By Paul Augeri

This particular high school basketball season comes with a sense of the unknown.

John Pinone at Cromwell and Todd Salva at Coginchaug have been coaching for a combined half-century and aren’t entirely sure what to expect next week when the 12-game, five week regular-season begins.

The same feeling is had by veterans Rick Privott at Middletown and Mike Kohs at Xavier, and moreso by a rookie varsity coach like David Bradbury at Portland. We should note that games are “scheduled” to be played. In the pandemic, there is no such thing as a sure thing.

Coaches cannot scout their opponents this winter. Many feel as if they will be flying blind at tip-off.

“I think it is going to be a challenge in the first couple of weeks from a game perspective,” Pinone said. “That’s a big thing for us – preparation. We like to be well prepared, know what the other team is doing offensively, defensively, in special situations. That’s a new wrinkle this year, no scouting. We will have to do more adjustments on the fly and do a better job coaching and making changes at halftime.”

In addition to players wearing masks and having mask breaks, COVID-19 health and safety restrictions bar locker rooms being utilized. Some have noted how odd it is that teams do not have this traditional gathering spot.

“So there are no clippings or motivational messages to see on a wall, no posters,” said Morgan’s Frank Rossi, coach of Shoreline Conference favorite Huskies. “So it’s ‘Let’s just show up and play basketball.’ If we do get to show up, if everything goes well, our mindset right now is, ‘Let’s just be ready to go.’ Our goals of a Shoreline championship, a 12-0 record, all those things – if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

A capsule look at Middletown, Xavier and the 12 Shoreline programs in this abbreviated season:


Coach: Rick Privott

Last year’s record: 15-6

Postseason: Qualified in Division II, did not play

Scheduled opener: Feb. 8 vs. Wethersfield

Top returning players: Elijah Wilborn, Jr., 6-8 C; Mekhi Toler, Jr., 5-11 G; Matt Steuerwald, Jr., 5-7 G.

Other returners/newcomers: Chace Petgrave, Jr., 5-10 G; Marshall Butler, Soph., G; Quincy Rhodes, Soph., 6-5 F.

Outlook: Middletown lost three-fifths of last year’s lineup, including top scorer Donte Pope (Emmanuel College). Wilborn, a shot-altering force, and Toler are the returning starters, and Steuerwald is ready to run the offense. Petgrave will contribute as well after not playing last season because of a football injury. Butler has developed as a backcourt player and should get a good chunk of varsity minutes. “Our three juniors are a nice nucleus and great kids,” said Privott, who is eager to see if others get to a varsity comfort zone. “I want to see them improve. There will be a lot of opportunities for young guys with our limited roster. This will be a season for getting experience.” COVID-19 impacted the team’s numbers – between the varsity and junior varsity, Privott has just 15 players at his disposal, with a freshman roster of about 14. “That’s good, but usually we have around 18 to 20,” the coach said. Middletown will play 12 regional CCC teams. The conference plans to provide a tournament experience.


Coach: Michael Kohs

Last year’s record: 14-8

Postseason: Qualified in Division II, did not play

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 vs. Cheshire

Top returning players: Parker Hunter, Sr., 6-1 G; Ryan Gazzillo, Sr., 6-4 F.

Other returners/newcomers: Justin Menard, So., 6-1 G; Anthony Parker, Soph., 6-1 G; Malcolm Wilson-Toliver, Sr., 6-3 F/C; Nick Beaulieu, Sr., 6-4 F.

Outlook: The Falcons are short on varsity experience after losing four two-year starters, including big man Andrew Brown (Eastern Connecticut State), so they will feel their way around a bit as the games go by. “You play the games to win and that’s important,” Kohs said. “But you also understand where our kids have been (many missing spring and fall sports), and with ours being very inexperienced, I want to see improvement throughout the year, that they’re executing the things we want them to execute.” Hunter, the lone returning starter, has moved back to guard. Parker has an injury and Kohs hopes to get him back in March. “I’m expecting him to be a major contributor,” he said. Beaulieu saw varsity time as a junior. Wilson-Tolliver got varsity minutes as a sophomore, wrestled last winter and returns to give the Falcons a big body in the middle. Menard, a “basketball junkie” whose father and uncle played for Rich Magner, Kohs’ predecessor, should be fun to watch. “He handles it well, shoots well from the perimeter, and we’re working with him on the defensive end. We will get point production from him.”


Coach: Todd Salva

Last year’s record: 5-15

Postseason: None

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 vs. Old Lyme

Top returning players: AJ DeFilio, Sr., 5-10 G; Tyler Garretson, Sr., 6-5 C; Terence Murphy, Sr., 6-3 F.

Other returners/newcomers: Jayson Penney, Soph., G.

