squad the ropes on the fly.

Facing safety measures, stops and starts in the program, and then suddenly adding games with some short notice at times, was difficult.

“Taking over a program is always difficult, not only for the coaching staff, but for players, as well,” said Rodi. “Trying to do it in the middle of a pandemic is doubly difficult.”

“Asking players to learn new systems, offense and defense, with little to no offseason and an extremely limited preseason, is almost impossible,” added Rodi.

Guards Mason Bizjak and Gabe Elsawy were the lone seniors on the roster for the youthful Greenmen.

“We paused our season twice in November and December and when we came back, we had only nine practices before our first game,” offered Rodi. “We then played three games a week for seven weeks and this allowed us very little time to prepare for opponents and even less time to develop our new systems.” 

There were some bright spots for Aurora as the program navigated through the schedule changes.

Facing a monster schedule, Aurora finished 4-16 overall and 2-4 in the robust Suburban League American Conference.

“All of this while playing, in my opinion, in one of the toughest leagues in the area in the Suburban League,” said Rodi of the pandemic issues and adversity. “I mention all of this to say that our players handled all of the adversity with class and pride.

“They showed up for practices and games with a 'team first' mentality and a positive attitude for each other,” said Rodi. “They were always grateful for the opportunity to play and did everything we asked, without question, for the betterment of our program.

“I could not be prouder of the way they represented their school and the Aurora community,” added Rodi.

Pride was the theme even after the 27th-seeded Greenmen fell to No. 11 seed Dover 48-30 in a Northeast Division I sectional semifinal.

Limited to just nine second-half points, Aurora trailed 23-21 at the half in a superb first half.

The Crimson Tornadoes eventually won their first-ever Division I sectional title and finished 16-5 overall. 

Rodi and his staff were thrilled with the first-half defense and overall play as the shots just would not drop for the Greenmen.

“We talked a lot about pride,” said Rodi after the loss. “How proud I was of them for never giving up through all the adversity all season.

“How proud I was of them for never doubting the process, even when it didn’t bear the fruit they had hoped for,” Rodi added. “How proud I was of how hard they played for each other, their coaches, and for their school.”

It was a learning lesson on and off the hardwoods that will reap benefits hopefully, next year, with a normal season.

However, Aurora will be without their veteran seniors Elsawy and Bizjak, who had multiple years of experience.

“Mason and Gabe are good players, but they are even better young men,” said Rodi. “They came to practice every day and worked hard to lead the charge in changing the culture of their program.”

Rodi is excited about the future, starting with next winter.

Returning varsity players, according to Rodi, are Jack Cardaman (guard), John Ugran (guard), Enzo Catania (forward), Zeb Smith (guard), Alex Moore (forward), Tavion Pride (guard), Derek Blum (guard), and Logan Keilin (forward).

Aurora's Gabe Elsawy was one of two seniors for the Greenmen this season.