BY J. PATRICK EAKEN | MIRROR SPORTS — When boys basketball coach Josh Arthur showed up on the scene at Anthony Wayne, Zachary Szul was a 5-foot-8 freshman.
Three years later, Szul was a 6-4 senior guard who was voted the Northern Lakes League Player of the Year, a first-team All-Mirror selection and Division I special mention All-Ohioan.
“He was small and skinny, but you could tell he would end up being really good,” Arthur said. “He put in the work, (but) I would have never guessed he was going to end up being 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4.
“Being able to do that – he capped off his four years here with a couple dunks – and he became a great shooter. He was not the greatest shooter as a freshman, but he turned it around and became a great shooter to lead this program. He’s ready to take the next step.”
Szul averaged 17.1 points, six rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.8 steals during his senior year for the Generals, who finished the season 14-9 overall and in sole possession of second place in the NLL with an 11-3 record.
Szul shot 46 percent from the field, 33 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and 80 percent from the foul line. He made the NLL and district first teams.
Arthur says Szul has narrowed his college choices to NCAA Division II Ohio Dominican University, NAIA D-II Spring Arbor University, Trine University and Wittenberg University.
Szul says he plans to major in biology and Arthur says he is considering pre-med.
“I want a college that is well-rounded that will prepare me for my future, both for my job and my profession, but also to be a good person and prepared for life,” Szul said.
Ohio Northern University also actively recruited Szul, and the AW guard said he felt a little pressured when there was a college coaching presence at games.
“It adds a little bit of pressure, but I think from the sense of a confidence boost, I think it does add confidence because it’s saying, ‘OK, I’ve earned it at this point,” Szul said.
“Now you could just see them watch you play and that’s a little bit of the reward behind it.”
Conquering The NLL
During his senior year, Szul was most proud of the 7-0 stretch the Generals went on during the second round of NLL play, defeating every league opponent.
“I think as the season progressed, we slowly got better,” he said. “We didn’t necessarily have the start we would have liked. We had a lull at early mid-season, which was frustrating for a lot of guys, but I think as a team we slowly grew and realized what everybody’s role was, how everybody contributes and we just started working as a team.”
Szul said the Generals’ 67-36 loss to Defiance in January was the inspiration. It was also the last time AW lost during the regular season, winning six straight heading into the tournament.
“I think getting blown out the way we did against Defiance was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, where are we going with ourselves right now?’” Szul said.
“It was kind of the back to the reality that this isn’t us. We’ve got to prove to ourselves that we are better than what we are showing right now, which clearly, we did toward the end of the season.”
Szul credits Arthur with helping the team get through the mid-season lull that saw the Generals lose five of six games in January.
“I think Coach Arthur was in a tough spot this year, going through lulls that wear on him as well because he’s trying everything he can,” Szul said.
“But he really stuck with us, persevered and never gave up on us. We could never ask for more from a coach with all the time he puts in, watching film. He does a great job.”
As a junior, Szul was third-team all-league and all-district honorable mention, averaging 8.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and three assists and shooting 76 percent from the stripe and 42 percent from the field.
He was joined in the backcourt by then-senior Max Denman, a Division I honorable mention All-Ohio guard who led the Generals in scoring (16.5 per game), rebounding (7.1), assists (3.6) and steals.
With Denman graduated, Szul knew he had to become the scorer this year.
“At the start of the season, it was difficult because it was big shoes to fill being one of the returning starters and having to replace such a scorer’s role,” Szul said.
“But I think as the season progressed, I slowly filled them and kind of put my own personal touch on it, because I know Max was more of a shooter. I think as the season progressed, it slowly fit.”
Icing On The Cake
When the NLL Player of the Year award came in for Szul, it topped the cake.
“I was ecstatic, extremely honored because there are a lot of great players in our league,” Szul said, “including Bobby (Miller) on my own team. It was extremely respectable to get that award.”
Szul said Miller was one of the major catalysts for the end of the season winning streak.
“Playing next to Bobby is kind of a little bit of fresh air, but sometimes you want to strangle him,” Szul said. “He’s the type of kid who is going to go in confident and is willing to do anything for a team.
“I think playing next to Bobby and his confidence, it helps me knowing and seeing my teammate confident in himself.”
Szul will graduate with four other seniors, Kyle Ray, Nick Huffman, Bryce Boyer and Ben Wyrick, and he says it’s heartbreaking they won’t be on the court together in AW uniforms again.
“I think it’s a tough place to be in because you realize this is your last season,” he said. “You want to play with your brothers. I’ve played with them since fifth and sixth grade.
“We’ve always been on the same team – maybe one or two years we weren’t – but growing up we were always right next to each other going through everything together.
“When you weren’t on the court, you were at somebody’s house spending the night playing Xbox, so it’s hard to let go of the bond we made with those guys, especially being childhood friends.”
Szul said with his teammates practices got a little crazy now and then.
“Some days we kind of had lax days, but usually we were up-tempo, energetic,” he said. “We tried to do something different every day that got the guys excited.