By Paul Augeri
There are four new head coaches in the Shoreline Conference’s boys basketball ranks this season: Brett Cavalieri at Haddam-Killingworth, John Antolini at East Hampton, Ken Beeman at Old Lyme and John Donohue at North Branford.
Cavalieri’s opportunity with the Cougars was going to be the most daunting. The team lost four good players to graduation and Mason Gorham, a First Team All Shoreline pick who averaged 16.4 points and 6.1 rebounds as a sophomore, transferred to Hamden Hall.
And then, the worst news of all. Tate Callender, a junior and H-K’s top returning player, would be out indefinitely. He is recovering from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his ankle, an injury suffered late in the football season.
Callender’s absence leaves one returning player, junior Callen Powers, who saw substantial varsity minutes in H-K’s 7-7 season last winter.
At least Cavalieri knows where he stands – at square one with the Cougars. And in that, the former freshman and JV coach at Westbrook sees many forms of potential.
- With the players at his disposal, focusing on strength and conditioning (Cavalieri is a certified specialist) as a means to improving skill sets;
- Aligning his program with the community’s youth and travels program “in a meaningful way for one huge K-12 program,” with an eye on fundamentals, player development and a system kids will be familiar with through the years;
- And, hopefully, convincing players and parents alike that H-K is the place to play basketball.
“H-K has a very good track and baseball tradition,” said Cavalieri, “and in talking to a lot of guys in those sports, they are secondarily basketball players. The hope is that some continuity with the travel program and benefits with strength and conditioning will … If kids are leaving H-K just because they think it’s better for them, then OK. But we want guys to stay at H-K if they’re leaving for athletic reasons.
“So we’ll see. I really want this thing to develop. What we’re trying to accomplish is to keep the kids that we can.”
For Cavalieri, it was imperative to introduce strength and conditioning as a component to basketball, and he honed in on pushing his charges to improve their vertical leap.
“Since the offseason, the improvement has been very real,” he said, noting one player has added seven inches to his leap. “I’ve gotten them to understand they have significant ability in all sports and I think they’ve gotten to be much better athletes.”
Without Callender, the Cougars have taken lumps in their only two games played to date, losing to Valley Regional by 30 and to undefeated SMSA by 49. To say this is an inexperienced squad is an understatement.
Cavalieri has four seniors, three of whom are in the rotation — Adam Alonzo, a reserve last season; Declan Christopher, a first-year varsity player; and Lucas Kamoen, a first-year player, period – along with Powers, sophomore shooting guard Ryan Erskine, freshman Andrew Crayton and junior shooting guard Joe Giaconne.
“We had a meeting where we assessed players discussed where can this team perform and where can it not,” Cavalieri said. “With this particular team, they are a little more athletic than a lot of teams but have less basketball experience than almost every team, so we’re trying to stress the athleticism where we can.”
All while introducing a new system and his own style to the program as a whole.
“I’ve already had to make several adjustments since beginning of season, just because of the personality of the team,” Cavalieri said. “It’s a new system from the ground up and we’re working our way up through to the varsity level. You have to build those simultaneously.
“My vision is that these kids are having a fun time learning basketball and fundamentals at the youth levels that we can build upon later on in high school. And by the time high school comes, the strength and conditioning program will be advantageous for all when it’s running on all cylinders.”
Cavalieri grew up in East Hampton, played the sport in high school and was on Westbrook’s staff for three years. He said he wouldn’t have gotten the job at H-K without the encouragement and support from the staff, Knights coach Jeff Beeman included.
“These jobs of course are coveted jobs,” he said. “A lot of people interview for them. People tend to stay in a job for a really long time. To have turnover of four in the same year is amazing. You can go years without an opening, so this makes for a different Shoreline. It’s a pretty great fraternity.”
Valley eager to have Patel in fold
Valley Regional has struggled since beating North Branford and H-K decidedly to open the season. The Warriors lost to East Hampton on the road by two and then went 0 for 2 in the Art Kohs Holiday Tournament at Xavier against the host Falcons and Glastonbury.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier. This week, Valley faces defending Shoreline champion Morgan at home on Tuesday and unbeaten Cromwell on the road Friday. Which is why 6-foot-2 senior forward Saagar Patel’s expected season debut couldn’t come soon enough.
“Saagar brings us immediate help with his post and mid-range game,” Warriors coach Kevin Woods said. “We have been living and dying by the 3. It will be nice to get some easier looks.”
Patel, who rolled his ankle in the preseason, brings length and a great defensive game into the fold alongside James Marsden and Sam Hutchinson in the frontcourt. His return on the offensive end will take some pressure off of senior Simon Partyka, one of the top perimeter threats in the Shoreline.
“Our bench and depth also improves with Saagar back,” said Woods. “We are a good shooting team but we are shooting uncharacteristically poor … a lot of this has to do with fatigue. Now we get deeper as a team, fresher legs and better on the boards.”
Can’t-miss players (girls edition)
If you’re able to take in a game safely this winter, a (alphabetical) list of players you should see at least once:
CAELEY AYER, Morgan, junior. With the departure of her cousin, 1,000-point scorer Catie Donadio, Ayer is leading a young Huskies team. A scorer who makes things happen at both ends.
KALEIGH BODAK, H-K, junior: A southpaw with versatility. The Cougars’ best all-around player.
ABBY BRADBURY, Valley Regional, junior. Bradbury is the offensive juggernaut in a very good Warriors starting five. No depth to speak of, but the Warriors are dangerous.
SHADAE BUSHAY, Middletown, senior. Great ballhander and smooth scorer with a solid mid-range game.
NEVAEH CLARK, Cromwell, junior. Wow. A left-hander who can go end to end and score. Very difficult to defend, especially in the paint.
KATIE FARR, Coginchaug, junior. Excellent all-around athlete, fastest player on the team, very good defender.
SOPHIE HEDGE, Mercy, senior. Hedge is one of the top players in the SCC this season. The Tigers should be improved, too.
TYAH PETTAWAY, Middletown, senior. Scorer and slasher. A college player somewhere for sure.
JACKIE RUSSELL, East Hampton, sophomore. A first-year starter averaging 15.1 ppg, Russell has been lighting it up. Seven 3’s, believed to be a school record, in a win over Cromwell.
JAMI SACCO, Westbrook, senior. A flat-out scorer. Averaged 17.7 points and 10 rebounds as a junior, with more in store.
CHLOE SHAFIR, Coginchaug, junior. The Blue Devils’ go-to-scorer this season who is now a threat from more than just the perimeter.
Hoops to nuts
*Coach Tim Kohs and the Mercy Tigers return to action for the first time since Dec. 17 when they play at home for the first time on Tuesday against Guilford (7pm tip). The Tigers beat Jonathan Law in Milford on Dec. 17 to even their record at 1-1. Subsequent road games against Lauralton Hall and NFA were postponed.
*We know that the Old Saybrook boys’ 19-day dry spell ends Tuesday with their scheduled at Westbrook. Middletown (2-1) is a close second at 18 days between games. The Blue Dragons’ CCC South matchup with Platt on Tuesday has been postponed, so Middletown’s first game since a Dec. 20 win over Glastonbury will be Friday at Newington.
*Finally, my vote for No. 1 in the GameTime CT boys basketball poll will continue to go to Bristol Central until someone takes down The Big Fella, Donovan Clingan, and the Rams. In watching the online feed of Central’s win over East Catholic before Christmas, it’s important to note that Clingan again has an excellent supporting cast around him. Central would have been a state championship contender in 2021 had there been a tournament.
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