MERIDEN — In lieu of a “Run to the Sun,” Connecticut girls basketball was all about the conference chase in 2021.
That, and the masks.
And the mask breaks built into each quarter like TV timeouts.
No matter what happened on the court, this winter was going to be unforgettable.
As it turns out, the basketball was pretty good, even if we didn’t have any conference champs emerge from the local roost.
We did have four semifinalists: Sheehan and Cheshire in the Southern Connecticut Conference, Southington and Platt in the Central Connecticut Conference.
And we had two divisional co-champs in the regular season: Sheehan in the SCC East, Southington in CCC Region B.
We had a conference player of the year. That was Sheehan center Caitlyn Hunt, who took home top laurels in the SCC East Division.
Hunt was joined on the All-Conference teams by a handful of locals, most of whom you’ll find here on the All-Record-Journal Team.
Above all, though, what’s to be trumpeted most is the mere fact there was a season. It may have been delayed by two months, it may have lacked a state tournament, but it came to pass with only minor disruption.
Lyman Hall had to sit out the first two weeks of preseason in quarantine. Once back, the Trojans, like every other area team, played a full 12-game regular season. Most also played two postseason games.
It could have all shut down in a snap. Instead, it went into the books. Presenting the final page: the 2021 All-Record-Journal Girls Basketball Team.Sheehan
From a purely basketball point of view, the pandemic arguably affected the Titans most of all.
They’d made the the 2019 Class M final. They’d made the 2020 Class MM quarterfinals when the tournaments were shut down. They were a good bet to contend for a state title in 2021, had there been one to contend for.
Instead, the Titans must take solace in the fact that they put together four years of sustained excellence behind the trio of center Caitlyn Hunt, point guard Caitlyn Velez and swing player Hayleigh Lagase.
All three capped their careers with All-Conference senior seasons. All three will go on to play in college — Hunt at Western New England in Massachusetts, Velez at Randolph Macon in Virginia and Lagase at Georgian Court in New Jersey.
Hunt, the reigning Record-Journal Player of the Year, again led the area in scoring, this time at 12.9 points a game.
Hunt, Velez and Lagase: In their four years in Burgundy & Gold, the Titans went 68-22, including 12-2 this year.
On the night the 2021 season ended with a loss in the SCC Division I semis to eventual champ Hamden, Sheehan coach Mike Busillo said, “I’m sure when we look back and reflect in a few days, we’ll realize we accomplished a lot.”Lyman Hall
Due to the two weeks they lost to quarantine to start the season, the Trojans (4-9) always seemed to be playing catchup.
They also seemed to be playing every other day. In fact, in the final analysis, they did, playing 13 games in a span of 26 days.
Talk about a grind.
LH was led by seniors Brianna Mik and Natalie Panagrosso. Both were named All-SCC East Division.
Panagrosso, a center going on to play at Colby-Sawyer in New Hampshire, led the Trojans with 11.2 points and 7.5 rebounds a game.
“Natalie had a great year for us as she became one of the best post players in the SCC,” remarked coach Tom Lipka. “She improved a lot since her freshmen year due to her focus and work ethic in practice.”
Mik, a guard, was solid on both ends of the floor. The team’s top outside shooter, she averaged 9.3 points while also grabbing 5.8 rebounds and 3.7 steals a night.
“As a four-year varsity player, Bri improved herself on the defensive end and also became a leader for us this year,” said Lipka. “Her focus during games was outstanding.”Cheshire
The Rams went 4-10 in their first season under head coach Angelica Ariola, a former assistant of Busillo’s at Sheehan.
Cheshire did enjoy a late-season surge, particularly at the expense of Lyman Hall. The Rams twice beat the Trojans in close games, including 31-29 in overtime in the SCC Division II quarterfinals.
That sent Cheshire on to the semis, where a loss to eventual champ Sacred Heart Academy awaited.
