SOUTHINGTON — The tears flowing in the Southington boys basketball team’s locker room were understandable.
So, too, was the optimism going forward.
While Southington’s breakthrough season ended Thursday night with a heartbreaking 56-47 loss at Xavier in the second round of the CIAC Division II state tournament, these Blue Knights and their first-year head coach turned around a program that had hit rock bottom a year ago.
“I’m super-proud of this group, everything they’ve accomplished,” said 53-year-old head coach Ed Quick, who took over the Southington program this year after six seasons in charge of Newington High School. “There is nobody else I’d rather coach.
“People can win all the state titles they want. To me, every day was a state title with this group of kids,” Quick added. “They are special.”
Quick’s words came after Southington had squandered a 16-point lead on the road to see its season end at 16-8.
A year ago, 16 was on the other side of the win-loss column. The 2022 Blue Knights, decimated by the mid-season departure of several starters, lost their last 12 games to finish 4-16, well out of postseason contention.
This year, under Quick, the Blue Knights put together one of their most successful seasons in over a decade. Their 14-6 regular season, followed by 1-1 trips to both the conference and state tournaments, matched the 16-8 performance of the 2011 team.
In the intervening years, only the 17-8 squad of 2018 had a better record. That team followed up a 14-6 regular season with a 1-1 performance in the league tourney and 2-1 trip to the Division III state quarterfinals, Southington’s first trip to the Elite Eight since the 2002 team (15-8) knocked off No. 3 Wilbur Cross in the second round.
The 2023 Blue Knights seemed on their way to extending the season into next week with another quarterfinal appearance. They scored the first 10 points Thursday night and were leading No. 5 seed Xavier by double digits for much of the night.
Ultimately, No. 12 Southington succumbed to a flock of Falcons led by Anthony Parker. The All-SCC guard came into the game averaging over 27 points a contest and wound up scoring 29 thanks to a 23-point second half.
Xavier took its first lead with 5:15 left in the game.
Aidan Buck gave SHS its last lead with a corner 3-pointer with 4:46 remaining. The Blue Knights, however, made just one shot over the final four minutes to allow the Falcons to win going away.
How the 2022-23 season ended, however, shouldn’t overshadow what this SHS team accomplished.
“They created the right approach, how to compete every day: to go 1-0,’” Quick said.
Quick preached going “1-0” every day at practice. It was a mantra his players brought into. The mindset of winning the next game carried the Blue Knights to 16 wins.
“They’ll go 1-0 in college and 1-0 in life because they learned about accountability and effort,” Quick said. “You can have a bad day (like tonight) with great kids, but you can’t have a good day with bad kids, and we have great kids”
Quick arrived on the SHS basketball scene this summer and instantly instilled a culture of commitment.
He took over a program that saw all three seniors quit last year’s team following a 24-22 loss at Simsbury in the eighth game of the season. Then junior Luke Penna also left the team, leaving Buck and Ricky O’Neil as the oldest Blue Knights on the squad.
Buck and Ryan Hammarlund, both named All-CCC this year, were joined in last season’s starting lineup by three sophomores. As a result, the Blue Knights were overmatched on a nightly basis.
This year, however, the same core of players who lost 12 straight games to finish last season were a different team from Day 1.
Quick’s style of play was evident. With Penna rejoining the team, Southington scored 25 points in the first eight minutes of an eventual 86-48 season-opening win at South Windsor.
Quick also credits injured seniors Caden Marzi and O’Neil for helping create a culture that carried the Blue Knights into the second round of the state playoffs.
SHS easily qualified for the state playoffs and also earned a spot in the highly-competitive conference tournament. There, the No. 9-seeded Blue Knights went to Hall and erased a 16-point deficit and won in overtime before falling to top seed and eventual CCC champ East Catholic in the quarterfinals.
Southington then started the state playoffs Tuesday night with another comeback. Down 19 points in the first half and 15 at halftime, SHS beat Crosby 66-64.
And if a team’s success is measured by its failures, this team has nothing to be ashamed of. Southington’s eight losses this season were all to state playoff teams.
In two of those losses, the Blue Knights played the state’s top two Division I seeds tough during CCC play. Southington led No. 1 East Catholic at halftime in the CCC Tournament quarterfinals and was down by just four minutes to play at No. 2 Northwest Catholic in an eventual 66-59 loss to close the regular season.
On Thursday night, however, the Blue Knights found themselves on the losing end of a postseason comeback.
“It’s not about basketball; it’s about not being able to put that Southington jersey on again; I love those guys,” said a teary-eyed Buck, who led Quick’s free-flowing style of play at point guard and also scored 15 point a game.
“I can never be more proud to put on a Southington jersey,” Buck added. “I really mean that.”
“I just hope those guys keep working; they have the perfect leader (in Quick),” Buck continued. “I know they are going to do great things next year.”
While Penna (who averaged nearly a double-double) and Buck are graduating, the Blue Knights return three starters in Hammarlund, John Flynn and Carson Lentini. They return three more juniors who came off the bench this season: Ian Beierle, Dan McGetrick and Johnny Cessario.
Sophomores Connor Crist and Andrew Morikis both starred for Southington’s junior varsity team and saw varsity minutes. Freshmen Justin McCaskey and Morikas’ younger brother Alex were on the postseason roster.
Hammarlund figures to be next season’s leader. A two-year varsity starter, he’ll return as one of the area’s top guards after scoring 14 points a game as a junior.
“It’s tough to process what’s next,” said Quick. “But these guys were a pleasure to be around every day. They were maintenance free, which is a credit to their parents.
“They came into (the season) with the right mindset; they wanted to compete,” Quick added. “They raised the level of expectations. Nobody is going to be in this program without the right mindset, because that is what we are about. What (the seniors) established for our program and town and community, it’s just going to get better and grow because they paved the way.”
As for Thursday night’s tough loss?
“39-38: That’s exactly where I thought we’d be with four minutes left,” said Quick, referring to Buck’s triple that gave SHS its last lead.
“We played a terrific first half, obviously. I just think we missed some shots and Parker did a great job taking over the game,” Quick added. “I’m not upset, not upset at all. It’s disappointing, but in a state-tournament atmosphere we’re up 1 with four minutes to go. We just missed shots, turned it over and Parker did his thing.”
Parker, when not muscling his way into the paint for hoops, found open Falcons under the basket for easy baskets. Xavier also got multiple second-chance points down the stretch that thwarted any SHS comeback.
Southington saw its 27-16 advantage at halftime whittled down to 36-31 entering the fourth quarter, where Xavier then outscored the Blue Knights 25-11.
“I know we got up early, but there was no doubt that they were going to come,” Quick said. “And when they made a push, we had to make the next two or three plays. It just seemed we never had the ability to do that.”