The is an excitement around the area gyms as the new girls basketball season dawns.
Like last year, there is no shortage of marquee players.
Sheehan has a pair in senior point guard Lexi Ocasio and junior forward Liv Robles. Across town, Lyman Hall point guard Kailey Lipka returns as the Trojans leading scorer.
Southington star Janette Wadolowski, who is heading to Tufts University, will once again be leading the Blue Knights. Maloney four-year starter Melanie Polanco hasL 1,000 points in her sights as she prepares for her final year with the Spartans. Cheshire returns its entire starting lineup with a healthy Mia Juodaitis primed for her her junior campaign.
Ocasio, Wadolowski and Juodaitis are among the top players back from last year. There are also plenty of promising underclassmen ready for the big stage. Here’s how the picture shapes up for the seven area squads.
The Rams went 5-15 overall and 1-7 in the SCC Housatonic a year ago in Michelle Viera’s first season as head coach at her alma mater. About half of those losses were by close margins, and the Red & White look to turn that around this year.
A few factors may tilt the tide the way of Cheshire. The first is the return of leading scorer Mia Juodaitis, who missed the half of last season with a fractured ankle. Juodaitis, a junior, has started for the Rams since entering Cheshire High.
Juodaitis finished sixth in the area in scoring last year at 12.9 points per game in 11 contests.
The second big reason for some excitement is the Rams return their entire starting lineup. Senior point guard Julia Schaff was Cheshire’s second leading scorer last year at 7.9 ppg. Fellow senior guard Sara Mulligan netted 6.2.
Juodaitis, Emily Yonych (5.8 ppg.) and Brady McQuade (4.6) are in Cheshire’s frontcourt.
“We were competitive last year despite our record,” Viera said. “We want to pull out those close games. With experience and my second year as head coach, the girls have an understanding of my expectations. We are hoping the disappointing losses in those close games could turn into victories.”
Juodaitis is ready to continue her role as Cheshire’s leading scorer, although Viera warns that the Rams have a variety of weapons.
“I think she has the capability to be the leading scorer, but she has a strong group around her,” Viera said. “The burden doesn’t have to fall on her shoulders. She’s a talented and strong scorer, but she will have support.”
Senior guard Mia Pulisciano and junior guard Jade Barnes also saw plenty of minutes last year and return for the Rams, who are captained by seniors Schaff and Mulligan.
“Sara and Julia work well together,” Viera said. “Sara is a hard worker that pushes everyone to do their best. Julia is a great communicator and brings the best out of the team.”
Viera said the senior class is a close group that has played a lot of varsity minutes, many since their freshman year.
“I like the intensity and grittiness so far this preseason,” Viera said. “We’re excited. It’s a rare situation where you return such a talented group of players. I’m pleased with the situation we are in. The SCC is always packed. Our expectations beyond last year’s record, but we know night in and night out we are going to face lot of competition throughout the league.
“We have the potential to be one of the better teams in the division but we have to earn that right,” she added. “But so far. So good.”
The Trojans were young last year and performed well down the stretch to pile up 13 wins, to the surprise of some. LH lost second-leading scorer Sabrina Smith and her 9.3 ppg. The Trojans will also be without Alexa Eves and her strong defensive and rebounding prowess.
But junior Kailey Lipka returns for her third year as the Lyman Hall point guard. Lipka was the fifth leading scorer in the area (14.6). She also drilled 53 three-pointers.
Coach Tom Lipka, who is six wins away from No. 150 for his career, said the team will use junior Lindsay Lipka and sophomore Hailey Bruneau at times to free up some more shots for Kailey Lipka.
“We want her to became more of a scorer and sliding to more of a 2 to get some more shots off,” Coach Lipka said. “Kailey was great year for us last year. We need her to continue to step up and be a leader, being the point guard, but a scorer as well.”
Unlike last season, the Trojans are an experienced bunch this year. Seven of the nine players Coach Lipka plans to employ this year have logged lots of varsity minutes.
