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Zitani excels with Boxers

In his second season in a Pacific uniform, Daniel Zitani is the team's top scorer and rebounder


by: COURTESY PHOTO: KIP YOSHIMURA
COURTESY PHOTO: KIP YOSHIMURA
COURTESY PHOTO: KIP YOSHIMURA
COURTESY PHOTO: KIP YOSHIMURA
COURTESY PHOTO: KIP YOSHIMURA - Pacific senior Daniel Zitani gets off a jump shot during a Northwest Conference men's basketball game against Whitman on Jan. 4.If anyone is emblematic of being a diamond in the rough, it’s Daniel Zitani.

The Pacific University senior came to Forest Grove two years ago with plenty of talent but with few accolades. Even last season — his first with the team as a transfer from Diablo Valley College in California — his talent did not completely manifest. Averaging 6.4 points, 4.9 rebound and 0.84 blocks per game, he was a solid though not spectacular role player for the Boxers.

What a difference a year can make.

After spending all of this past summer in Forest Grove working on his game, Zitani has cemented himself as one of the preeminent players in the Northwest Conference.

“I just put my mind, my body and my soul into it and went all in,” Zitani says of his mindset for his final college season.

And though hard work does not guarantee success, going “all in” has paid off handsomely for the 6-foot-6 forward. Entering the Boxers’ Tuesday night matchup against Willamette, Zitani was averaging 18.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.16 blocks per game. His stepping into the go-to guy role has been a stabilizing force for a Boxers squad (11-8, 4-6 NWC) that lost 87 percent of last year’s scoring due to the graduation of four seniors and the loss of two other players to season-ending injuries.

Zitani entered this week as the conference’s top scorer, second-ranked rebounder and third-ranked shot blocker. He has won NWC Student-Athlete of the Week honors three times already and been named to the national website d3hoops.com’s Team of the Week once.

Clearly, he is having a season to remember, but the best part of all about Zitani is that his star may still be rising.

“The thing I’ve been proudest with him about is his game has matured, but he’s also really matured as a man, as a person,” says Pacific men’s basketball coach Tim Cleary, the only coach who had interest in Zitani coming out of junior college. “He’s a guy that really blossomed and matured on and off the floor, and now I think he’s going to go out in the real world and have the tools to be really successful.”

Raised primarily in Berkeley, Calif., by a single mom and sandwiched between two older and two younger sisters, Zitani grew up as a skinny kid with a love for basketball. He played on AAU teams as a youth and spent two years at Berkeley High School before attending Bridgemont, a Bay-Area prep school, and then Diablo Valley.

Zitani was not a star player. In fact, he says, the only individual honor he earned came at a summer tournament when he was attending Diablo Valley. At some point along the way, it would have been easy for Zitani to quit basketball, but he stuck with it.

“I’m a late bloomer. I’m a slow developer. Everybody peaks at different times,” Zitani says. “A lot of my friends, they stopped playing basketball. They’re not playing basketball anymore. People tell me to stop. I never stopped. Just never stop pursuing your dreams. If you don’t stop pursuing your dreams, the sky’s the limit. I feel like I’m a testament of that.”

So to keep playing, Zitani picked up and moved north to Forest Grove, away from the Bay Area for the first time in his life. He has lived in the same house not far off campus with teammates Eric Moore and Budweiser Hawkins since he got here, and he is on track to earn a degree in psychology this spring.

Last year, Cleary says, Zitani’s ability was evident, but he did not fully understand Pacific’s system and played inconsistently.

After that, Zitani had to decide what he wanted.

“I wanted to be the best player in the league,” Zitani explains. “This is my senior year. I built up five years ... of work, and this is my last year. What do I want out of it, you know?

“I don’t want to have an OK season. I don’t want to have a good season. I want to have a great season. I want to have the best season. That’s what drives me.”

It drove him to work, too. This past summer, Zitani was up early each day to go to the weight room, urging a sleepy Hawkins to get out of bed. Zitani lifted and shot baskets and even changed his diet, committing to all the little things to help make his senior season great.

“I think the biggest thing about him is how he works for what he wants,” Hawkins observes. “It’s just amazing to see him grow like that.”

Zitani started out at Pacific as a player whose inclination was to face up, float and shoot jumpers, Cleary says, but he has melded himself into a player who excels with his back to the basket, making him much more versatile.

Now, with just a few more Pacific games to go, life beyond college beckons. Zitani would love a chance to play basketball overseas, and he sees coaching or working for a pro or college team as a possible career path.

If Cleary’s assessment is correct, Zitani’s future is bright, wherever it takes him.

“He’s still got a whole (other) level that he can get to as a person,” Cleary says. “I think the sky’s the limit for him. He doesn’t have a ceiling.”



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