Teams thankful for planned winter season
By Ted Glanzer
Normally, Jack Hall, the preternaturally gifted senior point guard on Avon High’s boys basketball team, wouldn’t look forward to an early Saturday morning practice.
“An 8 a.m. practice, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Hall said while taking a break from conditioning drills at Avon High on Jan. 23. “I’m tired when I wake up. But I woke up at 7:30 a.m. this morning, and I was ready to go. … It is nice to be back.”
Hall was among the varsity and junior varsity players working their way back into game shape after the CIAC and state officials announced that there would be truncated, 12-game seasons for boys and girls basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics and boys and co-ed swimming and diving.
And no matter what the sport and irrespective of the team’s expectations for the shortened winter season, every coach and player interviewed for this piece said the same thing.
They’re just happy to be back playing considering the pandemic has robbed most high school sports of competitive seasons since March 2020.
So Hall was speaking the truth that he was thrilled to be back running suicides in the Avon High gym on a cold January Saturday morning.
“It’s so good,” Hall said, noting the Falcons’ run in the state tournament last year was cut short after their first-round victory when the state shut down.
“Last March, not having basketball, it stunk. It was brutal. Now just coming back, seeing all the guys, it’s the best feeling ever.”
The plan is for the games to be played within their conference, with minimal travel, with a chance at some form of conference, but not state, postseason play.
Everyone in the gym or arena must wear masks, and there are also built-in mask breaks and timeouts. Spectators will be limited, with some schools adapting by planning to live-stream games.
None of it is ideal, but try telling that to the kids and coaches.
“When we found out we were going to have a season, it’s just 12 games, but who cares?” Hall said. “We’re playing basketball. There was a chance there’d be no basketball now we’re having basketball, we’re just happy and ready.”
Basketball games begin Feb. 8, and ice hockey starts Feb. 12.
Here are the previews for the teams that were able to respond to questionnaires from The Valley Press.
Farmington High (Last year’s record: 16-6, qualified for the state tournament as the 6th seed)
The Farmington High basketball team has had to adjust even more than other teams, with longtime head coach Duane Witter out on medical leave as he battles leukemia.
Less significant, but a loss nonetheless, was the team’s inability to defend the state title it won in 2019, because the 2020 postseason was canceled before Farmington’s first round game against Newington.
Jeff Daddio, who has been an assistant with Farmington since 2009, takes over as the interim head coach and will lead a squad that returns two starters: senior guard and co-captain Jacob Smith (15.8 ppg, 4 rpg, 2.3 spg, 2 apg) and junior forward Nick Duncan (7.4 ppg and 5 rpg).
The team lost four players who were either starters or played significant minutes, leading to some inexperience at the varsity level. But Farmington does have its strengths.
“We are big and strong and in great shape considering how little access the players had to train leading up to the season,” Daddio said.
Leading the charge is Smith, whom Daddio said is one of the best players in the conference.
“He was a starter his sophomore year on the state championship team. Last year he was all-conference,” Daddio said. “He has done as much as he can do in our program. We are grateful we’re able to get a senior season for him. It would have been interesting to look at the record books after his senior year if he had a regular 20-game season along with the tournaments.”
Daddio, who has longtime assistant Tim O’Connor still on the staff, added that he’s merely keeping the head-coach’s seat warm for Witter.
“We miss him. We miss him greatly,” he said. “The kids are a resilient bunch. They do adversity really well. Our coaching staff has been together for a while. It’s on Tim and I to step up get through this weird, quirky season. The plan is for coach to be back next year. That’s what we’re planning and hoping for.”
Simsbury High (Last year’s record: 3-18)
The Trojans return three starters - senior guard Ian Calabrese (14 ppg, 69 3-pointers made, shooting 40% from behind the arc), senior forward Sam Scott and senior guard Dan O’Connor - from last year’s squad. All three plus Jeffrey Coleman are captains this year.
Greg Stillman, in his 15th year as the Trojans’ head coach, said his charges are “just happy to be out on the court.”
“The only expectations we have put on the season are to enjoy each day because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” he said.