Senior guard Elise Hastings, senior forward Kelly Fernandez and Kailey Lipka are all returning starters. Sam Carbone, last year’s top reserve, will slot into the starting rotation. Lipka hadn’t decided on his fifth starter yet.
“We have experience,” Coach Lipka said. “That’s something we haven’t had the last few years. We won 13 games last year and many of those were close games.Sabrina scored about 10 points per game. We have to find some scoring.Hailey Bruneau has the ability to be a good scorer. We have the pieces in place. I’m excited about the rotation. We are deep this year.”
Coach Lipka said his team succeeded in crunch time last year because of strong team chemistry and he sees the same trait in the 2017-18 team. Hastings, Fernandez and Carbone are the squad’s senior captains.
LH nabbed second place in the SCC Oronoque last winter and expects to be in contention again.
“We want to contend for our division,” Coach Lipka said. “Hand and Hillhouse are good. We want to contend and get to the state tournament and win a few games. We want to get better every year and this was a year we were looking forward to with our scoring and defensive standouts on the roster.”
The Spartans went 4-16 in John Vieira’s first season at the helm. Viera brought a uptempo, full-court pressure brand of hoops to Maloney last year and it will continue this winter.
The centerpiece again for the Spartans is senior Melanie Polanco. She averaged 15.7 points last year and has 750 for her career. Barring injury, Polanco should eclipse 1,000 midway through the season.
“Kids like that don’t come around often,” Vieira said. “Skill-wise, she is unbelievable.”
Polanco (15.7 ppg) was slowed by an ankle injury during the volleyball season. She will be ready to go for basketball.
“I expect her to have another big year,” Vieira said. “Hopefully, she doesn’t have to do as much scoring.”
Polanco, fellow senior guard Dasia White and sophomore forward Courtney Ubaike are returning starters.
“Dasia is looking great so far,” Vieira said. “She’s really taken on a leadership role. She’s the most intense player on the team. In the first scrimmage we were struggling with energy early in the game. I pulled her aside. We had a chat and whatever she said to the team worked. She’s becoming a leader out there.”
Ubaike started all but one game as a freshman. Sophomore point guard Liv Aitken also drew some starts as a freshman last season.
“Liv is looking very good,” Vieira said. “Going in, we felt we brought her up too soon and too fast last year. Going in this year, we were going to give her more JV time to work on more fundamentals. But from Day 1, it was like a switch flipped. Talk about leadership, intensity and quarterbacking the team. I don’t see her playing any JV now. She’s looking great. She has a ways to go, but from where we expected her to be, she has exceeded that by far.”
In the past, opponents have employed a box-and-one and double teams on Polanco and Vieira is expecting that to continue. The Spartans will try to find ways to take the pressure off Polanco.
Classical Magnet transfer Ivori-Gem Johnson, per CIAC rules, will join the Spartans after sitting out 10 games for switching schools.
“She’s going to be an impact player,” Vieira said. “It’s not often you get a impact player to transfer in. She will be a 10-12 point player.”
Maloney will be without Nicole Freeman, who moved out of state before her senior year.
“She was a great contributor for us,” Viera said of Freeman. “I would love to still have her, but I wish her the best of luck. We have a couple of kids that can fill that spot of the point guard and the perimeter shooter role.”
Also in the rotation for the Spartans are seniors Rowena Gordon and Jaylynn Muniz as wellas juniors Alexa Papallo and Patricia Sanchez-Rodriguez, a transfer from Puerto Rico.
The Spartans also welcome 12 freshmen into the program, with three or four expected to move up to JV before too long.
Maloney’s goal is to make the state tournament for the first time since 2012.
“They talk about it all the time,” Vieira said. “They want states and respect. My goal is to make states every year. That’s pretty much what Tina (Gonyea) has built at Platt. They make it every year and I want that as our standard. My goal is also to get a home game at states. That’s something on our minds as well.”
