Work ethic pays off for Sages’ Zach Fisher

Zach Fisher ranks third in the News-Gazette area in scoring (photo courtesy of Arthur Sievers)

Zach Fisher has loved the game of basketball since he first got a hold of a ball at the age of 3. Over the years he has turned himself into one of the best pure shooters around and this year among the top scorers in the area (22.3 ppg).

Fisher ranks second on Monticello’s all-time career three-point list with 157 going into Friday’s season finale at St. Joseph-Ogden. This season he’s a 54-percent field-goal shooter; he knocks down 3-point shots at a 44 percent clip (64-144) and has made 87 percent of his free-throw attempts (61-70).

Perhaps what sets Fisher a part is that he enjoys working on his game as much as playing in games. “It’s so peaceful to be honest,” he says of his dedication to individualized workouts.

“The time when I’m in the gym working by myself or with my dad is just a stress reliever. You get your mind off everything. Then being able to put what you work on into a game situation and helping your team succeed is one of the greatest feelings.”

What makes Fisher so tough to defend is that he can shoot and distribute from just about anywhere on the floor – off the bounce, attacking the rim, spotting up, or elevating over a defender.

“Zach has always had good ability; he has just grown into his ability,” Monticello head coach Kevin Roy said. “Last year he really established himself as a true scorer. What makes him hard to defend is that he sees things off the ball and how the defender is guarding him. His footwork coming off screens allows him to get his feet set. With his ability to get open and use the screens, teams have had trouble containing him.”

While he has always been considered a pure shooter, Fisher focused on elevating the rest of his game heading into his senior season. He attended Carle’s Acceleration Camp with the goal of improving his lateral quickness and his ability to move without the ball.

“During the off-season I focused on other parts of my game besides just threes – my post game, mid-range shots and getting to the hole,” Fisher said. “I worked on my speed and my quickness to help me defend better players, which I’m going to need as the postseason continues and next year in college.”

That work is evident in his play on the court. For Fisher, though, the motivation was simple, enjoy playing with a group of guys he’s been competing alongside for eight years and win games. “Our biggest thing was just to win,” he said.

“We don’t care how it happens or who scores the points.” That passion is evident in the pure emotion Fisher displays on the court and the way he gets his teammates involved. His 57 assists are second to only fellow senior Noah Freemon on this year’s team. He and Freemon are two of five seniors, joining Tyus Welter, Brandon Wildman and Sutten Winterbottom. Wildman rejoined the team this year after focusing on football as a junior and Winterbottom is back after missing the 2014-15 season with a knee injury.

“This year has been awesome,” Fisher said. “It’s nice to know the ones you really cherish the best have stayed through these years. To spend my last year with this group of guys means a lot me and to all of us.”

Fisher and Freemon have been the catalysts for the Sages over the past two seasons, which have included a combined 35 wins and a regional championship. The duo typically plays on different sides during practice with the goal of making their teammates better.

“Freemon and I get along really well off the court, which makes playing on the court that much easier,” Fisher said. “Noah can get to the rim whenever he wants, but he realizes he only has to do it at certain moments. Through the years, we’ve gained so much respect for each other. In reality, though, we have three to four guys that can put up 20 if we need them to.”

“We feed well off each other,” Freemon added. “When one of us is playing well, the other starts playing better.”

Beyond the seniors, the eight-man rotation has included junior big man Isiah Florey, sophomore post Luke Stokowski and sophomore wing Calvin Fisher, Zach’s brother. Not surprising, having a chance to play alongside his brother has been really special for the elder Fisher.

“It has been an honor to play with Calvin, both as a brother and as athlete,” Zach said. “He is a player of tremendous skill and knowledge. His basketball IQ is very high. His role has been the guy that can knock down a couple threes a game and spread the court. Coach has given him the green light to do so.”

Monticello takes a 15-7 record into Friday’s season finale at St. Joseph-Ogden after playing a tough schedule. Four of the Sages losses have come by four points or less and all seven by single digits. That includes a 56-54 loss on the road to the top team in Class 2A, Warrensburg-Latham, and a nine-point setback to state-ranked Ridgeview in the championship game of the Holiday Hoopla.

The Cardinals headline a loaded St. Joseph sectional that includes the likes of Bloomington Central Catholic, Paxton-Buckley-Loda, St. Thomas More, SJO, and Bismarck-Henning not to mention traditional powers St. Teresa and Meridian whom the Sages could meet in the Argenta Regional.

Monticello has demonstrated it can compete with those top teams, defeating SJO 62-59 on Feb. 2 and blasting a quality Bismarck team early in the year. Getting past many of those same teams and making a deep-run in the state tournament series comes down to two things, says Fisher.

“We have proven we can compete with anybody on any given day,” Fisher noted. “However, we just haven’t been able to close out games consistently. Yes we can score and put up points, but we have to be able to defend and get stops to win games. That will be the biggest key from here on out.”

Fisher will play somewhere next year, the decision as to where, he says, will wait until after the season. Parkland, Millikin, Monmouth, and Wisconsin-Whitewater are the leading contenders at this point. He also has interest from some Division II schools. For now, he and his teammates are focused on finishing a fantastic ride.

“We’ve been playing with each other since 5th grade, so it means a lot to all of us to play the game we love and to play with our buddies. Senior year has been great to me. We’ve done a lot together. Hopefully we can keep playing for a few more weeks.”

Monticello fans have come out in force to support this team, packing Miller Gym and traveling around East Central Illinois. The reason has not just been the high-level of basketball the Sages have played of late, but that the players are so likable. With that in mind, it is not surprising Fisher’s response to what he hopes will be this group’s legacy on the history of Monticello basketball.

“The way we conduct ourselves on and off the court,” Fisher responded. “Yes winning is a priority. They wouldn’t have the scoreboard if winning didn’t matter, but I think one of the things we can leave for the next group is the way we conduct ourselves on the floor, playing with heart, respecting the game and leaving it all on the floor.”

That attitude has what has made Zach Fisher a fan favorite through the years and why many still consider Monticello a contender to get to Peoria and the state tournament.

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