COLUMN: CIAC basketball “Final Four”

I thought I had a good idea going into championship weekend at Mohegan Sun, but now that I saw a majority of the teams play it doesn’t look so good.

I had always thought that a Connecticut high school basketball “Final Four” would be a cool idea.

I want to see who the real number one team in the state is by playing a game. The four teams that win a championship would them play each other to determine the true “state champion.”

It would be an interesting idea, but doesn’t make any sense.

I watched the Class M and LL boys championship games on Saturday at Mohegan Sun and wow! there is a huge difference. I thought Weaver was a top team in the state coming in, but they got handled pretty easily by East Catholic. Then I stayed for the nightcap to see what all the hype was about and the game lived up to its billing.

Either of those two teams, Fairfield Prep or Bridgeport Central would dominate any other team in the state, it wouldn’t even be fun to watch.

The top of the smaller three classes are pretty similar, with probably M and L being the closest in talent level, but LL is far and away the best in the state.

My idea would have had maybe the LL winner play the M winner and then S and L play and then the winners play in the finals, but we already know Central would destroy East Catholic and then most likely Windsor. They are loaded with talent.

I never really understood why the CIAC divided schools up by size, but now I do. If you have a large pool of kids to choose from, you will have a better chance of having better players.

Although it is all about money so, whataya say CIAC? Can we make this happen?

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COLUMN: DCT Sports top 3 games of 2014

As some of you may know, I started writing for GameTimeCT during the second week of February. Because of this, I can’t write a “top basketball games of the year, because I started late. So here are my top three basketball games I saw in 2014.

#3: February 10 – South Windsor vs. East Catholic

The first game I covered as a member of GameTimeCT was the girls South Windsor at East Catholic in Manchester. It took me all day to figure out which game I was going to cover, but when I finally noticed that South Windsor was undefeated at the time and they were playing an East Catholic team that had won four in a row and played the Bobcats closely in the first game they played.

The No. 3 team in the GameTimeCT/Register rankings that week, came out strong, but the Eagles stayed close enough to make a move in the second half. In the fourth quarter, East Catholic was down 47-45 before scoring six straight to take the lead for the final time, handing the Bobcats their first loss of the season.

South Windsor went on to play in the Class LL state championship game, losing to Lauralton Hall.

#2: February 11 – New Britain vs. Newington

This is the second game I covered, but that’s not the reason I chose it.

I didn’t know much about the rivalries in the CCC, but I figured this would be a good one. I walked into the gym at Newington High School and could feel a buzz. It wasn’t the buzz of that in Mohegan Sun this past weekend, but it was there.

The stands filled with student section from both towns and the trash-talking started.

New Britain was the eighth ranked team in the GameTimeCT/Register poll and sat atop the CCC standings. Newington jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, led by freshman guard Jared Simmons, one of the best freshman I saw play this year. He attacked the Golden Hurricanes inside and out. Four 3-pointers were made in the first quarter, the second best first quarter scoring performance I saw this year.

It would have been a great game if Newington ran away with this won, but the more impressive part was New Britain coming back and taking control.

The big three of Annuel Saint Juste, Curtis Hyman and Craven Johnson got the Golden Hurricanes back on the board and Hyman capped off the night with a huge dunk to seal the deal. The first of many I saw this winter.

New Britain won the CCC regular season title, but faltered in the tournament, losing to Weaver in the second round and then to Greenwich in the Class LL quarterfinals. Newington beat Hall in the state tournament qualifying round, but then had to play Fairfield Prep. We all know how that turned out.

#1: February 28 – Weaver vs. Middletown (CCC tournament)

This was the first time I saw Weaver play this season. I was asked to cover the game for the Middletown Press and happily obliged, not know what I was getting myself into. It was a good thing.

The 8/9 match-up in the CCC tournament would spark the Beavers into a rhythm that would take them to Mohegan Sun in the end.

Middletown took an early lead, but after a technical foul issued to Makai Hunter, Weaver made four free throws and the tides turned. The Beavers employed their full-court press forcing 14 steals, the only player they couldn’t stop was Brandon Simmons who scored 38 points, the highest point total I saw all season.

