WATERFORD — The tears told the story Saturday night. With big expectations comes big disappointment. But few thought the Southington boys basketball team would put itself in such a position.
This year’s edition of the Blue Knights exceeded most expectations by reaching the CIAC Division III quarterfinals. While Saturday night’s 80-70 loss at Waterford was a difficult end to the 2017-18 season, it was yet another sign that Southington’s basketball program is on the rise.
“(Southington) is a football town, but we put basketball on the map,” said senior Andrew Lohneiss, who led the Blue Knights in scoring and rebounding this season. “We knew we (seniors) had to lead and we had to motivate others to carry this on.
“I knew all along we could get this far, even further. We believed in ourselves, even if other people didn’t.”
Yes, Southington boasts multiple LL state football titles. It has also won state crowns in baseball, softball and other sports. But its basketball program has never won a state title and getting to the CIAC quarterfinals was a first since 2002.
Saturday night, an hour from home and in front of nearly 1,000 hostile fans, the Blue Knights played as though they belong in a game that was streamed live on the internet via Facebook and YouTube. Seventh-seeded Southington took No. 2 Waterford’s best shots all night and trailed by four points with just under two minutes to play.
Southington finished the season 17-8, winning its final five regular-season games and losing to Simsbury in the Central Connecticut Conference semifinals and to Waterford. Simsbury entered the CIAC Division II Tournament as the top seed, while Waterford was ranked as high as No. 8 in the state among all teams this season.
“Do you wish you can win a state championship? Of course you do,” Southington head coach John Cessario said. “You go in with expectations to play hard, compete in every game. That’s all I’ve said to them. And we competed tonight. We did what we had to do. It was us against the world. In a small sense, it felt like that.
“I just saw a picture (in the locker room) that I’ll remember forever. When you want something this special, it’s going to hurt – unless you’re that team winning it all. But hardships in life are something you have to deal with.”
Lohneiss – one of five seniors Cessario called the program’s “cornerstones” -- capped off his Southington career with 12 points. He had 28 points and 14 rebounds in Southington’s second-round win over North Haven.
Fellow senior Jeremy Mercier battled foul trouble Saturday night and had 10 points. He, starting center Tim O’Shea and Lohneiss won’t be around next season. Senior Cameron Clynes, who sparked Southington off the bench in Mercier’s absence, will also graduate.
But Southington’s backcourt will be back after this season’s surprising success. Cessario expects junior starters Ryan Gesnaldo and Colin Burdette to help “carry the torch” into next season. And Saturday’s moment wasn’t too big for point guard Burdette, who scored a team-high 18 points.
“This was the first time I played in this type of atmosphere. I liked it. It was probably the best game I ever played,” Burdette said. “We knew we could get this far. It wasn’t a surprise to us. We knew it from Day 1 that we had a shot to make it to Mohegan Sun. We are going to try to make it this far, if not further next year.”
What started with a “committed” group last July lasted until March 10. Southington wound up two wins from the state final at Mohegan Sun. Considering the Blue Knights hadn’t won a CIAC Tournament game since 2011, nobody outside the Southington locker room saw this season coming.
“Those seniors, which we will never forget, were ready,” Cessario said. “They were part of something that was bigger than themselves. They were part of something that has prepared them for life.
“They are individuals that others should emulate. This wasn’t for everyone, just the committed ones. I know I’ve said that before, but I want to enforce it. We look for guys who do for others before they do for themselves.”
After a shaky CIAC Tournament start Monday night that saw Southington fall behind Berlin 10-0 in the opening round, the Blue Knights rallied to beat Berlin in OT and then blew out North Haven to reach the quarterfinals. And despite falling behind by 14 at Waterford in the third quarter, Southington was within four points with 1:58 to play.
Southington’s resilience wasn’t lost on Waterford head coach Bill Bassett.
“They play a very disciplined style. They run through their offense very well,” Bassett said. “The way they move around the court together, you could tell they’ve played together. They were tremendous.”
Southington’s style this season was methodical, to say the least. The Blue Knights hung their hats on defense. In the CCC first round, Southington won at Wethersfield 35-30. On the season, Southington held teams to just over 50 points a game.
Without a blow-by guard or player bigger than 6-foot-3, Southington executed Cessario’s multiple sets on offense and beat most teams with execution and hustle plays. Waterford’s 80 points were a season-high against Southington, which didn’t allow a team to score over 60 points until Saturday night.
“They are committed. That’s a huge word when it comes to any sport,” Cessario said. “Investment. Time. Energy. It all sets you up for an emotional roller-coaster. And we went through that this season.
“They are going to grow (from this), not just as basketball players, but as individuals. I’m preparing these guys for the rest of their lives, not just for four years.”
Coincidently, four years is how long Cessario has been at Southington. He has witnessed first-hand the growth of the Southington program, which was coming off a 1-19 season when he arrived at the school. But don’t expect him to pat himself on the back.
“It’s not me. It will never be about me,” Cessario said. “It may be about me, for some. But not this staff. These guys (on my staff) know it’s not about us.”
Junior varsity head coach Mark Borofsky has been with Cessario since he arrived at Southington. His JV squad went 15-4 this season. Southington freshman coach Jarrod McMillian was 17-2 in his first season under Cessario.
Aside from the return of junior backcourt mates, Southington junior forward Adam Hunter should also benefit from key minutes this season. The 6-2 Jacob Flynn also returns after being slowed this season by a knee injury.
“It’s their time (now),” said Cessario. “There is a need to build on this. We only have four years to make kids feel like these guys feel (tonight). Yeah, they don’t feel very good right now, but they will understand what we are seeking from them as a team and as individuals
“Every day was an accomplishment. And that was the fun part. The smile on the drive home after every practice or game – win or lose – was because we’re making a difference with these guys. And these guys were there for each other. If you saw what I saw (in that locker room), it was almost re-assuring that we did the right thing. Almost. You want these guys to feel that ultimate thing. “
So the question remains, will the Southington boys basketball program soon hang a state championship banner next to those of the school’s more checkered teams?
“I think that is for others to determine. My goal is ensure there are more pickup basketball games than pickup football games and playground baseball games,” Cessario said. “I really appreciate what other (Southington) coaches do, but that’s for others to determine.”