Vieira said Maloney aggression will continue this winter.
“That’s how I like to play,” Vieira said. “I love it when we are trapping and moving together as one like five fingers on a fist. Offensively, I look to spread the floor. I’m not big on stopping them and running offensive sets. I’m a big defense guy. I would say our opponents scoring average was just under 40. If our scoring goes up we’re looking to have a big year. It’s definitely promising.”
The Panthers are young and inexperienced, having graduated the bulk of their starters and their top two scorers.
Coach Tina Gonyea said she expects a balanced scoring attack this year. She will be relying on senior forwards/captains Madison Chatman and Kiara Lopez to carry the offensive load out of the gate.
The Panthers also expect to see some varsity minutes from a trio of freshmen: Wallica Bailey, Jalexia West and Elizabeth Franco.
“I think they can add a lot,” Gonyea said. “I’m counting on them to grow up fast. They have great size, ablitiy and speed, and they love basketball. You can tell they play it all year around. They stay late and ask questions, and that’s always good.”
Gonyea said she will be leaning heavily on returning senior point guard Martha Chatman.
“She’s matured since last year and is emerging as a leader,” Gonyea said. “She’s making everyone hustle. A team leader is what you want in your point guard.”
Platt will have some size. Lopez and Bailey are both 5-9. Sophomore Jaylene Guzman, a key reserve, is 5-10.
Guard Kisandra Santiago and wing Julia Misner, both juniors, are also back after logging minutes last season.
“I’ll always say we want to be better than last year no matter who is returning,” Gonyea said. “That’s always a goal of ours. Speed will be a team strength. We are fast. Our weakness is inexperience.”
The Titans bring back a deep, talented team after an 11-12 campaign last year.
Four-year starting point guard Lexi Ocasio returns from a knee injury that sapped her much of her junior year. Ocasio (9.1 ppg) and junior forward Liv Robles (11.3 ppg) will provide the bulk of the scoring this winter.
The competition is fierce across the roster. Ocasio, Carolyn Biel and Sydney Hunt are the senior tri-captains. Biel was a starter in the post last season. Sophomore Caroline Dighello filled in admirably for Ocasio as point guard last year.
Junior Mackenzie Hemstock also returns from a season-ending injury. She will also figure into the mix in the backcourt.
“I still think the bulk of our scoring would come from Ocasio and Robles,” coach Mike Busillo said. “If you told me on a certain night someone else went off for 18 or 20, that wouldn’t surprise me. I just think we have some players who have that ability. We are going to lean on Lexi and Liv. That’s the way we are going to operate early, but we don’t discourage the girls from taking open shots.”
Junior center Alyssa Horobin returns to add height to Sheehan’s depth. Busillo also has a large crop of underclassmen.
“No doubt that the freshmen will see some minutes,” Busillo said. “I believe in getting them out there. We are going to throw them into the deep end of the pool. If they earn their way onto the floor, they are playing.”
Busillo said as many as 12 players can see minutes this year and he admitted picking a starting lineup will be difficult.
“In years past, our starting lineup was set and stagnant,” Busillo said. “This year, I could see a number of different combinations. Hopefully, my players understand that nobody is entitled to start or to minutes. You have to earn it on a daily basis. With the depth we have, if you don’t play well or don’t practice well, we have kids that are ready to step in those roles. You have to compete to stay on the floor. That’s how it should be.”
One area of improvement Busillo said he would like to see is on the defensive end. In preseason, he said, it’s been a “work in progress.”
That said, Busillo is looking forward to the season.
“We have a nice mix of veterans and younger players. I’m excited for these seniors and Mackenzie is coming back. I’m excited Liv is going to continue her career. I‘m excited about the sophomore class and the freshman class. I’m as excited as I’ve been in a long time, but we have a lot of work to do. We certainly are looking forward to a good season. We can do some things, but I’m happy where we are right now in early December.”