Weaver went on to win the CCC tournament title over Maloney and advance through the Class M state tournament with ease before falling to CCC North foe East Catholic at Mohegan Sun.

 

Honorable Mention: March 19 – Weaver vs. Lewis Mills (Class M semi-finals)

This may not have been the most exciting game or competitive, but the shear dominance is what impressed me the most.

Weaver had been the team throughout the tournament that no one wanted to play. Joe Morelli said this early on and the Beavers proved it to be true, winning their state tournament games by an average of 36 points.

In the first quarter, against the top-seeded team in the Class M tournament, No. 12 Weaver dropped 31 points, including seven threes on their way to the 89-33 semi-finals win.

Like I said, this wasn’t the best game to watch, but it was the most dominant. Three players for the Beavers scored at least 19 points, with KeAndre Fair leading the way with 20. Senior Josh Jones hit three 3s in the first quarter.

Although Weaver ended up losing the Class M title game in convincing fashion to fellow CCC member East Catholic

COLUMN: Good and bad of championship weekend

The CIAC state basketball championships at Mohegan Sun is always one of the most exciting weekends of the year for Connecticut high school sports and this past weekend was no different.

I got to the arena around 9:30 a.m. and for some reason I was surprised at the amount of people sitting in front of slot machines that early. As I was told later by Jimmy Zanor and Tom Yantz, there is no time in the casino.

I received my press credentials and found a seat court-side for the start of the day.

First up was the girls Class L finals, Capital Prep vs. Weaver. I had been following Weaver for a little while this year which made it more fun to watch this game with coaches and players I had gotten to know.

In the first half it had looked like the Beavers were going to knock off the No. 1 team in the state, but they had been at the top for a reason. They shook off the rust and ran away with the title.

The second game was the one I got to cover.

Honestly, this was the game I was most excited to cover, two CCC teams, including the No. 12 Weaver Beavers who had faltered early, but since Reggie Hatchett took over as coach midway through the season, lost just two games, including winning the CCC tournament and making other teams in Class M look silly on their way to the finals.

Well, they were the ones looking silly in the second half of the championship game. Weaver played like a 12 seed (which means nothing), but didn’t really have it together. They fell behind and didn’t know how to come back, losing their second straight finals game.

I made my way backstage to find the coaches and get some quotes before settled down in the media room to write. This was the real deal, real journalists from all over the state churning out stories and photos. I caught the end of the Thomaston/St. Paul girls Class S game on television. That looked like a great one.

Once I was done with my story and eating lunch with two people I look up to in the business (Yantz and Zanor) I made my way back to the court to watch some more basketball…and tweet until my fingers hurt.

The common theme of the day was the “underdog” getting an early lead and then the “favorite” coming back in the second half to win the title. That happened again with the girls Class LL game between Lauralton Hall and South Windsor. I saw the Bobcats played a few times this year, actually they played in the first game I covered for GameTimeCT this season. They are good, but the Lauralton Hall/Mercy rivalry I had heard about since last year’s championship game must have really prepared them for this game, coming back to take the LL crown.

The nightcap was the game of the ages.

I stayed, because I had heard so much about this undefeated Fairfield Prep team and their huge center, Providence bound Paschal Chukwu. I hadn’t looked around, but at one point before the game started I sat back and gazed through the arena. Wow! The place was packed.

The game tipped off and already had the feel of a heavyweight bout. Those kids were moving so fast and playing like their life depended on it. Threes were raining and Chukwu was defending the basket, scoring and dunking like no one else was in the gym. This was the game to see.

Late in the second quarter I turned to my new “friend”/co-worker Pete Paguaga of the Register Citizen and told him, “I just realized that I hadn’t looked at the scoreboard all game.”

Prep was up by double-digits, but I thought it was a one-possession game. It was that exciting and that fast-paced.

Once my computer connected to the WiFi again, I started tweeting again, just like everyone on press row, this was a good one…you had to be there.

You know the details now, Bridgeport Central came back from being down 19 to beat the “best team in the state” for the Class LL title. What happened immediately after the buzzer sounded was a different story and I had a first-hand look of the situation.

I’m lucky I wasn’t injured like a Central cheerleader was.

