During his career at George Rogers Clark High School, Vinny Zollo was a fan favorite because of his hustle and aggressive play on the basketball court and his quick smile and outgoing personality off the floor.
Midway through his first season at Western Kentucky University, those same attributes have quickly endeared the former Cardinal to the Hilltopper faithful who fill Diddle Arena every game.
Zollo’s Western career got off to a slow start thanks to an emergency appendectomy in July, followed closely by a bout of mononucleosis, which drastically effected his early season conditioning.
But after regaining his health, his playing time and contribution on the floor have steadily increased, and he has claimed a starting spot for the Hilltoppers. And even though he’s only a freshman, Zollo has emerged as one of the leaders on a team that features only one senior.
Zollo credited GRC coach Scott Humphrey and his staff for preparing him for playing at the college level, but said it still was a big adjustment from high school to college.
“The biggest transition I think is the demands that you have as a Division I basketball player. You live, breath and eat basketball and you’ve got to love the game and dedicate your whole life to it to succeed,” Zollo said. “It’s a struggle at first. You’re tired, you’re constantly on the road. You’re trying to work as hard as you can and trying to balance everything with class. We are students, believe it or not, and they’re great here about making sure you go to class.”
On the floor, Zollo said instead of being the biggest player on the floor most of the time, he now goes up against people his size and bigger every day, and the speed of the game is much faster, which means he has to play hard on every play.
But, being one of seven incoming freshmen this year has helped make the adjustment to the college game a little easier, Zollo said, as well as the adjustment to the rigors of the classroom.
“The blessing I’ve had is that I came in with seven new guys, so I’m not the only one going through this. So when we’re struggling with something, we have each other to talk to about it because we’re all experiencing the same thing, which really helps,” Zollo said. “I had a good academic foundation coming out of GRC, but it’s still a tough adjustment to college classes. But we have a team of smart guys here. We don’t have any boneheads. We have guys that go to class and who hold you accountable to go to class too, even when you’re sore and tired and don’t really want to get up. And we have a great academic team that stays on us about our grades as well.”
He talks frequently with former Cardinal teammates Robbie Stenzle and Jalen Daniels as well as Humphrey, Zollo said, and he still keeps up with the current crop of Cardinals as well. He said he isn’t at all surprised with the team’s success this year.
“Looking back on it, GRC was a fun experience for me. If I had it to do all over again, I would absolutely do what I did,” Zollo said. “It has been a crazy ride for me, but it’s been a good one. It’s been one that was unpredictable, but it’s been a blast and GRC and the Cardinal fans treated me great. I want to thank the Clark County fans because they are really great fans.”
It didn’t take long for the Hilltopper fans to learn what Cardinal fans already knew, that Zollo loves interacting with them. When the team comes out on the floor an hour before the game, Zollo stops along the way to talk to the ballboys, students and others who want autographs and photos.
After the game, he’s one of the first players sought out by fans young and old, and he never disappoints them, taking time to speak to those who come up to him. And his final stop before the locker room after every game is to get a hug from his favorite fans, his mother Robyn Curry, father Jim Curry, sister Kyndal Curry and grandmother Jane Rannels, who make the trip to Bowling Green for every home game.
Zollo said the fan interaction was his favorite part of being a basketball player.
“I’ve always appreciated the fans. The Clark County fans were really great to us and we appreciated that and I miss them. The Western fans are the same way. They appreciate what we do and we appreciate them coming out,” Zollo said. “For me as a player, I enjoy the competitive spirit and all the things you get as a player, but the fans are what make it worth it for me.”
Zollo’s first season at WKU hasn’t gone quite like he expected. The Hilltoppers record stands at 6-11 on the season, and coach Ken McDonald was fired last week and replaced with assistant Ray Harper, The Toppers and their fans have rallied around Harper and Zollo said he’s excited about where the team is headed and looks forward to continuing to be an integral part of their success.
“It’s been kind of crazy and chaotic the last few days, but we’ve responded pretty well and the fans have been incredible. Coach Harper recruited all of us so we’re excited to play for him and I think only good things will come from this,” Zollo said. “At the beginning of the year I had to build myself up then I¿started getting more and more playing time and worked my way into the starting lineup so it’s worked out well for me. When I get in I just play as hard as I can all the time I’m in the game and I hope to keep it going. I know we have a lot of talent here and we’re only going to get better and that’s what the Hilltopper fans deserve and what they expect, and I believe we’re headed in the right direction.”
Contact Bob Flynn at email@example.com.