Pictured: Middletown guard Shadae Bushay, shown in a recent scrimmage vs. East Hartford, will start in the backcourt after a promising freshman season.
Middletown Blue Dragons At A Glance
Division: Class LL
Last season: 11-10, Class LL first-round loss.
2019-20 opener: Dec. 17, at E.O Smith of Storrs, 5:15pm
Home opener: Dec. 20 vs. Farmington, 6:45pm.
Key players lost: C Dominique Highsmith, F MacKenzie Dunn, Jr. G Kya Mayo (injury, All-CCC Honorable Mention)
Key players returning: Sr. F Ayanna McCalla, Sr. G India Weston, Sr. G Deziar Rose-Daniels, Soph. G Tyah Pettaway, Soph. G Shadae Bushay, Jr. G Aysia Henderson.
The blueprint for the Blue Dragons’ season needed reworking when junior guard Kya Mayo, their top returning player, tore her ACL on the summer circuit. Middletown’s depth has taken a hit with Mayo unable to play this season.
“Kya was the glue to our team,” coach Rob Smernoff said.
“Our returning players, they all had roles that we felt they would be comfortable with, but with the loss of Kya, now it’s another step up the ladder for them,” he added. “Kids who we thought could score six or eight points now have to get double digits. We lost two to graduation, then Kya to injury, so roles have changed. And the quicker they get used to those roles, the better we will be.”
Middletown will forge ahead with its up-tempo offense, led by sophomores Shadae Bushay and Tyah Pettaway in the backcourt. Three seniors – Ayanna McCalla, Deziar Rose-Daniels and India Weston – will be major contributors, as will junior post players Aysia Henderson and Travyonna Jefferson.
Jefferson is a transfer student from SMSA. Under CIAC rules, she must sit out the first 10 games and will not be eligible to play until Middletown’s Jan. 17 game at Simsbury.
Smernoff will be easing a couple of first-year varsity players into the mix, too.
“We are counting on some younger kids now,” he said. “We could go eight or nine deep based on the development of Jenaya Salafia, Jada Bryant and Alexa DeSena. I’m hoping they all can step up later down the line.”
As was the case last season, Bushay will be the Blue Dragon to watch. She is a shooter and plus defender who got significant minutes as a freshman.
“Shadae is a player that, her freshman year we weren’t sure whether she would be vocal. She’s gotten a little better at that,” Smernoff said, “but by time she graduates she should be an all-conference player and maybe an All-State player.”
In the Blue Dragons’ scrimmage against East Hartford last week, Bushay had the assignment of guarding one of the top players in the state in guard Shailyn Pinkney.
“There definitely were times in that scrimmage when she was playing Pinkney toe to toe for long spurts,” Smernoff said.
Middletown will face the Central Connecticut Conference’s top-tier teams after again finishing in the top two in the South’s Colonial Division. The Blue Dragons open the season at defending CCC champion E.O. Smith, which is expected to contend for the 2020 Class L title.
Four of the conference’s strongest teams – E.O., Windsor, Bristol Eastern and Berlin – are on Middletown’s schedule. The Blue Dragons also face St. Joseph and Hall in the Canton Holiday Tournament later this month.
“I think we can match up with most of the teams on our schedule,” Smernoff said. “The thing that will be difficult (for MHS’ opponents), we don’t have a player that is not capable of scoring. Most teams you see in high school, there is one kid you can cheat off of. (In the East Hartford scrimmage), all five kids on the floor can put ball in the basket.”
There is still the question about team depth, and with Middletown known for its aggressive defense, Smernoff said his players have to be cognizant of getting into foul trouble.
“We have to be smart defensively because if we get in foul trouble, we will be in trouble,” he said. “That is a concern for most coaches.”
Without Mayo, Smernoff has not pushed specific goals with his squad. Middletown won 11 games last season, or just enough to be a sliver better than .500.
“I think sometimes if you have most of your squad back, and you have a good player coming in, you can set those types of goals,” he said. “But this year it is more about getting better each day. We tell our kids, if you get a little better each day on and off the court, then the results will take care of themselves.”