After the arena cleared out, a few people were hanging out behind the basket where this took place. EMT’s and a stretcher were brought in to tend to a cheerleader who had an apparent concussion and was not responding normally. This is what no one is talking about. Yes, the Hilltoppers may have pulled off the biggest upset in Connecticut basketball history and have every right to celebrate, but there’s a cost. There’s a reason why Mohegan Sun and the CIAC made it clear the no one would be allowed on the court to celebrate, injuries can occur. This time the players went into the crowd, trampled people, broke equipment and injured a classmate.

When did this become a respectable way to celebrate? Enjoy the time with you teammates, accept your trophy and medals like adults and then have a celebration, parade or whatever you want when you get home. Don’t jump into the crowd with no regard for the people who are there and come away injuring people. Multiple bodies were laying on the ground for an extended period of time while players jumped into the arms of classmates, taking their shirts off and celebrating. It got out of control and the security didn’t know how to handle it so they let it go.

When the mob cleared, I retrieved my backpack with broken headphones inside. A Mohegan Sun security person told me I should bill it to the school, which I wish I could, but when the Central administrator talked to me, he said it was a liability I agreed to working there and they weren’t going to do anything about it. Fine, I will get my headphones replaced either way, but when your school brings its own security, because you expect something to happen and it does and it can’t be controlled, something is wrong.

Thank god it’s baseball and spring sports season.

Lay off the referees

I’ve been covering high school sports for a while now, but more recently with GameTimeCT.com and have noticed one glaring problem with the whole thing.

The gyms are becoming more and more full, especially during tournament time, which means they are louder and louder. The students are coming out in droves to cheer on their friends and classmates, dressing all the same and making clever signs and parents are coming to the biggest games of the season.

These are the most pressure packed, stressful games these kids have ever played in, but you know who else feels the stress and pressure? The officials.

These people are not professionals. Sure they have been around the game for a while, taken the classes and passed the exams to be a certified referee, but they are not professionals. They have day jobs just like you and I. They get paid a small amount per game to do something they enjoy, be a part of the game of basketball.

That is why these people don’t deserve to be ridiculed and insulted non-stop for 32 minutes a night.

Parents are the worst offenders.

The student sections can be loud and they can come up with cheers for their team or against the opponent, but they don’t trash the referees like the parents do. I can’t even count the amount of times a parent has yelled at a game official over the last few weeks while they can’t say anything back. They are doing their job.

How would you like it if you were sitting at your desk and someone stood their watching you the entire day and insulted everything you did wrong? Every time you made a mistake, when you didn’t do something fast enough? That’s what the parents are putting these referees through on a nightly basis.

If they made every call that they should, the games would last four hours and every single point would be scored at the free throw line. The players wouldn’t break a sweat.

The best is when I hear, “That’s a foul!” on one end of the court and then “Let them play!” when the call doesn’t go your kids way. Then the player goes up for a shot under the basket, is blocked and is called for a foul, the parent yells, “Awful call!” But when their child is blocked cleanly, it has to be a foul on them, because their kid can do know wrong.

You have to lay off these officials a little bit. Of course they are going to make mistakes, maybe more than you would like, but you have to remember, this isn’t the NBA, this isn’t the Final Four where the best referees in the country are working. These are men and women who enjoy the game of basketball as much as you and I and want to be a part of the game for as long as they can.

Here’s an idea for the parents who think they can make a better call from the bleachers than on the court, “Parent Referee Night.” Why don’t we have a night where a couple of parents officiate the game to the best of their ability and see what it’s like. Be right in the middle of the fast-paced game of basketball trying to decide between a blocking foul and a charge while hundreds of people are yelling and screaming. Try to decide if the block was clean or if the shooter got hit on the wrist. Deciding not to make a call, because it would slow down the game too much or it wasn’t obvious. These are all things that an official goes through numerous times each game, while getting taunted.

The coaches are to blame too. I was covering a game recently where the coach said it was the worst set of officials he had ever seen. Yes, they may have missed a call, I will admit that, but again, this isn’t the NBA Finals, this is the CIAC State Tournament. Yes it’s a big deal to players and coaches, but the officials also take it seriously, so lets let them do their job and enjoy the game of basketball that these kids love to play.

