MERIDEN — All five selections to the 2016-17 All-Record-Journal Boys Basketball Team exhibited great strides in evolving into multi-dimensional players.
Maloney senior Alejandro Ortiz was pivotal beyond more than just the 3-point line. Cheshire senior Drew Hart followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Heath Post to become the all-around player who can achieve at the next level.
Platt senior Kejoun West, faced with the task of replacing three players whom the Panthers expected to have on board, opened up his game to include every important facet of backcourt play.
Sheehan’s senior guard Kyle Brennan was the glue that kept the Titans together with his court savvy caught up, matching his natural talent.
Junior Lyman Hall guard Kevin Ransom has made the kind of progress in three varsity campaigns that could attract All-State attention next year.
Many others were considered. Jeff Massicotte and Damien Pantoja were instrumental in pushing Maloney into playoff position. Isaiah Jones and Tylon Papallo did the same for Platt.
D.J. Ransom, Will Pawlik, Devin Davis, Nick Milslagle and John Soto were instrumental in driving Wilcox Tech to a 16-8 season. Jeremy Mercier, Brendan Taylor and Andrew Lohneiss cleared the path for Southington to qualify for the Class LL tournament.
Matt Ottochian, Sam DeMaio, Eli Dyer and Ethan Fox had strong seasons at Sheehan. Lyman Hall captain Matt Hultgren will be sorely missed as the Trojans seek to turn the corner next year.
Honorable mention is nothing to sneer at — only five can be on the All-RJ floor — so a line had to be drawn.
Alejandro Ortiz, Maloney
Maloney’s season essentially was over. Middletown led the Class L first-round game by almost 40 midway through the fourth quarter.
Ortiz had just six points through three, but win or lose, he was going out with the sizzle that makes him one of the state’s premier athletes. He drained shots from no-man’s land on three possessions in a row and later added another to send a 21-point footnote to the soldout crowd.
Ortiz, who left the Spartans’ football program with every season and career receiving record, averaged 15.0 points per game. He finished with 649 points and 102 treys in 68 games. He scored a season high 27 against Lyman Hall on Dec. 31, the day the school and community named the court after coach Howie Hewitt and his predecessor Norb Fahey.
Ortiz evolved from a sophomore sniper to a leader with a full repertoire.
“Alejandro and Jeff Massicotte assumed the leadership roles on this year’s team. Their styles were different but effective,” Hewitt said. “Alejandro was more vocal and straightforward in his approach. He went from being a third option in our offense to the player the other teams felt they had to stop.”
Maloney (8-13) enjoyed the fruits of success when Ortiz was playing with Tracy Rumley and Jaron Cogdell. He knew from the start this year depended on his leadership. The program’s future was of equal importance.
“I wasn’t really worried about winning. I was really worried about picking up the underclassmen for future years,” he said. “I would like to win but I like to make players around me better.”
He said that Rumley, Cogdell and the upperclassmen pushed him hard as a freshman. They forged a prototype for leadership.
“When I came in I wasn’t as good an athlete as I am now,” he said. “They told me to keep working and my time would come. I kept listening to those guys. When we lost in the [quarterfinals] against Career when I was a sophomore, Tracy told me to keep my head up because someday this would be my team.”
Football is Ortiz’s sport of choice moving forward. He has grown to recognize just how important academics are and expects to attend prep school before entering college.
Hart stepped into the shoes of Cheshire’s 2015-16 All-R-J center Post and became a similar player, which undoubtedly will make Roger Williams University coach Mike Tully very happy.
Standing 6-4 with a solid build as a high school player often dictates a role in the low post, but Rams coach Dan Lee, as he did with Post, enabled Hart to evolve into a college-ready player. He expanded his range, establishing the 3-point shot into his game.
Hart averaged 15.3 points this season with 13 triples. His premium performance came just after Christmas when he scored 27 of Cheshire’s 45 points on 11 field goals at West Haven. He finished his career with 547 points.
He would have preferred a better team record (11-12), but the Rams dropped some early games by close margins as they tried to regroup from losing Post and charter All-RJ performer Dylan D’Addio. Their shift to the SCC’s Hammonasset Division meant two games each against Fairfield Prep, Xavier, Sheehan and vastly improved Guilford, so the schedule was unrelenting.
“We started off rough, but we were able to use that start to our advantage, gaining experience, and I think that helped us bounce back and go on a little run (6-2) in the middle of the season,” Hart said.
The harmonious nature of Lee’s teams became a backdrop in his development.
“Being around all my teammates was great,” Hart said. “I think this was the first time I felt like it was a brotherhood. You have your differences, but when you come for practices and games, you just put them aside.”
Hart follows his sister Jenna to Roger Williams. Jenna, a 2013 Cheshire High grad, led the RWU soccer team in scoring and leaves a second-team all-league player.
“I was looking between Roger Williams, Western New England, Eastern [Connecticut] and Gordon College,” he said. “I nailed it down to Western New England and Roger Williams and this week I decided to call the coach and tell him I was coming there.”
He expects to play forward.
“I’m probably a little undersized to play center, so I’ll probably play a four, maybe a three,” said Hart, who is preparing for varsity volleyball this spring. “I’ll try to find a summer league to play in or look up some drills online.”
Hart was named to the All-SCC second team.
West is an example of how adversity can build character. He transferred from Middletown High during his sophomore year and became an instrumental building block under the guidance of Platt coach Shawon Moncrief.
