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Determined Fort Zumwalt South overcomes early season injuries, eyes GAC Central championship

Fort Zumwalt South junior forward JJ Schwepker has been a key contributor for the Bulldogs this winter. [Jonathan Duncan/Mid-Rivers Newsmagazine photo.]

When senior guards EJ Bellinger and Cameron Miller went down with injuries during the first few weeks of the 2018-19 basketball season, the Fort Zumwalt South Bulldogs looked like they may be in a bit of trouble with their leading scorer and floor leader unavailable.

Instead of making excuses and giving up, true to their nickname, the Bulldogs dug in, got to work and scrapped their way into what has been another quality season on the hardwood.

Entering this weekend, Zumwalt South [10-2] has won five of its last seven games since mid-December and is definitely starting to hit its stride.

“It’s definitely been difficult, but I think teamwork with us being so close and team-bonding and everything we do off the court helps us and every day we come together and we work in whoever is taking shots can help us,” Zumwalt South junior guard JJ Schwepker said.

Bellinger’s injury was a major loss, as he suffered a freak injury during a practice drill just after the Bulldogs game with Parkway Central on Dec. 14.

Schwepker said that Bellinger’s injury forced the Bulldogs to refocus and draw together to push through in the first half of the season.

“When EJ went down, of course, it was a rough one but we knew we were still good enough to win games, even without him,” Schwepker said. “We really just came together and had a couple of team meetings and talked about everything and what we were going to do and pulled it out.”

In Bellinger and Miller’s absence, Schwepker [16.9 points per game] and Jake Patton [11.9 points per game] helped pick up the scoring load, hitting shots in the lane and from the outside.

“JJ has been pretty solid for us and Jake has really given us pretty much whatever we need when we’ve needed it,” Zumwalt South coach Bill Friedel said. “Jake is also a really good passer as well as being able to score.”

Junior guard Judah Nunn, senior guard Carter Nowack, and 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Connor Bekebrede have also helped carry a balanced offense that makes the Bulldogs almost impossible to stop.

“Connor doesn’t get as many touches inside but he’s dangerous as well, and Judah’s averaging about seven points a game so we’re kind dangerous in all positions,” Friedel said.

Bellinger and Miller recently came back into the lineup earlier this month, and thanks to an extended two-week break after the St. Dominic Tournament, the Bulldogs were able to sharpen up their game even further.

“The two biggest weaknesses I thought for us early was our zone defense and our presses were not as good as they should have been,” Friedel said. “So we really concentrated on working in those two things and we’re playing very good man to man defense but sometimes you have to have a zone or press to use depending on who you are playing.”

Still very much in play for the Bulldogs is a chance to win the GAC Central championship, as South is currently tied with Liberty for the conference lead heading into the final month of the season.

Looming large will be a pair of games with the Eagles during the first week of February that will likely decide the conference race.

“We can’t overlook anybody, regardless what of a team’s record is upsets happen all the time,” Schwepker said. “We just have to trust each other.”

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