Avon High (Last year’s record: 13-9, qualified for the Division III state tournament, won it’s first-round game against Bethel before the season was canceled)
Head coach Kris Pedra says Jack Hall is one of the best seniors in the state, and is complemented by junior guard Tyler Borkenshire, senior Will Soucier (“a smart senior captain, and a leader on the floor”) and senior Ben Angus (“A high basketball IQ - I tell him to do something once, he doesn’t forget it).
Avon’s greatest strengths could also be it’s greatest weakness. The Falcons are extremely quick and can push the ball, but they’re not very big. Hall clocks in as the tallest player on the team at 6-3.
“Rebounds are going to be a huge topic all year long,” Pedra said. “[But] we’re bringing back the majority of our key players. We expect to challenge for anything and everything this year.”
Pedra, in his 11th year with Avon High and sixth as head coach, says he’s thrilled to have a season, especially for the seniors.
“It’s nice where we have the program; we’re building a basketball culture,” he said. “We have a good culture, and certainly starts with Jack, Will and Ben. The seniors. Don’t be late, let’s put our best foot forward and create a good culture. … I have such a good crew of seniors, it would have been really unfortunate if they did not experience a senior season.”
Canton High (Last year’s record: 21-2, won the NCCC tournament and regular season titles, earned the No. 1 seed in the Division IV tournament before the season was canceled)
The Warriors lost the opportunity last year to make a deep run in the state tournament. But that’s not what head coach Craig Archambault is focusing on.
“First and foremost all coaches, players, parents, anyone involved in Canton High School Basketball are so grateful for the CIAC and the state of Connecticut for giving the season a chance,” he wrote in an email. “I am especially happy for our senior class as they get the chance to play a final season.”
The message is to move forward with what the team has, and this year’s slogan is “Whatever it takes.”
“Our team is willing to do ‘Whatever It Takes’ to have a successful and healthy season,” Archambault said.
Toward that end, the team returns four players from the historic squad that won its first-ever NCCC championship: senior guard Josh Burke (all-conference), senior guard Ryan McGoldrick (a returning starter), senior guard Silas Sawtelle and senior forward Colin Mackin. The roster is rounded out by senior guard Nathan Lincoln, Isaiah Reece, Luke Maher and Brandon Powell.
Taking out all predictions and expectations, Archambault is just looking forward to having his team back on the court.
“All we want is the chance to play,” he said.
Canton High (Last year’s record: 23-2, NCCC champions, No. 2 seed in the Class M tournament, advanced to the quarterfinals before play was canceled.)
Like the Canton boys, the girls had a legitimate shot at winning a state title until the lights literally and figuratively went out on the season. The Warriors were leading Coginchaug 24-13 in the first half of their quarterfinal when the lights went out at Canton High, suspending play for what turned out to be the rest of the season.
Head coach Brian Medeiros says he is excited about the potential of this year’s crew.
“We have a nice mix of players, the girls have really been getting after it at practice,” he wrote in an email. “Each day they have come in with a positive attitude, and they are taking the necessary steps to get better.”
The Warriors will rely on their returning players: Paige Brown, Camille Kashnig, Allison Bronson, Sophia Stamos, Jenna Cuniowski, Ashelyn Cebellero and Sophia Mates to set the tone.
Medeiros says Canton has a strong freshman class coming up the ranks led by Avery Brown, Sam Yankee, Avery Miller and Alexia Moore.
“There are definitely some challenges within the NCCC; the three that stand out for me are Granby, Suffield and Windsor Locks,” Medeiros said. “We get Windsor Locks and Suffield right off the bat, so I’m curious to see where we stand!”
Avon High (Last year’s record: 7-13, lost in the first round of the Class MM tournament).
First-year head coach Drew Faucher inherits a young program: 15 of the 19 girls that have come out for basketball are either freshmen or sophomores.
Not that he’s complaining. He is also inheriting a program with a rich history cultivated by former coaches Frank Waters and Jamal Lee.
“It’s definitely a tradition and I feel fortunate to follow in their footsteps, and keep things going,” Faucher said.
Still, the team lost four kids with a combined 200-plus varsity starts. There are just two players - Josie Powers and point guard Sophie Mango - who played varsity minutes last year.
“We are incredibly young this year,” he said.