West played in a reserve role as a junior. When three starters that Moncrief expected back transferred away (All-RJ guard Isiah Gaiter to Sacred Heart; Romello Samuels and Damian Pantoja to Maloney), West joined Jones and Papallo at the head of the Panthers’ pack.
West came through as the team’s leading scorer (14.4 ppg., 25 threes) with his slashing style and leadership capabilities. His best performance came on Dec. 27 against Lyman Hall when he tallied 21 points to ignite a 93-point Platt explosion.
He scored 385 points in 34 games over two seasons at Platt. He collapsed defenses with drives that enabled him to lead the Panthers with 72 made free throws (70 percent).
“He was probably the most consistent kid we had as far as sticking to the plan and conditioning,” Moncrief said. “He really stepped up. He’s been here for the last three years and I’ve seen his growth as a human being and that’s going to help him out in life. He’s grown up a lot and I’m really happy for him.”
In addition to Moncrief losing three key components, West and those who remained faced the further misfortune of having no home games and multiple practice venues with Platt’s gym under construction.
“It was kind of rough not having a gym,” West said. “We really couldn’t focus on the stuff we needed to, like defense and shooting.”
The Panthers finished 9-12, bowing to Guilford in the first round of the Class L tournament,after logging a 13-10 mark last year and coming in with high expectations.
“[Gaiter] was our main factor last year,” West said. “The coaches really wanted him to succeed and go far. To see him leave, it kind of hurt us, but we had to live with it. [Pantoja and Samuels leaving] didn’t help either. We didn’t give up, but the kids that were there felt it wasn’t going to be the same.”
West hopes to attend Anna Maria College next year, but is prepared to go the prep school route as an alternative. He mentioned Shooting 4 Greatness Academy (S4G) in Raleigh, N.C., which numerous Meriden athletes attended.
Kyle Brennan, Sheehan
The fact that Brennan’s talent is augmented by exceptional communication and leadership tools paved the way for him to become a staple of the Titans’ program for three seasons.
Brennan led the balanced Sheehan offense with 269 points (12.2 ppg.). Other aspects of his game coalesced with his personality top make him the consummate teammate and a coach’s dream.
“It seems like Kyle’s been around forever,” Sheehan coach Joe Gaetano said. “If you look at the  state championship photo on the front page of the paper, Kyle was our ballboy. He’s just a great kid.”
As a sophomore, Brennan’s 33 threes established him as a perimeter threat, but he became much more than that. He averaged five rebounds, three assists and two steals per game this season while yielding most of the perimeter work to DeMaio and Ottochian.
In spite of basketball prowess that allowed him to score 697 career points (10.4 ppg.), he readily notes that baseball is his sport of choice. He’ll be playing at Endicott.
“I would say baseball comes first, but with basketball, I could always put my heart on my sleeve and show how much passion I have on the court and putting my body on the line for my team,” he said. “I’ll miss that. It was a great time and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The 75-69 overtime victory at home against Guilford was the season’s focal point. Sheehan trailed by seven with 54 seconds left. In the waning seconds, Brennan buried a 60-foot shot to tie the game.
“You never quit because of adversity,” Brennan noted as his foremost lesson from this season. “We ground back from deficits in multiple games. You’re not going to succeed if you’re not going to play as a team and we learned that [in the 2015-16 season].”
Brennan’s most productive outings were the two postseason games. He had 22 points vs. Hillhouse in the SCC Tournament;,19 vs. Brookfield in Class M. It helped Gaetano define his Titan tenure.
“He was a joy to coach,” Gaetano said. “Whatever we needed him to do, he’d do. He had some big games. He’s a gamer and, in my opinion, that’s the supreme compliment.”
Kevin Ransom, Lyman Hall
Ransom, the lone 2016-17 All-RJ underclassman, already has plenty of SCC coaches and defenders seeking the best way to contain him.
The jitterbugging junior knocked down 33 3-pointers, 112 two-pointers and 71 free throws, all team highs. The diversity of those totals disclose a guard that can score in a variety of ways.
“He can do it all,” LH coach Rob Ruys said. “He’s crafty. He’s spent a lot of time working on his game. He’s developed his left hand to where it’s almost his dominant hand. He’s developed a great pull-up [jump shot] and that makes him almost unstoppable.
“Defensively when he’s engaged, he’ll pick your pocket. And he’s a fun kid to have on the team. The guys love him. He had a great season and we’re looking forward to next year.”
Ransom fell six points short of 400 this year, which he surely would have achieved had the Trojans (5-15) qualified for the states. He sees them as a force next season.
“We were really young this year and we struggled with injuries, too, so I think we can be better,” he said.
As far as the torturous schedule that LH faces in the SCC, Ransom relishes the opportunities difficult games present. The two games against Class LL champion Hillhouse resulted in defeats by 46 and 50 points.
“It’s a challenge. They’re so athletic and talented, but even if you lose by a lot you get better playing against talented kids,” he said. “It’s just a good experience. It’s good to run with them. They’re the best players in the state.”
Ransom sent a signal by scoring a season-best 28 points in the opener against Shelton. He went for 27 against North Haven on Jan. 13, 25 versus Jonathan Law 10 days later and 24 against Hamden on Feb. 7.
He averaged 19.7 points, second in the Meriden area to Wilcox Tech’s D.J. Ransom (no relation). He scored 20 or more in 11 games and fell short of double figures just once.
Ransom plays soccer in the fall, but spends the offseason playing basketball with a Choate-based AAU program.