WALLINGFORD — For 43 years, it’s been the lone girls basketball banner on the walls of the Sheehan High School gymnasium celebrating a state championship.
Class L, 1975-1976.
The 2018-19 Sheehan girls basketball team is hoping to give that banner some long awaited company. Today, the No. 13 Titans square off with No. 2 Cromwell in the Class M state championship game at 3:30 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
For some inspiration and historical perspective, Sheehan coach Mike Busillo had the star player from that ‘76 squad, Cathy Inglese, speak to his team at practice on Thursday.
“I think it’s important if we embrace our history and, hopefully, bring another state title back to Sheehan on Sunday,” Busillo said. “She’s a great lady. Her sister (Nancy) actually teaches at Sheehan. She was on that ‘76 team as well. If you Google ‘Cathy Inglese’ and look at her Wikipedia page, you understand what kind of coaching career she had. She was unbelievably successful.”
Long before Google, Inglese’s playing and coaching exploits were well-chronicled in the Record-Journal. She was the first 1,000-point scorer in Sheehan history and continued her playing career at Southern Connecticut State. The 40 points she scored on the night of Feb. 20, 1980 against UMass still stands as the SCSU single-game record.
Inglese made her mark nationally as a college coach. She started at Vermont and, with the help of consecutive undefeated seasons, went 120-74.
Then Inglese moved on to Boston College. She was a Big East Coach of the Year and compiled an overall mark of 239-151 with the Eagles.
There was a subsequent stop at the University of Rhode Island. These days, Inglese is an associate head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson.
“I can’t believe I’ve been able to make a career out of basketball, and Sheehan and the coaches there gave me the opportunity to excel and play to my potential, and I really appreciate that,” Inglese said this week.
Inglese was on the ground floor of the implementation of Title IX, the federal mandate that extended sports to females.
The true ground floor, though, was hard-packed dirt. Inglese started playing basketball in the backyard with her older and younger sisters. Her first real chance to play organized sports was at Sheehan.
“That’s what made it so special. You never know how good you can be until you start playing,” Inglese said. “I think it was a great experience and I’m still great friends with a lot of my classmates and teammates. We had a good group of athletes at that time.”
Inglese was also a center-back on the Sheehan field hockey team and a centerfielder in softball. She’s quick to point out the state softball championship the Titans won in the spring of 1975, behind star pitcher Carol Morris.
It proved to be a prelude to the 1976 title year on the hardwood.
“I just loved the game of basketball,” Inglese said. “I was a small forward and loved playing since I was a kid growing up. I always had a basketball hoop in the backyard. It was on dirt and my dad put a hard top in. I was always in the backyard.”
Sheehan opened in 1971. Inglese entered the school a year later with a talented crop of female athletes.
“I think we were a team that could fast-break pretty easily,” Inglese said of the championship squad. “We ran set plays. We didn’t have a lot of them; we had five or six set plays. At that point, we were more of a zone defensive team. We would trap and press a little bit, but not a lot. I think we were a team that could fast-break. We had some speed. We could also execute in the half court.”
All the state tournament games in the 1976 state tournament were played on neutral courts. For the Class L final against Ledyard, the Titans were at SCSU.
“I had never heard of Ledyard before we played them,” Inglese said. “They beat Lyman Hall in the semifinals. It was almost a Sheehan-Lyman Hall final game. But the game was well attended. It was a good group of Wallingford people that came to the game. Even lot of people from across town that came to the game.”
They saw the Titans defeat the Colonels 61-45.
The 11 Titans in uniform that day were Cathy and Nancy Inglese, Lucy Slie, Nola Eddie, Patty Schlosser, Peggy Stalker, Pam Kroll, Cheryl Eck, Teresa O’Dea, Sandy Bernard and Nancy Baylor.
The late Erika Beerbaum, who became a member of the Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (Class of 1998) and the Sheehan High School Hall of Fame (Class of 2005), was the head coach. The team manager was Becky Olson.
Cathy Inglese was selected All-State in her senior campaign.
“She was very focused,” Beerbaum said about Cathy Inglese in a previous R-J story. “She was very much a team player. She wanted to get everyone involved, but she was such a dominant player that the rest of the team forced her to assume responsibility when the chips were down.”
The 1975-76 team established the program mark for wins in a season with 18. That record was broken by the 2000 squad that went 21-7 on its way to the Class M state final. The 2000 team, coached by Art Knapp, lost 53-48 to Morgan at Central Connecticut State.
The 1999-2000 team’s record win total will remain standing no matter what happens today at Mohegan Sun Arena. The 2018-19 Titans go into their game with Cromwell at 19-7.
“I can’t believe it’s still the only girls basketball championship,” Cathy Inglese said. “But that only makes it more exciting for this group here and now because it hasn’t been done in so long.”