Senior captains Macy Gill and Jordan Platts as well as junior Ashley Blackmore will be relied upon to take on more minutes.
“It’s going to take time get the younger kids acclimated,” Faucher said. “But they’re a hard-working group. I’m excited to see how they grow as the season progresses.
Like everyone else, they’re just happy to be back.
“For the girls biggest thing is to be a part of team and have a sense of family and … be together on the basketball court,” he said.
Simsbury High (Last year’s record: 11-11, lost in the first round of the state Class L tournament).
Head coach Sam Zullo, in his eighth year at Simsbury High, returns plenty of experience with three four-year-starters: senior Mary McElroy (12 ppg, 10 rpg, 4 apg, 3 spg, took 27 charges last year led us in every statistical category), senior Ellie McElroy (6 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg), and senior Kate Sullivan (10 ppg, All-CCC, 182 career three pointers made).
Add in juniors Katie Perlitz and Alex Peterson, and there is a ton of veterans on the Trojans.
“We have one of our most experienced, deepest teams in my eight years at Simsbury,” Zullo said. “With four returning starters, our sixth man back along with our leading scorers from a strong JV team, a transfer, and two freshman that can contribute right away, we really felt that we could compete with anyone in the conference this year. Our goals are to be as competitive as possible and if we get an opportunity to play for any type of post-season championship, we think that we have a chance this year to compete.”
Zullo says the team doesn’t have any superstars, but several who can fill in at any role.
“If we can put it all together the right way, we will be able to adapt to any style of play effectively and should be able to compete night in and night out,” he said.
BOYS ICE HOCKEY
Farmington Valley co-op ice hockey (Last year’s record 17-3-1, won its first game in the Division II state tournament)
Co-head coach Scott Percival can be forgiven for wistfully thinking of what might have been. The Farmington Valley co-op (Farmington, Avon Windsor) made it to the semifinals of the Division II state tournament in 2019 and was the No. 3 seed in the state tournament, having vanquished East Haven 6-2 in the first round, before everything was shut down.
And now his team - which he co-leads with Mike Barone - returns a stacked, balanced squad that even features two experienced goalies. Yet the most that can be done with it is a 12-game schedule and possibly a postseason, conference tourney.
“We had a great opportunity last year,” Percival said. “And it’s heartbreaking because we would be in a very good position for states this year. It’s a tough pill to swallow when you look at the kids making the semis two years ago, with everyone returning, you end up knowing [what could have been] it’s not as fulfilling.”
But practices for high school hockey, due to availability of ice time, typically start around 5 a.m. And Percival saw the joy on his players’ faces at that first practice despite the brutal hour, and any bitterness of what might have been melted away.
So FarmVal’s opponents will have to contend with returning goalies: junior Jacob Markowitz from Farmington and junior Danny Pauling from Avon.
On defense, FarmVal has Matt Rapini (Farmington), Jack Calcavecchia (Farmington), Nathaniel Watson (Farmington) and Drew Abbott (Avon).
Up front, the team has forwards Scott Groleau, senior Johnny Cleary (Avon) and MacAllister Stambaugh (Farmington). Stambaugh, Percival says, is one of the quickest skaters in the state.
Junior forward Tyler Stoneman, also from Farmington, finds a way to fill the stat sheet without flash.
“We probably have five, six, seven forwards that can take over the game at any given minute,” Percival said.
So there’s a lot to look forward to this season, even if it means it won’t wind up at Yale, where the semifinals and finals of high school hockey are played.
“It’s not kind of season we hoped for but at least it’s a season,” Percival said. “We’ll make do.”
GIRLS ICE HOCKEY
Simsbury High (Last year’s record: 17-1-2)
First-year head coach Dave Olechna, takes over the Trojans after a highly successful 2019-20 season that saw Simsbury win the conference title and advance to the state semifinals before the shutdown.
Key returning players include junior forward/defender Molly Walsh, junior forward Mackenzie Chapman, senior goalie Tori LaCroix, and junior defender Anna Kahl, all of whom will have to cover for the loss of Grace and Anna Melanson, Mackenzie Lynch, Abby Harris and Sofia Marcktell.
Secondary scoring could be an issue for the Trojans, at least in the beginning of the season as the team gels.