Outlook: Coginchaug resumes practice Sunday after a two-week quarantine. The Blue Devils had six seniors depart the roster. DeFilio has matured into a leadership role. “He really wants to make it work,” Salva said, “and he’s really helping to guide some of the younger players.” DeFilio and Garretson got the most varsity time of any returning player. Along with size, Garretson (University of New England for football) brings a mid-range game. “He’s really worked hard at it,” Salva said. Murphy was a first-time player who advanced to the varsity midway through last season. “The quintessential junkyard dog. He’s worked really hard to catch up and I think he’s going to be a factor.” Another factor: Penney, whose brother Justin was the best player on last year’s squad. “He’s got the skill and confidence and has been showing signs of progress,” Salva said.


Coach: John Pinone

Last year’s record: 12-10

Postseason: Qualified in Division IV, did not play

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 vs. H-K

Top returning players: Justin Valentin, Sr., 5-11 G; James Grodzicki, Sr., 6-4 C; Gianluca Albert, Jr., 6-1 G.

Other returners/newcomers: Mike Morgan, Sr., 5-11 G; Malcolm Mention, Sr., 6-0 F; Zykarie Wilborn, Sr., 6-0 F; Matt Pepe, Sr., 6-0 F.

Outlook: Pinone has eight seniors in all, making the Panthers a Shoreline contender on experience alone. Cromwell had a strong finish to last season and was ready to make a state tournament run, so that provides additional motivation. Pinone’s teams get after it defensively, and the offense likely will be a balanced attack. The coach wants to see consistency at both ends after three weeks of acclimation to masks and hard conditioning. “It’s important that we constantly get better,” he said. “I don’t want to see us go back up and then down. We have to maintain some semblance of consistency. Our offense may be great some nights, or average, or poor. We have to be consistent from a conditioning and defensive standpoint to help keep ourselves in games.”


Coach: Parker Strong

Last year’s record: 14-6

Postseason: Qualified in Division IV, did not play

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 at Morgan

Top returning players: Ted Zhao, Sr., 5-9 G; Jye Lynch, Jr., 6-1 F; Grant Arcidiacono, Sr., 5-10 G/F; Jack Blakely, Jr., 6-6 C; Drew DiStefano, Jr., 6-0 G/F; Ethan Palma, Jr., 5-7 G; Dan Cascio, Jr., 6-2 G/F/C.

Other returners/newcomers: Max Karrenburg, Sr., 5-9 G; Darren Way, Sr., 5-10 G; Nate Ireland, Soph., 6-3 F; Chris Progano, Jr., 5-8 G.

Outlook: Other than graduating First Team All Shoreline/All-State guard Stephen Brady, the Bellringers’ core is intact, with last year’s strong sophomore class a year older and experienced. Zhao and Lynch can shoot the 3 and there is versatility on the wings with Arcidiacono, DiStefano and Cascio (back injury last year). Cascio can fill any of the five spots. “It’s nice to have depth,” Strong said. “I like to think we can attack teams in different ways, but our focus is defense and rebounding. If we do that well, we should be in pretty good shape. We had issues on the glass at the end of last year.” The Bellringers moved up to the large-school side of the Shoreline, replacing Coginchaug, and have a challenging first four games (Morgan, Valley, Cromwell and H-K). “Hey, we’re lucky to have a season,” Strong said.


Coach: Jim Abbott

Last year’s record: 8-13

Postseason: Division V first-round loss

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 at Cromwell

Top returning players: Jimmy McGoey, Sr., 6-4 F/C; Alec Erskine, Sr., 5-8 G; Chase O’Linn, Sr., 5-8 PG; Tony Giambanis, Sr., 6-1 F; Mason Gorham, Soph., 6-2 G.

Other returners/newcomers: Ronnie Scarpa, Sr., 6-6 C; Tate Callender, Soph., 6-0 PG; Callen Powers, Soph., 6-3 F.

Outlook: The Cougars could surprise some with their blend of shooters and bangers, plus a strong class of sophomores that will push for minutes. McGoey is a double-double producer. Gorham became a starter midway through his freshman season. At 6-6, Scarpa could be an X factor off the bench at the five spot. Callender, the starting point guard for last year’s JV team, has grown four inches to 6 feet. Powers is looked at as a point forward after sprouting to 6-3 and acquiring a “varsity body.” Abbott is glad to have a season because “it’s my best team in four years as coach. “I think we’ll compete with everybody in the conference. I think we can be beaten by anybody, but we can beat anybody. I think we’ll be very competitive.”


Coach: Corey Zdunczyk

Scheduled opener: Feb. 12 at Westbrook

Last year’s record: 14-9

Postseason: Division V first-round win

Top returning players: Ross Kuluga, Sr., 6-4 C; Loudon Chupas, Jr., 6-2 F; Matt Conroy, Jr., 5-8 G.

Other returners/newcomers: Miles Gagne, Jr. F; Talo Ciccarello, So. G.

