With winter in the rear-view mirror, we at the R-J got one more taste of winter hardwood on Wednesday when the first class of All-Record-Journal Girls Basketball Team was brought together.
There was a young vibe from the starting five.
The was a lone elder stateswoman: Platt senior point guard Jasmin Mitchell.
Then came a trio of high-scoring sophomores: Maloney’s Melanie Polanco, Southington’s Janette Wadolowski and Sheehan’s Lexi Ocasio.
And last, but not least, Lyman Hall’s Reilly Campbell, tops among a promising crop of area freshmen.
To narrow down to five is never easy. There were plenty of others who excelled and are certainly worthy of honorable mention. Southington senior Natalie Wadolowski and Sheehan senior Cassie Strickland certainly come to mind.
Cheshire senior Ciara Haensel and freshman Mia Juodaitis also received consideration. Southington junior Maggie Meehan, Lyman Hall freshman Kailey Lipka and Sheehan freshman Olivia Robles all had strong campaigns.
After a memorable winter, here is a closer look at the first class of the All-RJ Girls Basketball team.
• Sr. PG Jasmin Mitchell, Platt
It didn’t take long for Platt coach Tina Gonyea to understand why Mitchell excelled in her first three years at Maloney before switching over to the West Side for her senior year.
It wasn’t necessarily her knack to beat an opponent off the dribble or get to the rim at will. It also wasn’t her ability to drain shots from distance with great consistency.
No, it was something you wouldn’t see unless you saw her at practice every day.
“She worked her tail off,” Gonyea said. “She would be the first one in the gym. T.J. (Platt assistant and former head coach Tom Johnson) and I were there 25 minutes before practice. She was out there practicing, working on her shooting and her all-around game.
“Some girls are waiting for the very last minute before getting on the floor. She was the first one out there. That is why she is the way she is. She works hard and loves basketball.”
Mitchell is a soft-spoken leader who let her game do the talking. She led the Panthers in scoring with 12.2 points per game and was at the top or near the top of every other category despite facing a box-and-one on a nightly basis.
“She is extremely quick, deceivingly quick. She sees the floor well,” Gonyea said. “She’s a quiet leader and she works her tail off. She was unselfish.”
More importantly for Mitchell, she led the Panthers to their first state tournament appearance in five seasons.
Mitchell was introduced to the sport by going to the park as a younger girl with her father.
“As a freshman, I realized I was decent and realized I could play with these girls,” Mitchell said. “I felt I could take girls off the dribble. I love the intensity of the game and that any can change at any moment.”
The switch in schools likely denied Mitchell the chance of reaching 1,000 career points. The senior finished 102 points short. At the pace she had a Maloney, she would likely have gotten to the magic number, but she said the chance to make the state tournament was worth it.
It was a quick stint in the Class L brackets. Platt went up against No. 1 New Fairfield and lost 64-32. Mitchell scored 22 of Platt’s 32 points.
She also showed her ability to show up on the big stage when she was named L/LL East team MVP at the CHSCA Girls All-Star Basketball Festival.
“This is a great honor,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t expecting any of this at all and it’s a pleasant surprise.”
Mitchell left her mark in Meriden. If an All-RJ Team were named in previous years, she most certainly would have been a multiple winner.
• So. G Melanie Polanco, Maloney
In the wake of Mitchell departing Maloney, Polanco emerged as the Spartans’ next star in a big way.
The guard broke out by averaging 17 points per game and was far and away Maloney’s biggest weapon.
Polanco is lethal off the dribble and can finish in transition. She is also blessed with a silky smooth jumper.
“I think I did pretty well,” Polanco said. “I have to work on a few things, but next year I will be better.”
Polanco developed her love for basketball at a young age. She moved to Meriden three years ago from Ponce, Puerto Rico and has adjusted well to life in the Silver City. She especially feels at home on the hardwood.
“It was a hard adjustment for me because I had to learn the language,” Polanco said, sounding like she has lived in the U.S. her entire life. “But I worked hard and I have gotten better at speaking English.”
Polanco said she plays for the memory of her father Melvin, who died when she was just 3-years old. Her father had a love for basketball and it is something that continues with Melanie.
“My dad was a basketball player and, in my heart, I’m doing this for him,” Polanco said. “He was an awesome basketball player in Puerto Rico. I remember him. I remember him like it was yesterday. I love the passion of the sport.
“I play to make my family happy,” she added. “Being on the court makes me happy as well.”
• So. G/F Janette Wadolowski, Southington
A year ago, the Blue Knights and their fans were denied Wadolowski’s freshman season due to a season-ending knee injury.
Wadolowski made up for lost time with a monster sophomore season. The guard-forward shredded the competition for 17.8 points per game.
