Pictured: Middletown boys basketball coach Eric Holley (center) watches over, from left, Chace Petgrave, Elijah Wilborn and Matt Steuerwald during a team shooting drill. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
MIDDLETOWN – Middletown High jumps into the new basketball season Thursday night with a new coach in Eric Holley, the bulk of last year’s varsity rotation intact and a Holley-led set of expectations that connects the Blue Dragons with the community.
The Blue Dragons host Central Connecticut Conference South Division rival Maloney at LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium (6:45pm). The Spartans beat Middletown in each of their three meetings in 2020 – twice in a regular season reduced to 12 games because of the pandemic, and again in the CCC tournament.
Holley, a former Middletown player, was hired in the fall to replace Rick Privott, who retired after seven seasons. He said he feels a “supreme sense of nostalgia” to be the leader of the program.
“To be molded in this community, to be in charge of the biggest program in the city, for everyone to entrust the future with me, it’s extremely humbling and I have a lot of gratitude,” Holley said after practice last week.
MIDDLETOWN at a GLANCE
- CIAC Division: II
- Notable D-II teams: Bristol Central, Holy Cross, Maloney, Prince Tech, Simsbury, St. Joseph, Waterford, Xavier.
- 2021-22 captains: Sr. guard Chace Petgrave, Sr. G Matt Steuerwald, Sr. center Elijah Wilborn
- Season/home opener: Dec. 16 vs. Maloney.
- Projected rotation: Wilborn, Petgrave, Steuerwald, Sr. G/F Omar Gutierrez, Sr. F Dariyon Drake, Jr. G Marshall Butler, Sr. G Tim Vaughters, Jr. G Nas McDaniel-Cade, Sr. G Caiden Byrd, Jr. G Quincy Rhodes, Soph. C Addison Brown.
Middletown has six seniors returning with varsity experience: 6-foot-8 center Elijah Wilborn and guards/wing players Chace Petgrave, Matt Steuerwald, Tim Vaughters, Dariyon Drake and Caiden Byrd.
Junior guard Marshall Butler, a regular starter last season, also returns, and Middletown gained a senior transfer in shooter Omar Gutierrez from Amistad.
While the Blue Dragons are again guard-oriented on both ends of the floor, Holley said the team has to play more through Wilborn.
“I think he’s gotta be the anchor for us,” Holley said. “We have a lot of athletes and we’re very deep, very defensive-minded. But there are very few schools that have a 6-8 player who’s athletic. He’s going to be our anchor on defense and on offense and we want him to assert himself.”
“We want Eli to be comfortable being the guy,” he added. “He’s the best passer on the team. He can run like a deer. He’s going to demand so much attention (from opponents). We want him sprinting block to block with hands up.
“The sky’s the limit for Eli.”
As he’s gone about installing a new system for the players, the former AAU coach said he’s learning as much from them as they are from him.
“I think there’s been a bunch of challenges,” Holley said. “I’m changing the culture in terms of attitude and how we are going to do things. I’m preaching energy and positivity. I’m very big on discipline, how a player responds to me and to a teammate.
“That, on top of the basketball stuff. I’m putting in more plays. It’s going to be a new system completely. They are learning.”
Middletown’s CCC schedule remains daunting. After their opener against Maloney, the Blue Dragons face Division I power East Catholic at Trinity College on Saturday, followed by road games against Glastonbury, Bristol Central and Weaver.
Middletown visits reigning SCC champion West Haven on Dec. 30 before returning home in January. Its other out-of-conference opponent is Prince Tech, a Top 10 team in the GameTimeCT poll the last two years, in mid-January.
“It’s going to be fun for the first two and a half, three weeks,” Holley said somewhat jokingly.
In addition to the basketball side of his program, Holley has implemented academic goals and followed through on getting his players involved with community service.
Every player has signed a “contract” acknowledging that a C is the minimum grade allowable to remain eligible.
“If I do see that they have a D one week, they have seven days from the time I see it to go to a teacher and ask about a plan on how they’re going to raise their grade,” he said. “With me, there are no D’s, let alone F’s.
“My expectation for study hall is that everyone needs to be there for 2:20. For every minute a player is late, we run (sprints) as a team, on per minute. I put a lot of pressure on them to hold each other accountable and that they’re doing the right things and sticking together.”
Away from the court, players spent time in November working with youths ages 5 to 12 at a basketball camp at Beman Middle School. There are two more opportunities to come for community service. Players also will volunteer their time at Prof Gallitto Basketball League games, and in January the seniors will read to fourth- and fifth-graders at Russell Library.
“It’s a lot bigger than basketball,” Holley said. “I’m trying to teach these guys empathy and compassion and the importance of community and giving back. With a lot of older guys on this team, I’ve been preaching ‘we,’ not ‘me,’ and making sure they understand that.”