What is wrong with CCSU?

If I actually knew, I would tell you, but I don’t, so here is what I think.

First, Matt Hunter is ineligible.

His first season in New Britain was fun. He filled the stat sheet every night and even set an opponent scoring record at Assembly Hall vs. then #1 Indiana. He looked to have a huge season this year and was doing it all again before becoming academically ineligible for the second half of the season, leaving 10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and a block on the bench. This was a huge loss for the Blue Devils who don’t have another player as dynamic as him to pick up the slack, but that’s not all.

Not soon after, junior “superstar” Kyle Vinales broke a finger in a weight room accident. This was probably the biggest loss Howie Dickenman could have dreamed up…and it happened. Vinales was again leading the team in scoring, minutes and even assists per game this year. Howie didn’t start him for a couple of games early in the year to show that he wanted him to become more of a team player and it seemed to be working before the injury.

Both of these losses seem to actually have helped the Blue Devils mature. Faronte Drakeford has begun to pick up the scoring along with Malcolm McMillan. The junior college transfer is averaging 16.6 ppg in Northeast Conference play while the captain and point guard is averaging 13.1 and 3.7 assists. Matt Mobley is a freshman who has really come into his own. He is the third averaging double-digit points in conference play.

What does this mean for Vinales’ return?

I hope he just adds his usual production and the Blue Devils can hold some of these leads they have had and possibly sneak into the playoffs. Obviously he is going to take away playing time from guys like Mobley and Khalen Cumberlander, but if they can all play well together and the bigs continue to rebound, this team can only get better.

It looked as if Brandon Peel had regressed some, but he is starting to rebound at his ability again and giving CCSU a presence down low, something they have missed greatly. Juwan Newman is another guy that has shown signs of “greatness.” If he can put it all together, the Blue Devils will be competitive in the NEC, but it’s looking more and more like “wait ’til next year.”

Basketball season is upon us

My first year covering high school football was a little rough. I may some mistakes with names, I still don’t have a good statistics system and I especially have trouble writing on deadline from a McDonald’s halfway across the state. That being said, it was a good experience.

Basketball season is upon us and although my favorite sport, baseball, doesn’t play until the spring, I am excited for basketball games.

Last year while I was working with Joe Pelletier at the Middletown Press for my internship, I covered a number of girls basketball games including Maria Wesleyj’s 1,000th career point night at Mercy, some Middletown High games, the Shoreline Conference semifinals at Coginchaug with Jimmy Zanor and the state finals at Mohegan Sun (Friday night). I missed the “shot heard ’round Connecticut” when Wesleyj hit the buzzer beater to win the Class LL championship for Mercy. Those were a great experiences and this winter I know I am ready to write some great boy’s and girl’s basketball stories for both the Middletown Press and Game Time CT.

I don’t know how much I will be writing, because I will also be at ESPN some nights during the week, but I will do my best to cover games for both of these outlets and collect scores from around the Middlesex County area and Shoreline Conference to increase my exposure.

In the Shoreline Conference, I look for Cromwell to repeat for the lone reason that they won last year and have the conference player of the year coming back, Janelle Harrison. The senior will be heading to the University of Hartford next year, but will carry the Panthers first this year. They will not go undefeated like they did last year, but are surely the team to beat.

I hope I can write enough and be called on enough to get back to Mohegan Sun in March for the state finals, that will be a solid season and over just in time for baseball season to get started.

Aside

Championship Weekend

I have done so much and so little since the last time I sat down to write, so let me fill you in…

Last Thursday I spent a few hours in the Middletown Press office putting together the “Tale of the Tape” for the state basketball championship games. The Press had three teams that we cover playing for a state title last weekend, Cromwell girls, Valley Regional boys and Mercy. Each team had their own story heading into championship weekend at Mohegan Sun, but one turned out to be one of the best stories in the history of Connecticut basketball.

The “Tale of the Tape” piece I did was some research on each team and their opponent. I may be a little slow with research, but it was a fun piece. Although it took a while, it was enjoyable, because that is something people who read the newspaper are more likely to look at rather than read the entire game preview.

