Pictured: Old Saybrook coach Chris Perras on his team’s determination over the last three weeks: “They come in, practice, give everything they’ve got. Great attitude, great effort, they’re getting a lot better.” (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
OLD SAYBROOK – The thrill of the season’s first game, a victory to boot, washed away by the monotony of practice after practice after practice.
This is the current state of affairs of the Old Saybrook boys basketball team — still waiting to make the leap to Game No. 2 of the new season. If the Rams meet Westbrook as scheduled on Tuesday night, they will have gone 19 days between games.
It’s the era of COVID, when every facet of life has been touched by disruption. Same goes for high school athletics.
“It’s like starting all over again,” Chris Perras, in his second season as Old Saybrook’s coach, said. “It’s so difficult to play that one game and come off a high from that game, which was a great team win for us. And now we’ve had this lull.”
A refresher: Old Saybrook opened up Dec. 16 at home against Hale-Ray. Especially motivated to beat the team that ousted them from the 2021 Shoreline Conference tournament, the Rams won 71-60. Junior Aaron Tolve poured in 22 points and junior Ryan Stratton had a brilliant night — 24 points in the first half and 11 in the fourth quarter to finish with 35, tops in the Shoreline so far.
“After four scrimmages and the one game, we were in such a great spot,” Perras said.
Old Saybrook’s next game several days later, against Coginchaug, was postponed and then postponed a second time. On Thursday, Perras learned that Monday’s out-of-conference game at Stonington was off, too.
Some in the Shoreline have played just two games; others, three and four. Valley Regional is unscathed – five scheduled, five played.
In Middlesex County, at least 16 boys and girls games in December have been either postponed or canceled. But in terms of game action, Old Saybrook is on the extreme end of the spectrum.
“This year there were 14 days between the first practice (Dec. 2) and the first game,” Perras said. “I scheduled four scrimmages in that time just to get us in game shape right away. I scheduled bigger schools. I reached out to Stonington purposely because of their personnel and they play in the ECC, to help us prepare for the season. It definitely paid off against Hale-Ray, but now it’s like we’re starting all over again. That is so far in the distant past now, it’s like we haven’t played a game.”
Perras also feels lucky in that only two games need a new date, and in a state with a 20 percent positivity rate currently, there is even basketball at all.
“What we (with assistant coach Kurt Larson and volunteer assistant Don MacKenzie) have been reinforcing with the kids is that this is not the easiest of situations, but that things are out of our control,” he said.
Assuming the Rams tip off on Westbrook’s home floor on Tuesday, this will be more a restart than a resumption of play.
“It’s been so tough, but my kids, I’m so blessed and so thankful for how they have responded to this,” Perras said. “They come in, practice, give everything they’ve got. Practice can get redundant. It looks like we’ll play on the fourth, but things change by the hour. These kids are buying in on everything we’ve prepared for. Great attitude, great effort, they’re getting a lot better. They’re itching, I’m itching, to play. In practice we’re trying to expend them mentally as much as physically.”
The Rams are captained this season by Tolve and senior guard Riley Lawson. The core of the team leans young with Stratton, junior Bradley Kulmann and sophomores Auggie Albert and Wes Nobile.
Stratton was an Honorable Mention All-Shoreline pick last season after averaging 11.3 points and 5.4 assists per game. He has excellent basketball bloodlines – his grandfather is Middletown coaching legend/star athlete Tom LaBella. A cousin, Justin Menard, was a standout as a sophomore at Xavier last season before transferring to Loomis Chaffee.
Menard was in the crowd for the Rams’ game against Hale-Ray, cheering on Stratton.
“Justin and Ryan have a brother-type of relationship. It was really cool to see Justin there for his cousin,” said Perras. “We pull Ryan out of the game with 40 seconds left, and he gave me the biggest bear hug. That game meant so much to us on a personal level. It was like this weight was lifted off our shoulders (knowing Hale-Ray ended Old Saybrook’s 2021 season). It was instrumental to how well he played that night.”
Stratton’s scoring spree – he sank three 3-pointers in the first quarter to get the Rams off and running – also energized the team on the other end of the floor.
“I think the best part of his night was he kept shooting,” Perras said. “He had that swagger, that confidence to keep shooting, and the shots just kept going in. Our bench was fired up. After he made a shot, the best part was what we did on defense. It just amped the guys up to just play hard on defense, to get a stop and get the ball back to Ryan and he just kept going and going. I know Hale-Ray tried different things, they just didn’t have an answer for him that night.”
Looking forward, Perras said he wants his players to recognize that it will take some time to get comfortable once they are competing again.
“Don’t get frustrated if we start out slower than them,” he said his message will be. “We’re going to miss some shots. We’re going to peak at the right time in the game and when it comes, it comes. I need them to know it’s going to be OK. We know the talent that we have and the potential that we have, and they’re reminded of both daily. Now, we all need to see that come to fruition.”
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