Had junior guard Grace Lurz not missed four games, it’s fair to say the Rams would have picked up a few more wins along the way. The All-SCC East selection averaged 12.6 points a game, second in the area only to Hunt.
Lurz scored a season-high 24 on Feb. 13 against East Haven. More than that, Lurz brought a competitor’s edge to the club. She’s the one who made a steal and went the length of the floor in the closing seconds of overtime to give Cheshire that quarterfinal win over Lyman Hall.
“It is clear through Grace's ability to score, court vision and defensive aggression, she brings a momentum boost to our team every time she steps on the court,” Ariola said. “Throughout the season, Grace’s value was not measured only by statistics, but by her mental toughness and mental strength when things were not going in her favor.
“Grace has focused on her mental strength and, for that, she is truly turning into the leader we need her to be.”Platt
The Panthers (5-9) went out battling, beating Rocky Hill in the CCC Bracket 3 Tournament before falling to Hall in the semifinals.
It was a worthy finish for veteran seniors Wallica Bailey and Ja’Lexia West, who both averaged 11 points a game this season.
West nearly averaged a double-double for the season. The 5-10 forward pulled down 126 rebounds, just shy of 10 a game.
As it was, West had three double-double games against Bulkeley/SMSA (12 points, 16 rebounds), Rocky Hill (13 and 11) and Middletown (11 apiece).
“For Ja'Lexia, when she puts her heart into a game, she can accomplish great things,” said coach Tina Gonyea.
West made All-RJ for a second straight year. This is the first for Bailey, who was a repeat All-CCC player.
The guard averaged her 11 points while also grabbing 5.2 and 3.0 steals a game. She scored a season-high 19 points against Middletown, the toughest team on Platt’s schedule.
Gonyea lauded Bailey for her consistent playing on both ends of the floor every game, regardless of the score.
“She was my senior captain and led by example, always,” Gonyea said. “Her hard work and great attitude has earned her All-Conference honors for a second year in a row, and she is very well-deserving of it. She is a role model for us who will be missed immensely.”Southington
Big games bring out the big players.
On the night Southington traveled to Farmington with a share of the CCC Region B regular-season title on the line, it was senior point guard Livvy Pizzitola who put the Lady Knights on her back with a season-high 25 points that carried them to victory.
The following week, in the CCC Championship Bracket Tournament, fellow senior Allison Carr stepped to the fore.
Showing the athleticism and competitive fire that made her a two-sport standout Carr earned Southington a quarterfinal win over East Hartford with a steal and three-point play in the final minute, then went down swinging in the semis against eventual CCC champ Newington with 11 points, 10 rebounds and seven steals.
Southington finished 11-3, and Pizzitola and Carr both came away All-Conference. They also come away All-RJ.
Pizzitola led the team with 11.9 points a game and 3.9 assists. This is her second turn on our team.
In the estimation of Howie Hewitt, who coached Maloney boys basketball for 33 years before coming to Southington in 2019, Pizzitola ranks among the top leaders he’s ever coached.
Pizzitola, in fact, was the first player Hewitt met after he was hired to coach the Lady Knights. It was at a travel tournament at Connecticut College.
“She impressed me that day and she continued to impress me everyday from that point on,” Hewitt said.
Of Pizzitola’s senior season, Hewitt said, “If you could measure effort, she would have played more minutes that we played. She’s as good a leader as I’ve coached and she doesn’t really say too much in that leadership role. Surely, she leads by example.”
As for Carr, she averaged 8.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 steals. She was also adept at the hustle plays — deflecting passes, interrupting the flow of opposition offfenses.
It was that sort grit that made the athletically gifted Carr one of Southington High’s top all-around athletes, girl or boy.
“That’s how I introduced her on Senior Night,” echoed Hewitt. “It’s true. Not only is she a good athlete, she’s so competitive. She just takes advantage of all her talent. I think it’s an acquired skill to be a real good competitor.”
Write that down. What’s true for Carr is true for all 10 of our All-RJ girls basketball players for 2021.