Outlook: Hale-Ray’s 2020 state tournament appearance was its first in nine years, but the Noises will have to build themselves back up after losing six seniors (First Team All Shoreline Zak Cunningham, their leading scorer and rebounder, among the six) who accounted for 70 percent of the scoring. Kuluga, Chupas and Conroy are the only three who played significant varsity minutes. “That was a special class last year and it will take a group effort to continue that,” Zdunczyk said. “Everybody will have to take on a role now. “We are not a big team, so we’ll have to rely on our speed and guard play to carry us.”


Coach: Frank Rossi

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 vs. East Hampton

Last year’s record: 16-8

Postseason: Division V first-round win

Top returning players: Rob Zirlis, Sr., 6-6 F; Alex Fratamico, Jr., 6-4 F; Zach Johnson, Sr., 6-1 G; Jason Cohen, Sr., 6-0 G; Connor Duffy, Jr., 6-8 C.

Other returners/newcomers: Cam Carlson, Sr., 6-1 G; Drew Nye, Jr., 6-0 G; Alex Urban, Sr., 6-5 F; Gavin Krott, Sr., 5-10 G; Josh Bardinelli, Sr., 5-9 G; Cooper Galdenzi, Soph., 6-0 G.

Outlook: Rossi says his Huskies aren’t there yet, while adding it’s a “blessing” to have last year’s starting five of Zirlis, Johnson, Cohen, Duffy and Fratamico intact. The Huskies were the Shoreline runners-up, and this team is geared to take the logical next step and win the championship. Zirlis, a pitcher who will play college baseball at Mitchell, has returned to the court bigger, stronger and in game shape. “He looks great and made the investment” to get better, his coach said. Duffy is an “old-school center,” Fratamico will score and Johnson and Cohen are excellent from outside. There is hardly a dropoff in the backcourt when Rossi points to Nye and Carlson off the bench, and Urban will provide valuable minutes as well. Krott also made strong contributions last year. “When we started practice this season, I wanted to avoid the idea of ‘we were in the Shoreline final last year and lost.’” But to win the league, “this year’s focus is all about defense. We can put the ball in the basket, but none of it means anything if we can’t stop and disrupt. If we wanted to be considered a great team, we’ve got to play better defense than we have in the past.”


Coach: Cliff Yerkes

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 at Valley

Last year’s record: 6-14

Postseason: None

Top returning players: Trevor Holzer, Sr. PG; Blake Pearson, Jr. G; Jack Meehan, Soph. G, John Onofrio, Soph. G; Ryan Monde, Jr. G.

Other returners/newcomers: Zach Abbagnaro, Sr., 6-3 C; Brandon Fratta, Sr., 6-1 F; Dylan DeMeo, Sr., 6-0 F; Ben Stegina, Soph. G.

Outlook: North Branford lost four seniors from last year’s starting lineup, including Mike Sitro, a First Team All Shoreline pick and the league’s leading scorer and rebounder. Pearson and Holzer are the captains and will provide leadership. Fratta, the T-Birds’ star quarterback, and DeMeo are first-year players. “We’re focusing on two core values this year, attitude and gratitude,” Yerkes said. “It’s always attitude with my teams. We want to have a positive attitude and bring enthusiasm and a love for the game. And gratitude – we’re very grateful to be playing and trying to get that message through. Seize the day. I want this to be a stress reliever for kids, for them to enjoy competing, getting exercise, being with their teammates. Simple as that. This last year has been brutal on everyone.”


Coach: Kirk Kaczor

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 at Coginchaug

Last year’s record: 22-1, Shoreline champs

Postseason: Division V top seed, did not play

Top returning players: Maverick Swaney, Jr., 6-3; Frank Sablone, Jr., 6-2; Jacob Ritchie, Jr., 5-10; John Almy, Jr., 6-2.

Other returners/newcomers: Caden Monte, Soph., 6-5; Calvin Monte, Soph., 6-5; Alex Olson, Soph., 6-2.

Outlook: The Wildcats had a special core last year led by Shoreline Player of the Year Aedan Using and fellow seniors Brady Sheffield, Ty Dean, Jared Ritchie and Ray Doll. They are less experienced this year, but there is size across the board.


Coach: Chris Perras

Scheduled opener: Feb. 16 at Portland

Last year’s record: 2-18

Postseason: None

Top returning players: Riley Lawson, Jr., G, 5-10; Ben Yost, Sr., 6-4 C; Ryan Stratton, soph., 5-7 PG; Peter Waida, Sr., G; Owen Tolve, Sr., 6-0 F.

Other returners/newcomers: Aiden Rascoe, Sr., G; Aidan Collier, Sr., F; Garrett Brady, Sr., G, Ryan Mikulski, Sr., F.