As a grand finale, she poured in a season-high 32 points in Southington’s Class LL second-round loss to eventual state runner-up Greenwich.
Wadolowski said she was ready for her high school debut.
“Sitting out every game and watching everyone else play is one of the hardest things you can do,” the sophomore said. “You just wait and sit around and do nothing for a year. The motivation was there. I was working hard every day to come back. I was ready to hit it this year.”
Wadolowski was the leading scorer on a talented 20-5 Southington squad. She played alongside her older sister Natalie, a three-time All-CCC forward.
“It was so fun,” she said. “To be able to have a sister bond with someone on and off the court was one of the greatest experiences of my life. But we were all like family on the team. We all grew up together.”
The Wadolowski sisters will be together on the softball team for the defending state champion Blue Knights when that sport gets started next week.
Wadolowski points to a double-overtime contest against E.O. Smith and her performance against Greenwich as her personal highlights of the basketball season.
“Every game I just try to play my hardest,” she said. “I was just trying to do my best for the team. I wasn’t playing for myself, but playing for everyone else around me. I wanted to make the team and the school proud.”
Wadolowski hopes to get to 1,000 points and eventually earn a scholarship like her sister. Natalie Wadolowski is heading to Boston College to play softball.
“I’ve learned so much from my sister and what she has gone through,” said Janette.
• So. PG Lexi Ocasio, Sheehan
Ocasio burst onto the scene last year. She started as a freshman and looked plenty comfortable in her role this season with the Titans.
The sophomore is lethal off the dribble and has the ability to get to the foul line with ease. She even surprised herself with her production.
“I came in off of injuries over the summer and I didn’t expect to have the season I had,” Ocasio said. “I set goals for myself and a lot of times I don’t have confidence in myself. I did some games I never thought I could have done.”
Ocasio, who averaged 11.5 points per game, canned a pair of technical free throws in the closing seconds to break an opening-night tie in a win over Hillhouse.
She also canned a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime on Feb. 6 in a 61-56 victory over Jonathan Law.
“Those were great moments, but my proudest moments are the team wins,” she said.
Ocasio plays basketball 12 months a year and is continually trying to get better. She occasionally enjoys watching basketball on TV, but loves nothing more than being on the floor.
“When I watch, I pick up different things from different people,” Ocasio said. “I looked up to (Stephen) Curry for his 3-pointer. I look at his drills and do his drills. I watch Avery Bradley from the Celtics, too. My dad and I watch his defensive drills. When I play, he tells me to be a pest and play defense like A.B.”
With two years left at Sheehan, Ocasio has lofty individual and team expectations.
“The next two years we are thinking about getting more girls involved and having more of a lively atmosphere and get the team camaraderie better than the last two years,” Ocasio said.
For now, Ocasio is going to enjoy what the Titans accomplished.
“When my coach (Mike Busillo) called me, I was in shock,” Ocasio said of being named All-RJ. “It feels good that all of the work you put in all of the time and all of the sacrifices you make are recognized by not only you teammates, but by others as well.”
• Fr. C Reilly Campbell, Lyman Hall
Campbell out-performed her high expectations coming out of the middle school and AAU ranks. She scored 20 points in her first varsity game and never looked back.
The freshman was the focal point of the Trojan offense and defense from the opening tip and opponents were forced to take notice.
Campbell was a double-double machine throughout the year. She poured in 15.9 points a game.
Her highlight of the season was her first Sheehan-Lyman Hall experience. LH won the Jan. 15 epic at Sheehan 49-47 when Campbell hit a bucket at the buzzer. It’s a moment she won’t soon forget.
“I still watch the video of me going to hug my mother,” Campbell said. “To beat them on their court was amazing and it was my first Sheehan-Lyman Hall game and it was great to set the tone.”
Campbell, an outgoing freshman, learned the ropes by playing with her senior sister McKenzie. The elder Campbell assisted Reilly on her game-winning shot at Sheehan.
Reilly Campbell shot up five inches over the summer before seventh grade at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School. The growth spurt transformed her from a point guard to a center by eighth grade.
Campbell, who also plays volleyball, has since grown an inch or two each summer and she’s hoping she’s not done. She now stands 6-foot-1.
She’s comfortable playing anywhere on the court and that versatility makes Campbell difficult to stop. She has the ability to knock someone off the block for a tough rebound and then drive coast to coast for a layup. Those attributes make Campbell unique.
“One thing I really like about my game is that I can go on a team and be whatever they want me to be and adjust to that,” Campbell said. “It’s cool that I can flip-flop any position on the floor.”
Like all five of her “R-J” teammates, Campbell was humbled by her selection.
“It’s awesome to be recognized, especially in my freshman year,” Campbell said. “This was a great way to start my high school career.”