CHESHIRE — In taking the court on Jan. 19, Cheshire High School girls basketball head coach Angelica Ariola already faced a series of changes beyond managing the coronavirus pandemic.
After leaving her assistant position at Sheehan to take the Cheshire position last summer, she had been preparing for the opportunity to take on a new role at a different school.
“The transition has been fine. My athletic director (Steve Trifone) and coaching staff are phenomenal,” stated Ariola, who has succeeded Michelle Vieira as Cheshire head coach. “The pandemic presents a few challenges. Being a teacher during the day (at Avon Middle School), I just have to carry protocols over to the gym.”
The CIAC originally scheduled winter practices to begin on Nov. 21 of last year, but when the state paused organized sports through Jan. 19 of this year, teams had to wait before getting together. On Jan. 14, the CIAC Board of Control voted to approve a winter sports plan with the guidance of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, medical professionals, and state officials.
For sports allowed to compete this season like basketball, contests can begin on Monday, Feb. 8. Cheshire opens on Wednesday, Feb. 10 at home against Mercy.
“It is really exciting to get started in the gym,” said Ariola. “We are all grateful to be out here and move closer to playing our first game.”
After posting a 6-15 record last season, Cheshire lost considerable experience in the graduation of co-captains Ari Perlini and Toni Wetmore, as well as Emma Watkinson and Rylee Post.
After four years coaching the Rams, Vieira also stepped down to spend more time with her family.
“It is important for me to build a rapport and relationship with my players,” stated Ariola. “I want to gain their trust on and off the court.”
From her first impression, Ariola feels that the Cheshire girls have a lot of heart and want to get better.
“They will take criticism and feedback to work on their game,” explained Ariola.
In returning to play in the pandemic, CIAC has asked basketball teams to wear masks in practices and games. To help players, mask breaks will be worked into games.
“It is a whole different feature added onto a sport that is demanding physically and mentally,” Ariola said. “We have given the girls extra water and mask breaks in practice.”
Ariola is also adjusting to the safety protocols.
“I don’t have a powerful voice at all. When you have a mask on, you need to communicate on a different level,” she said. “As a point guard in my playing days, being louder is one of the things that I had to work on.”
Before going into coaching, Ariola shined as a player at Holy Cross High School in Waterbury and Division III Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
“It is funny, because when I look back at the drills that I went through in high school and college, it all makes sense to me now as a coach,” said Ariola.
She feels that organizing a practice is similar to a teacher creating a lesson plan.
“It takes time to work on areas of strength and places for growth,” stated Ariola. “Being a head coach, there is more preparation than when you are an assistant.”
While unable to start practice until this month, Ariola got to know Cheshire players during Zoom calls.
“It was nice to see them all without masks,” said Ariola.
She has enjoyed communicating with returning seniors Hailey Beling, Kaylee Clark, Jordan DeMatteo, Sophie Vagts and Ella Watson.
“I think we have a great group of seniors,” stated Ariola. “In every drill, they lead by example and with their voices.”
Competing in the Southern Connecticut Conference Division C East, Cheshire will have 12 regular-season contests, including two crossover games. All teams will qualify for the SCC Tournament. There is no CIAC state tournament.
“We want to take each day one at a time and focus on our practice goals,” stated Ariola. “I’m not going to guarantee a certain amount of wins, but we are going to build skills and be competitive no matter who is in front of us.”
With Sheehan being a division rival, Ariola looks forward to facing her former team on March 5 in Wallingford.
“For the seniors on that team, I was there when they were freshmen,” said Ariola.