SOUTHINGTON – The Southington High School gymnasium is full of championship banners. The one banner lacking its share of titles belongs to the boys basketball team.
That could change if the Blue Knights continue their current upward trend under fourth-year head coach John Cessario.
Southington prepared Friday for its CCC quarterfinal game Saturday at Bulkeley at 1 p.m. against Simsbury. Fresh off a 35-30 upset of Wethersfield – Southington’s first conference tournament win in six years – Cessario assessed his Blue Knights’ progress.
“I’ve got to be honest, I try not to smile too much,” Cessario admits. “We try to stay humble. But these guys work hard. They really, really do. And they are starting to reap the benefits of that hard work. And I’ll tell you what, that’s a life lesson that we want them to carry with them after hoops.”
Southington won its 15th game Thursday night in the first round of the CCC Tournament, avenging a double-overtime loss to Wethersfield in the regular season. And just how competitive was the CCC this season? The Blue Knights carry an 11-seed into Saturday’s quarterfinals, but will be a seventh seed in the CIAC Class LL Tournament.
Win or lose Saturday, Southington is making its second straight trip to the state tournament. A year ago, the Blue Knights were seeded 31st in Class LL after just missing the CCC Tournament via a tie-breaker with Manchester. Southington is 24-17 the past two seasons after winning just 11 games in Cessario’s first two seasons.
Then again, Cessario took over a Southington program that went 1-19 in 2013-14.
“You could see it was going to be a process,” said 6-foot-2 senior forward Jeremy Mercier, who as a freshman started the final six games of Cessario’s first season (6-14). “Coach emphasizes defense, as you can see from allowing just 30 points last night. He is a very defensive-minded guy. We need to get stops that translate into offense.”
Such was the case against No. 6 Wethersfield, as the Blue Knights won a defensive struggle. Southington held the Eagles to just 2-of-11 shooting from behind the 3-point arc and, needing stops down the stretch, turned a 28-27 deficit into a win by limiting Wethersfield to just two points in the game’s final 5:21.
“We pride ourselves on our basketball IQ,” Cessario said. “We are not the guys who dunk on every possession. We don’t have Division I guards. We have to grind it out and make sure we are smart enough to recognize opportunities that present themselves.
“We are doing things for each other that give us opportunities to win. (The seniors) have done things to make them who they are. They are getting after it every day.”
Cessario has been part of similar rebuilding projects as an assistant or head coach. But nowhere was the transformation more obvious than his seven seasons in charge of East Windsor prior to coming to Southington.
Coming off a state championship, East Windsor bottomed out upon Cessario’s arrival. The Panthers went 47 games before winning with Cessario on the sidelines. But when he left East Windsor for Southington, Cessario exited following a 23-2 campaign in 2013-14.
“That seismic shift (at East Windsor) was all about the kids’ commitment,” said Cessario, who served as an assistant coach at Newington, Berlin and East Catholic before taking on what he called the East Windsor project. “There is a big difference between being interested and being committed. If you’re interested in something, you’ll do it when it’s convienant. But if you’re committed, you’re doing something every day in every way — not just for yourself, but for that group of guys that you want to represent.
“Here (at Southington), even though there are considerably more boys to choose from, I don’t think there were a lot of guys playing basketball at the levels they should have been.”
A proponent of Southington’s youth basketball programs, Cesarrio helps coach Southington’s sixth-grade travel team, which just happens to include son Johnny. But when he arrived at the high school, Cessario noticed a basketball program that lacked grassroots.
Senior Andrew Lohneiss, who leads the Blue Knights in scoring (16.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.8), never played at Southington’s highest level of travel basketball. But he knew things were about to change with the arrival of Cessario.
“You could definitely tell that (Cessario’s) mentality came through all three coaches,” said Lohneiss. “We knew what was coming once we went up to JV and varsity.”
“Lohneiss is a self-made player,” a proud Cessario said of his 6-1 leader. ”He was probably the 10th man on the freshman team. But he has completely shifted his game to not just unselfish, but very aggressive.”
Mercier is one of three senior starters, along with Lohneiss and 6-4 forward Tim O’Shea, who had tasted success off the basketball court and wanted more on it. O’Shea also played football at Southington, which boasts multiple CCC divisional crowns and three state titles – including back-to-back LL titles in 2013 and 2014.
“O’Shea cane to me after his sophomore season and said, ‘Coach, I want to be part of something that we know we changed, something big,’” Cessario recalled.
Long known for its success not only on the football field, but also on the baseball and softball diamonds, Southington hasn’t won a boys basketball CCC title since 1998. The Blue Knight boys have never won a CIAC title in basketball.
Whether that changes with Cessario in charge remains to be seen. But it’s clear the Blue Knights are headed in the right direction.
“I wanted to get the right people representing the uniform,” Cessario said. “We’ve got 32 of the most incredible kids that I’ve been associated with in 24 years of coaching.
“One of our three rules is being a great teammate, and being a great teammate is an all-encompassing statement. If you can hook each other up, that assist is worth two points; that rebound can lead to a fast break. We look to make each other better. Doing what we have in our last six games (all wins), we feel like we have taken steps to get into (tournament) games. And now they get to enjoy it.”