Conneaut star 'Zapped' the opposition
Matt Zappitelli scored more points than any boys player in county cage history
By CHRIS LARICK
Matt Zappitelli scored more points in his high school career than any other boys basketball player in Ashtabula County.
But like everything else, big numbers can be put in perspective. "Zap" has a perfect way to keep his head from getting too big about his achievement.
"I had about six women (on the Ashtabula County scoring list) outscore me," he said. "I take a lot of heat from my buddies for having six girls in front of me."
Zappitelli should take less heat for that than any other boys player in the history of the county. The 1,454 points he scored for Conneaut from 1985-1988 were 77 more than any other male player ever scored. Of course, that's less than three games' worth of points during Zappitelli senior season, when he scored 590 points, averaging 28.1 per game. His numbers would be even greater, however, had the Spartans advanced farther in the tournament. But during his four-year career, Conneaut won just one tournament game, in 1987.
Zappitelli, a 6-foot-1 guard, also never saw a league championship during his career. The Spartans went 5-16, 7-14, 14-8 and 15-6 during his four years, a combined 41-44 mark. The coach at that time, Greg Mason, remains a good friend of Zappitelli's to this day.
"Unlike some of those guys on the (county's career scoring) list, he didn't play every game of his freshman year," Mason said of Zappitelli. "He accomplished what he did in 3 1/4 or 3 1/3 years.
"He was able to bring the ball down the floor, shoot the three, post up, drive the lane and rebound. He's the only guard I saw who could dunk off the inbounds play. He had great quickness and averaged close to 10 rebounds for us."
During Zappitelli's senior year, the Spartans got off to a great start and it seemed that the championship that had eluded Conneaut would finally be theirs.
"You only had to tell him something one time," Mason said. "His senior year, he was the only letterwinner back and we started 10-0. We didn't have any bench that year, though, and our kids got worn out."
Conneaut would finish second that season in the NEC.
The Spartan starters that year, in addition to Zappitelli, were Keith Drennen, Jamie Shahan, Chad Brooks and Tom Kirkland.
"Drennen was a shooter, Shahan a rebounder, Brooks the point guard and Kirkland a scorer and rebounder," Zappitelli said. Mike Terry and Jason Boeson were the chief contributors off the bench.
"My senior year we weren't expected to win," Zappitelli said. "But we started 10-0, then lost by one to Madison. From then on, we were just mediocre."
Despite the fact he went on to play college ball at John Carroll, Zappitelli reserves his highest coaching compliment for Mason.
"Greg was the best coach I ever played for," he said. "He got the most out of everybody's ability. That's what made our team click. My senior year, I had never played with those guys, but we won our first 10 games. That's a testament to those four guys off the (previous year's) bench and our coach."
With so much inexperience playing alongside him, Zappitelli's versatility became a key factor in the Spartans' success.
"I think I touched every position out there," he said. "I tried to do whatever I was asked to do and stay in the team concept. I was asked to become the leading scorer and leader.
"A lot of times, I got a lot of points off rebounds and off layups, whatever they gave me. I had to shoot a lot. We had a lot of guys who were athletes, 6-1 or more. But we didn't learn to play together until late my senior year."
As good as he was on the basketball court, he may have been better in the classroom. He became valedictorian of his class with his perfect 4.0 GPA. In basketball he went on to become the Northeastern Conference Co-Player of the Year as a junior, an honor he shared with Harbor's Joe Rich. Then, as a senior, he was selected as Player of the Year on the Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County team and the coaches' All-Northeastern Conference team.
Though a good shooter, he benefited little from the three-point arc. For one thing, it wasn't instituted until his senior year. For another, he was too effective in the paint to risk a three when a two was available. Altogether, he counted about 30 treys in his total point count.
Conneaut has a rich tradition of high-scoring players, perhaps because coaches haven't been afraid to start Spartans as freshmen. Scott Humphrey was the first to surpass 1,000 points, accumulating that many from 1967-1970 and finishing with 1,049. From 1975-78, Dave Sillanpaa approached Humphrey's mark, but fell short with 1,001.
