Pictured: Cade Ensinger, left, was at the forefront of the Warriors’ season as a leader and versatile player at both ends of the floor.
By Paul Augeri
Sometime this summer, whenever the time is right, coach Kevin Woods and his Valley Regional boys basketball team will get together one last time.
In past years, this would have happened in March, after the state tournament and before the start of the spring high school sports season. But 2020 hasn’t played to the norm.
When the Warriors do meet up, Woods likely will talk about the circumstances of a canceled tournament, what might have been for his team’s title chances and how much he’s appreciated each player over the years.
He also will have a parting gift for Cade Ensinger, one of nine members of a special Valley senior class.
The team’s MVP Award.
This would surprise no one.
If Aedan Using of Old Lyme was born a year later, Ensinger would have staked his claim as the top all-around player in the Shoreline Conference. It was Using though, who was the Shoreline’s Player of the Year after leading the Wildcats to a 19-win season and the league championship.
Ensinger had a fantastic final season himself for 17-3 Valley. The point guard was a senior captain and All-Shoreline First Team pick. He filled every box score, averaging 12.6 points, 7.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 4.7 steals per game.
While Ensinger, like most other players, experienced the heavy disappointment of the CIAC calling off the postseason because of the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a silver lining for him. He will get to play competitively again at Division III Eastern Connecticut State.
“I’ve always known that I’ve wanted to keep playing basketball after high school,” Valley’s captain said. “Eastern is a great school with a good basketball program. They have helped me out. It’s nice that I’m going to keep playing because I love basketball so much.”
Ensinger will have two former Shoreline opponents as Eastern teammates, starting guards Cory Muckle of Westbrook and Thomas Close of East Hampton, to help ease him into the fold.
“I liked seeing familiar faces when I went and watched practice at Eastern,” he said. “It will be nice to be able to play with people I already know.”
Ensinger was one of nine seniors on Valley’s roster, kids who have played ball together for half as long as they’ve been alive. Although Morgan denied them the chance to face Old Lyme in the Shoreline final, the Warriors were among the top seeds in Class S and confident of making a run toward the final at Mohegan Sun.
“It was a chance for us to redeem ourselves,” Woods said.
“We definitely didn’t have the best showing in the Shorelines, but we were extra motivated for states and eager to play in that tournament and do everything we could to get to Mohegan,” Ensinger said. “It’s something we had been dreaming about since we were kids.”
Ensinger has had a lot of time to think about how crushed he felt not to have a final opportunity to play in a tournament setting.
“Obviously it was the right thing to do to cancel the tournament,” he said. “It was rough when it was canceled off the bat and rough for a few weeks after that. I adjusted and accepted it, but it was heartbreaking.”
The well-rounded Ensinger stood out on the floor more than an average point guard. Six feet and chiseled, he would spend equal time mixing it up in the middle as on the perimeter. On the defensive end, Woods had him guarding the opponent’s top player.
“I know and was taught that every aspect of basketball was important – offense, defense, passing, shooting — to have as much of that in your game as possible,” he said. “Valley’s program, we work on everything super hard and no one’s really a one-way player.”
Ensinger’s versatility and makeup reminds Woods of Taylor Rioux, who surpassed 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds at Valley and helped the Warriors win the 2011 Class S championship. The coach also believes Ensinger was as impactful a player as Old Lyme’s Using over the course of the season.
“Taylor Rioux also was a shot-block machine and a pretty good passer for a big guy,” Woods said. “Cade rivals Taylor in terms of how diverse his game is and how effective he is in so many areas. You get no argument from me in saying Aedan was the most dominating guy in our league, but if you really break it down for the year, Cade as a point guard and Aedan as a four were equally dominant in what they do.”
As a captain, Ensinger said he didn’t need to say much in order to lead. He believed each teammate “was a captain in their own way because they all had leadership skills.”
“Your captain is the kind of guy you always hope will provide great leadership, and if you get great leadership from your point guard, your floor general, that makes things even better,” Woods said. “Cade, just his presence, the way he controlled the game, his actions, are what matters. Loud actions. And he set the tone for us on defense. We had a couple of games where we were horrible, and he had some monster steals and changed the momentum in those games. He gave us a chance to win in games where we weren’t very good.”
Ensinger might have accumulated varsity minutes as a freshman if not for an injury. As a sophomore, he was the first player off the bench and averaged more minutes per game than any starter, Woods said.
All those games, months and years in the gym. Time flies. Whenever the Warriors meet one last time as a team, something they haven’t done since early March, just before word came that the state tournament was off the table, it might really hit home.
“Not having a tournament was hard for Cade, hard for all the seniors, hard for a lot of people around the state,” Woods said.
“I just will remember all the good times, working on my game with my teammates, all the laughs, all the practices, all the struggles we went through together,” Ensinger said. “Just going through everything in the program, it’s been just eye-opening and will help me throughout my life.”