Outlook: The Rams graduated nine seniors, including scoring guards Davis Brown and Mike Almada, so their output needs filling in. Some of the current seniors will be getting their first true taste of varsity minutes. “From a team standpoint, I want us to compete in every single game. There will be a lot of teachable moments, coachable moments,” Perras said. Lawson will be a factor as a scorer and is a vocal leader who mentors younger and less experienced players. Yost is in “true playing shape” and expected to be the Rams’ top rebounder, while Stratton developed last year and will take on a magnified role in the rotation. Perras is technically a rookie varsity coach, but he spent the previous two seasons as Old Saybrook’s JV coach and finished out last year as interim varsity coach. “The sophomore class when I first started that are now seniors, they know my style. In a sense it’s a lot of bark and zero bite. I’ve had to change my style a little bit, so I’m not as fiery and more motivational, but there are still the demands of competing day in and day out. With the right mindset and attitude, we could surprise a couple of teams and sneak some (wins) out.”


Coach: David Bradbury (1st season)

Scheduled opener: Feb. 12 at Old Lyme

Last year’s record: 5-15

Postseason: None

Top returning players: Cody Daggett, Sr., 6-0, G; Peter McNickle, Sr., 6-1 G/F; Mason Piersall, Sr., 6-3, G/F; T.J. Reddington, Sr., 6-0, G; Noah Charpentier, Sr., 6-3, F; Zach Thomas, 6-2 F; Luke Francesco, 5-8 G.

Other returners/newcomers: Eli Evison, Jr., 6-5; Evan Johnson, Jr., 5-11, G.

Outlook: Bradbury, who won a state championship as a player at Valley Regional and coached that school’s freshman team a year ago, brings high expectations to Portland. The Highlanders have a lot of senior leadership and will try to make gains with their size, especially on the defensive end. The team got a late start to practice (Jan. 25), but Bradbury says the first week was productive. “As a new coach, I feel I’m bringing a new culture and a new atmosphere to this team. Not only do I love how hard they work, it puts our mindsets on a similar track. I want them to achieve their own personal goals, which are very important, and at the same time have common goals.”


Coach: Kevin Woods

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 vs. North Branford

Last year’s record: 16-6

Postseason: Division V qualifier, did not play

Top returning players: Jeremy Arnum, Soph, 6-4 G.

Other returners/newcomers: Keenan Pindar, Sr., 5-9 G; James Marsden, Jr., 6-4 F; Marcus SantaMaria, Sr. G; Saagar Patel, Jr., 6-2 G/F; Simon Partyka, Jr. PG.

Outlook: The Warriors lost nine seniors and will be a new group, but there is size, depth and Woods’ relenting defensive style that won’t allow Valley to be taken lightly. These players were one of the league’s top JV squads a year ago The coach says the sky is the limit for Arnum, who’s grown three inches and will be used at the two and three. “It’s all the more reason why I think he’s a college player,” Woods said. “He’s our high school LeBron.” Pindar is a defensive specialist. SantaMaria is a good shooter and Patel has long arms and a very good mid-range game. “This is a totally different type of team than last year,” Woods said. “We had one of the better teams in Division V and the Shoreline last year. This team should be in the same ballpark. There’s a different identity, no doubt. I don’t think we’ll creep up on anyone.”


Coach: Jeff Beeman

Scheduled opener: Feb. 12, home vs. Hale Ray

Last year’s record: 8-13

Postseason: Division V first-round loss

Top returning players: Jack Naccarato, Sr., 6-3 G/F; Brenden Engles, Sr., 5-11 G; Nick Palumbo, Sr., 6-0 F; Sam Freeman, Jr., 6-1 F; Evan McIntyre, Jr., 6-2 F; Joey Caslin, Jr., 5-11 G; Jesse Whitney, Jr., 5-9 G.

Other returners/newcomers: Brandon Naccarato, Soph., 5-10 G; Ryan Engels, Soph., 5-11 G.

Outlook: Westbrook started five underclassmen last season, including First Team All Shoreline whiz kid Jack Naccarato. The left-hander can score from anywhere and is approaching 1,000 career points. “He gets to the basket, he can get extremely hot from 3, he’s a good foul shooter and rebounds well. He’s a good all-around basketball player,” said his coach. Beeman can go eight deep with his rotation, which could help Naccarato, and the junior class is strong. “There are other kids who are capable scorers,” said Beeman, in his 12th season as coach and 35th overall at the high school level. The excitement here is tempered by the fact Westbrook did not have its first in-person workout until Wednesday because of  the district’s safety protocols. All instruction has taken place virtually. The first team practice won’t come until the start of next week. “So far we’re behind the rest of the Shoreline Conference and behind probably everybody in the state,” Beeman said. “It’s been extremely difficult, but it’s out of our control. We’re going to try and make it a fun season for them.”

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