Zappitelli passed Sillanpaa and Humphrey early his senior year and just kept going.
"They stopped the game at Harvey," Zappitelli remembers of passing Humphrey on the list. "They made an announcement. There weren't a lot of people there, for whatever reason."
The numbers Zappitelli put up attracted college recruiters, though his height (6-1) didn't help.
"I was 6-1," he said. "If I'd been 6-4, 6-5 or 6-6, other things might have happened."
The school that seemed most intrigued by Zappitelli's talent followed him energetically.
"John Carroll had a guy who came to every one of my high school games my senior year," Zappitelli recalls. "I got a lot of calls from good schools, some from Mike Montgomery at Stanford. Gannon, Baldwin-Wallace and all the Division III schools called. I got letters from Bradley and Louisville. I was a guy with good grades. They'd say, ‘Send me a tape sometime.' "
When it came time to make a decision on college, it may have been John Carroll's proximity, not to belittle its persistence, that swung the pendulum in the Blue Streaks' favor. His parents, Carole and Anthony, were able to attend games in Ohio.
"It feels like yesterday," Zappitelli said. "My mom and dad went to all my games, even in college.
"Some of those schools were out in the middle of nowhere, like Ohio Northern. Sometimes my parents wouldn't show up until halftime because they'd got lost. When you've got moms and dads, aunts and uncles, at a game, it gets into a routine. I still see everyone once a month."
On the court at John Carroll, Zappitelli tasted enough early success that he was named Freshman of the Year in 1989 and was the team's leading scorer in 1990, as a sophomore.
"I played the ‘2' (shooting) guard at John Carroll," Zappitelli said. "We had a three-guard offense my freshman year. When we moved from the PAC to the OAC, I don't think we expected the kind of basketball players we faced. We had a lot of guys who could put the ball in the hole but not a lot of guys who could match up with guys who were 6-6 and 6-7 and 250. We got banged up pretty good."
Eventually, Zappitelli's playing time at John Carroll decreased. Though he won't be specific, apparently there were differences with the coach.
"I started as a freshman, sophomore and junior, then ran into some difficulties," he said. "I was on the dean's list, but basketball wasn't as fun for me as it was in high school."
Still, Zappitelli remains happy with his choice of John Carroll.
"It didn't work out like I wanted it to work out from the basketball side," he said. "But I met my wife (Elizabeth) there. Most of my best friends are from college."
Zappitelli also began his current career while he was at John Carroll, beginning selling cars at Classic Chevrolet in Mentor. He moved up to sales manager at Classic Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile in Mentor by 1998 and is now general manager of Classic Buick, Pontiac and GMC in Painesvillle.
"I oversee the whole operation in Painesville," he said. "We're one of the largest Buick-Pontiac-GMC stores around. Selling cars has turned into a good living for me. It's been a successful experience for me."
Matt and Elizabeth have two daughters, McKenna, 6, and Katherine, 3. Though he used to play pickup basketball games at Lakeland on weekends, family and job responsibilities keep him from doing so now.
"I haven't picked up a basketball since (1998)," he said. "I just got older and started doing other things. I play a lot of golf. Two young kids put a lot of demands on your time, plus the time I put in at Classic. There's no time for the other stuff."
He often golfs with his former coach, Mason and plays with some of his buddies at Madison Country Club, carrying about a 10 handicap.
Zappitelli still follows John Carroll's basketball team, which has been making a good Division III tournament run.
"I've followed them in the Sweet 16," he said. "They made the Final Eight when (former Conneaut player) Dan Coxon was there. I haven't had a lot of time."
Zappitelli also watches Cleveland Cavaliers games, though he admits he didn't do so until LeBron James joined the team.
Every now and then he also gets out the tapes of his old Conneaut games that Mason gave him.
"I remember playing a lot of basketball," he said. "I didn't play other sports. I fell in love with playing basketball and I did it every day in the summer, even if I had to play by myself.
"It was a different life ago, though."