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Basketball: West alum Zabetakis named Gulf South's top male athlete
West Forsyth’s Michael Zabetakis shoots during a game against Woodstock on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. - photo by Ben Hendren

Michael Zabetakis often heard coaches shouting from the bench. 

The ball would find Zabetakis at the top of the key or along the wing, then he would hear the opposing coach yell to his defenders, 'Get your hands up!"

Sometimes they did. Most times it didn't matter. 

Zabetakis buried half the 3-pointers he attempted this year. He averaged 15.1 points and helped West Georgia to its first NCAA Tournament win in six years, and on Thursday, Zabetakis captured the Gulf South Conference Commissioner's Trophy, given annually to the conference's top player across all sports. 

Michael Zabetakis
Zabetakis, a 2018 West Forsyth graduate, is just the sixth West Georgia athlete since 1975 to win the award. 

"I was at my parents' house. I got an email the night before they announced it," he said. "I had to reread the email a couple times to make sure I wasn't getting pranked or something."

Zabetakis learned earlier this week that he was finalist for the award, when the GSC pared down a list of the top 10 athletes in the conference — five men and five women. Zabetakis was up against Andrew Elkins (Auburn Montgomery, soccer), Maxi Galizzi (Christian Brothers, soccer), Brishen House (Valdosta State, cross country) and Sam Orf (Alabama-Huntsville, basketball).

GSC Commissioner Matt Wilson ultimately picked Zabetakis based on his play on the court, as well as his performance in the classroom and involvement in extracurricular activity. Zabetakis carries a 3.38 GPA and earned a spot on the GSC All-Academic team for the fall semester. 

Additionally, Zabetakis and the Wolves also volunteer in the Carrollton community through the Roopville Hornet 5K and serving as pen pals with local students. 

"I was a little bit surprised, just because I'm a junior and I figured the award would go to a senior. I was very happy about it," Zabetakis said.

Zabetakis improved in nearly every statistical category during his junior year, most noticeably from 3-point range. Zabetakis was 42-for-84 [50 percent] shooting from behind the arc this year after finishing 22-for-77 [28.6 percent] in 2019-20.

"I'd stay in the gym and I'd shoot extra after practice or before practice, but for whatever reason it wouldn't translate to the game my sophomore year," Zabetakis said. "My coaches always told me, even though I was struggling shooting, that they still believed in me and they wanted me to keep shooting, just because they know I work hard at it. I think that helped me a lot this year, knowing that make or miss, the coaches still had confidence in me. So, I didn't have to worry about missing shots, necessarily, and it helped me make more shots."

Zabetakis was perfect from the perimeter on four separate occasions and shot a season-best 6 of 8 from 3-point range March 2 during a 77-61 win against Union (Tenn.).

That performance came one week before West Georgia's biggest win of the season, a 79-75 grudge-match victory against Valdosta State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — the same team that eliminated the Wolves from the conference tournament.

Zabetakis logged his third double-double of the season in the win, scoring 18 points and pulling down 10 rebounds.

"We were struggling at the beginning, but once we started to come together on the court and string together some wins, I think that really gave us a lot of confidence that we could win different types of games, whether it was high-scoring games, low-scoring games; against the zone or against man," Zabetakis said. "We just learned how to win different ways. As we got closer to tournament time, we were just playing well as a team. It just carried over and we got a big win in the tournament."

Zabetakis missed the first couple of games because of an injury but exploded for a career-high 25 points Jan. 16 against West Florida, which sparked a run where he scored at least 18 points in five of six contests. 

Before the season, Zabetakis doubted whether he would get to play his junior season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"It was hard," he said. "There was a long period that I didn't think we were going to have a season. In a way, it was hard to stay focused because you're sitting there working out and you're like, 'Wow, am I really working out for nothing? Are we even going to be able to play?' It was harder mentally than physically, because you have to just stay focused and stay ready in case we did have a season."

The award is the latest in a list of postseason accolades for Zabetakis, who was named first-team GSC East and landed on the conference's all-tournament team, as well as the National Association of Basketball Coaches' all-district second team. 

Still, Zabetakis has his sights set on two more goals heading into the 2021-22 season. 

"We want to win a conference championship, and we want to make it further in the NCAA Tournament," Zabetakis said. "We did have some success this year, but we still kind of felt like we could have done more. Like I said, we didn't win a conference championship, and that's the first goal. Those are the main things that I'm focused on, and that we're focused on, because the individual awards stem from team success. So, I'm not going to worry about what I get individually, or what I don't get. I just want us to win games and hopefully win a conference championship, then the individual awards will take care of themselves."