Ocasio is 350 points from 1,000.
“She’s been unlucky with injuries, but that’s well within her reach,” Ocasio said. “You never know how the scoring is going to pan out. Losing as many games as she’s lost the last two years, it’s going to be a challenge. If it happens it happens. She’s had a great career regardless of what happens. She just wants to win games. She’s not a selfish kid and isn’t going to force the issue.”
The Blue Knights are paced by senior captain Janette Wadolowski. The All-RJ player poured in 15.9 points per game in 15 contests despite suffereing a broken hand.
Along with 2016-17 area leading scorer Maggie Meehan (20 ppg) and Hartee Meier, Wadolowski led the Blue Knights to the Class LL quarterfinals as a No. 23 seed. With Meehan (Williams College) and Meier (Marianapolis Prep) gone, Wadolowski will have to carry the load as the lone senior on the roster. Coach Mike Forgione is more than happy with her leading the way.
“I couldn’t ask for a better leader than Janette,” Forgione said. “She has taken it on as a challenge. She not only supports the other girls on the floor, but she coaches them up and shows them what they are doing wrong. I couldn’t think of a better role model for this team as a leader.”
Wadolowski will run the point, taking up the reins from Meehan, who held the position for four years. Wadolowski has 685 points for her career despite missing her entire freshman year and substantial time last year. She scored 446 ponts as a sophomore, so 1,000 is well within her sights.
“Janette can play the 1-through-5,” Forgione said. “She’s our LeBron or Magic Johnson.”
Forgione will start the season with an eight-player rotation that includes six underclassmen. Junior guard Kristen Longley is the only other upperclassman on the roster. Guard Bri Harris and forward Madison Hulton saw ample minutes last year as freshmen. Harris played in all 24 games and Hulton in all but two.
Sophomore forward Megan Mikosz is also among the regulars along with a trio of freshmen, Kelley Marshall, Alli Carr and Livvy Pizzitola. Marshall, a forward, currently projects into the starting lineup along with Wadolowski, Longley, Harris and Hulten.
Harris has missed the last week with an ankle sprain, but Forgione hopes to have her back soon.
Southington will endure a grueling schedule to start the season: RHAM, Hall, Glastonbury and Farmington. The Blue Knights have moved to the CCC West Colonial with Conard, Hall and Northwest Catholic.
“People are going to have to be patient with us,” Forgione said. “For the first time in my career, I’m not concerned about the score, but how we develop as a team. We want to make improvements and the schedule right off the bat should pay off down the road. I don’t know that many teams have a tougher four games to start the season.
“We have a lot of potential. We are so young you can’t expect some kids to take over a game. Everyone has to do their part and, hopefully, that will help me pull out some games.”
Rob Janiga enters his first full season with the Tribe after taking over for Sue Perry after two games last season. The Indians have also moved out of the dissolved CSC into the newly reformed CTC.
The Tribe return leading scorer and senior captain Sam Petro (11.4 ppg). The point guard is the heart of the Wilcox offense.
The Indians also return second- and third-leading scorers, senior Nicole Tiezzi (6.6) and junior Tatiana Gonzalez (6.0).
“We are gong to have to do some creative things to make sure Petro is not doing all of the ball-handling and all of the scoring," Janiga said. “We want to free her up a little bit because it’s too much for one person to handle. She can play anywhere on the court and is in great physical condition, but you can’t play one or two on five. We can’t have her carrying the entire load the entire time.”
Janiga said he is looking for others to step up in addition to the returning starters.
“We have people that can play when everything falls into place,” Janiga said. “I want to get them more focused on the task at hand and play better defense and more precise offense. I will think we will be OK.”
For goals, Janiga said he wants his girls to compete, wins or losses aside.
“We have 15 kids and I want them all to be better basketball players by the end of the season and I want them to be competitive in the position we put them in,” Janiga said. “If that means going .500 or winning more than we lose, I want to be able to compete at that level.”