The first story was the Cromwell girls basketball team. They went through the entire regular season without losing a game, they won the Shoreline Conference tournament and waltzed their way through the Class M state tournament on their way to Mohegan Sun where they met Notre Dame-Fairfield.

The second game of the night was Valley Regional-Deep River vs. Weston. Both of those teams had some pretty great stories heading into the finals. Valley Regional was the #5 seed in Class M. Two years ago, Valley won the Class S championship with Jon Luster and Co. this was the best four-year run in the school’s history regardless of a championship in 2013.

Weston was the #23 seed in the tournament and upset #10 University, #2 Kaynor Tech and #6 Enfield on their way to the finals. They had some setbacks early in the season including some injuries and their coach being forced to resign and then get reinstated later in the season. If Weston had won, it probably would had been the best story of the weekend, until Maria Wesleyj of Mercy stepped on the court.

The Mercy basketball team is arguably the best girls basketball team in the state. They had lost two games all season, both to Career Magnet, one of which being in the Southern Connecticut Conference title game at Quinnipiac University. I may have written about that a few weeks ago, but I can’t remember. Anyway, the Tigers had been to the state tournament finals three years in a row and lost all three games by a COMBINED 7 points. This year marked the fourth straight finals appearance  which is an amazing accomplishment alone, but for the five seniors on the team, they weren’t about to let the elusive title slip away again.

I covered one and a half Mercy basketball games this season, the first one I went to was the first night of my internship, I went with Cathy and met Jimmy Zanor there, because Weselyj was set to score her 1,000th career point. She did so just as we entered the gym. The second game I covered was on my own. Mercy destroyed Hillhouse that night, but the point of me covering the game was to improve. I talked to coach Tim Kohs and two players, Weselyj and fellow senior Jordyn Nappi (Weselyj is friends with my girlfiend’s sister and to this day she knows me as the awkward guy who interviewed her). That story was one of my favorite game stories I have written thus far.

Let me make this quick…

Cromwell defeated Notre Dame-Fairfield 42-28, although they did trail by 3 at the half for only the 2nd time all season. They finished the season 28-0, the first undefeated team since 2007. This was Cromwell’s first girls basketball state championship.

Valley Regional defeated Weston 52-45. Weston played the Warriors very tough and were even still within 3 points with under 2 minutes to play. This is Valley Regional’s 2nd state title in three years.

Now for the game of the weekend. I was not there due to a prior commitment, but trolled Twitter during the game. I actually lost track of time and checked my go-to social media site for game updates. At the half, Mercy trailed by 3. I was a little surprised, because earlier in the season Mercy defeated the same opponent, Laurelton Hall 66-47. I was with my girlfriend at the time and I told her that the game would probably come down to a last second shot by Mercy (I swear I said this, you can ask her if you want).

We went out to dinner and engulfed in conversation in Northampton, I completely forgot about the game until after it was over and we were about to leave the restaurant.

The game was tied at 51 when Laurelton Hall, the sister school of Mercy, took a 2-point lead on a layup with 3.8 seconds left. The story was writing itself, Mercy had made the finals four straight years and had lost by a total of nine points. That just couldn’t happen.

Sheena Landy stood under the basket prepared for the biggest inbounds pass of her life. She heaved the ball 3/4 the length of the court…Cassie Santoro caught the pass between three Laurelton Hall defenders…dished to the streaking Weselyj in front of the Mercy bench…Wesleyj launched a three-pointer as the over 9,000 people in attendance held their collective breath…SWISH.

Weselyj won the game as the final horn sounded. She just hit one of the biggest shots in the history of Connecticut high school basketball history. After losing the three previous years, it only makes sense that Wesleyj was the one to hit the shot heard ’round the state Saturday night. Described as one of the purest shooters in the state according to a Hartford Courant preseason “Top-25 Players to Watch,” it was her shot that brought the Class LL championship back to Mercy High School.

My girlfriend asked me if I was disappointed I wasn’t at the game and the real answer is yes, but if I was there, it wouldn’t have happened, that’s just the way things work. I went Friday night, because I wanted to see Cromwell finish an undefeated season and I wanted to see Luster play. I got what I wanted. You can’t predict anything like that and that is the beauty of sports.