Pictured: Senior co-captain Jonathan Nkonoki, with coach Rick Privott (right), is one of Middletown’s top returning players.
A look at this year’s Blue Dragons:
Coach: Rick Privott
CIAC Division: II
Last season: 7-13
2019-20 opener: Dec. 19, at Simsbury, 6:45pm.
Home opener: Dec. 27 vs. Bridgeport Central, 1pm.
Key players lost: Tejan Lanser, Steve Hill, Jamarius Russell, Soph. G Chace Petgrave (football injury), Sr. G Tyron Scharborough (football injury).
Key players returning: Sr. G/F Jonathan Nkonoki, Jr. G Mekhi Toler, Sr. G Kenny Fountain, Sr. G/F Donte Pope, Soph. C Elijah Wilborn, Soph. G Matt Steurewald.
Captains: Nkonoki, Pope.
Middletown coach Rick Privott has a dynamic team on his hands this winter.
The Blue Dragons’ attack will come at teams from all angles. They have an experienced backcourt with Toler and Fountain. Nkonoki and Pope can score inside and out, and 6-foot-5 sophomore Wilborn can make opponents think twice about going to the rim.
If their effort in scrimmage games against Manchester and Cromwell last week is any indication, the Blue Dragons are more than ready for the season to commence. At some point, Privott hopes he can go 10 players deep.
What’s not to like here?
“I’ve told my staff, we have the pieces in place that we need, we just need to develop the younger kids,” Privott said. “If we can stay healthy and grow and get better day to day in practice, I think we will be fine.
“I like the communication they have with each other. The kids seem to like each other they are excited about basketball. Just that unity that they appear to have is nice to see. I tell them, keep uplifting each other, don’t ever tear each other down, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
Translated: Privott thinks his team can be very good. At the very least, the Blue Dragons should make some noise in the ever-challenging Central Connecticut Conference.
Opponents this winter will see a lot of Nkonoki, Pope, Toler, Fountain and Wilborn. Toler and Pope can shift between the two-guard and forward spots, Fountain can play either the one or two, while Nkonoki can handle the ball, shoot and penetrate.
Off the bench, sophomore guard Matt Steurewald, who played varsity minutes last season, and Erin Strong, a junior guard who transferred in from Manchester, will help spell the starters. As the season picks up, Privott said going 9 or 10 deep “is realistic for us.”
“We have a lot of pieces there,” he said.
Privott also is pleased with the progress that Wilborn has shown at both ends of the floor.
“He is not even anywhere close to where I think his potential is. He’s got the skill set to be one of the better players in the state,” the coach said. “His offense is getting better and his defense is outstanding. He needs to continue to work and work hard at his game. If he does, and hopefully he continues to grow (from 6-5), he could be a beast.”
Middletown took its lumps last season while playing an impossibly difficult schedule, winning only seven games, but the experience could be valuable.
The 2019-20 schedule offers only two out-of-the-CCC opponents in Bridgeport Central and Bassick, and both come to Middletown. Bassick is a likely Top 10 team in the state.
The rest of the slate is all CCC, all the time, including reigning Division I champion East Catholic, Division I runner-up Windsor (widely viewed as the top team in the state) and Division II runner-up New Britain. East Catholic was the top-ranked team in the GameTimeCT season-ending poll, Windsor was second and Bassick fifth.
Middletown also has Simsbury, Glastonbury and East Hartford, teams that were ranked in the top 10 at one time or another, as well as Weaver and Bristol Central.
“The CCC is just a loaded conference,” Privott said. “The schedule doesn’t allow us any time to relax. You earn that schedule that you have in the CCC (based on past success). If you continue to do well, your schedule is going to reflect that, so prepare yourselves to continue earning it.”
Finishing one win shy of qualifying for last year’s state tournament left a bad taste for Middletown’s returning players. It came down to the season finale, a home game against Berlin, and Middletown lost 62-60, their fourth defeat of the season by two or fewer points.
“What they went through is making them hungry, because in speaking with the kids individually and speaking with them as a team, we point out, ‘you don’t want to feel like that again,’” Privott said. “You go 7-13 – I know I’ve never experienced anything like that. There were a lot of sleepless nights. The way we lost some of those games, we have to be smarter as well. They are upbeat about not repeating that performance.”
In what appears to be a scheduling quirk, the Blue Dragons have just five games over the season’s first four weeks, and they do not play at home until Game 4 (versus Bridgeport Central on Dec. 27). Privott said the Dragons are fixing to get started.
“As hard as we’ve been working, I can sense that they’re anxious to get the season going,” he said. “Practices have been tough, we’ve been going at it, going at it, installing this and that. In the scrimmages it was nice to see … ‘OK, this is what we’ve been working on,’ so they are excited for Thursday’s opener.”