SOUTHINGTON — Successive state championships have polished Southington’s image as a football town.
Baseball has its niche, with major-league achievers like Rob Dibble and Carl Pavano, legendary head coach John Fontana and a slew of deep tournament runs.
Basketball has suffered in comparison. The Blue Knights have wavered between whipping boy and upstart in contemporary times. Last season’s 1-19 effort flirted dangerously with rock bottom.
New coach John Cessario knows rock bottom. He coached at East Windsor High seven years prior to his Southington appointment where he endured two winless seasons and a 47-game losing streak before turning the program around.
When the Knights lost their first seven games of this season, the losing streak hit 25. A win over Hall on January 13 shrieked like a foghorn through the mist. The fog began to lift with a three-point win over longtime CCC nemesis New Britain 10 days later.
Now, the sun is shining as bright as it has in a long time.
The Knights have won three in a row, starting with a seven-point road win over unpredictable, but competent Bulkeley. Miraculous wins over Farmington and Northwest Catholic followed last week.
The last time Southington won three straight was 2010-11, when Tyler Dube, Jordan Chapman and Sal Romano took time off from football and baseball to anchor a winning team.
Cessario is making progress. Only time will tell if history will record the recent success as a turning point. Cessario knows he’ll have to meticulously and assertively construct a foundation in order to shape that history.
“Basketball is a different game — the timing, the chemistry, the need to be physical, the need to control the flow of the game, knowing the fundamentals. These are requirements you have to have with your teammates,” he said.
“I’m a true believer that we’re starting to see that with some of the younger kids going to summer camp and playing in summer league. Winning will breed that, but we’ve got to work hard.
“In the CCC, you can’t take a night off. I guarantee that people thought playing us would be a night off. We’re learning to hit back after we’ve been hit.”
The Knights, needing three points to tie Farmington with just a few heartbeats left, settled for two. With only 1.5 seconds remaining, Cessario called a timeout, imploring the Knights to try and force a five-second violation.
“We were denying like crazy,” he said. “Kyle [Borawski] got a tip and the tip started going in the direction a shot would have gone. It was like a simultaneous tip and shot. [Farmington’s star guard Trey Witter] grabbed his arm and the ref called a foul as the buzzer went off.”
Borawski, an integral part of the football team’s receiving corps, was far from a lock to extend or end the game in the Knights’ favor. He had made just two of his previous 10 free throws.
“No time left on the clock and he banged both,” Cessario said. “I think about it and watch it on film and I still stutter. It’s one of the more miraculous scenarios. I was wondering how we’d respond in our next game.”
The Knights had only 24 hours to think about it. Northwest Catholic hadn’t lost to Southington in the 11 games the teams had played since the West Hartford school joined the CCC. The Indians won this season’s first encounter by 15 points.
“I said in the huddle that I’d know within two minutes if we let yesterday’s success go to our heads,” Cessario said. “But we went punch for punch with Northwest.”
The game went two overtimes.
“We were playing with a lot more confidence,” he said. “We were taking care of the ball. We were rebounding. We weren’t hesitating on open looks. We were like the little engine that could.”
They could and they did, 56-52.
Senior Mike Pagano is the focal point of the resurgence. The multi-dimensional swingman is averaging over 20 points per game, about 42 percent of the team’s output. Mike Taylor has matured at the critical point-guard slot.
“His turnovers have gone down dramatically,” Cessario said. “He’s getting more comfortable.”
Borawski and Nate Blitz have evolved into productive starters.
“We’ve provided [Blitz] with the responsibility of being our starting two-guard,” Cessario said.
“He’s hit some big baskets and had a great steal that started a fast break against Northwest. He’s got the highest basketball IQ on the team. He’s done everything we’ve asked.”
Cessario is anticipating the return of senior Brett Shaw. Shaw suffered a concussion in the second game and it’s pained the coach to watch the final days of his career dwindling to a precious few.
“When he comes back it will have been worth the wait,” Cessario said. “He wants so badly to contribute. He’s done everything he’s supposed to in regard to concussion management. He wants this to end right.”
Qualifying the Class LL tournament would be right as rain, but the path is ominous.
The Knights are 5-10. A difficult home game with Simsbury looms Thursday. They travel to last-place Hall Saturday afternoon. Newington (14-2) and CCC South-leading Bristol Central (11-4) follow. The regular season concludes with revenge-minded New Britain lurking at home.
One way or the other, Cessario and company have earned some attention in a town that generally seeks hibernation from scholastic sports come winter.
“Improving on the little things has gone a long way,” Cessario said.
“We’re in the midst of something we’re really enjoying.”
Read more articles like this and help support local journalism by subscribing to the Record Journal.
Unlimited Digital Access just 99¢
Read more articles like this by subscribing to the Record Journal.
Unlimited Digital Access for just 99¢