Pictured: Abby Bradbury, left, and Ava Cunningham inside coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt’s nutrition store in Centerbrook. (Contributed photo)

By Marc Silvestrini

DEEP RIVER — This is a story about friendship, which can flourish and grow in the strangest of places and most unlikely of circumstances.

This is a story about basketball, a sport that requires a certain set of skills to play well and an advanced sense of teamwork, camaraderie and togetherness to play even better.

And finally, this is a story about coaching, which, among other things, requires both an awareness of what your players are thinking and feeling and the wisdom to address any problems one may sense with a team’s chemistry.

At the conclusion of the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, Valley Regional girls basketball coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt knew she had a problem, despite her team’s reasonably strong final record of 7-4. Two of her best players, Ava Cunningham, then a junior point guard, and Abby Bradbury, a sophomore shooting guard who had transferred to Valley from Mercy High School the previous September, were not getting along.

Though there were no obvious or dramatic signs of a rift between the two, it was obvious, at least to Bickelhaupt, that theirs was a distant and frosty relationship.

The Warriors, including Bradbury (21) and Cunningham (1), huddle up during their Shoreline tournament game against Cromwell. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“They just didn’t talk to each other – on the court, during timeouts and water breaks, or at school,” Bickelhaupt said. “It was pretty obvious that they were teammates but not friends.”

Though quick to emphasize that they have become best friends over the past year, the two teammates confirmed the coach’s assessment of their relationship throughout that season.

“We didn’t really hate each other or anything like that,” said Ava, now a senior heading into her final handful games as a high school player. “But we definitely were not really good friends either. It’s just that we didn’t have a lot in common off the basketball court. Different circle of friends, different schedules at school, different lunch periods … ”

Abby, a junior now and a First Team All-Shoreline selection for two years running, noted that prior to last year, the last time the two had played together was when she was a seventh-grader and Ava was an eighth-grader at John Winthrop Middle School.

“When I transferred back to Valley, we hadn’t seen much of each other for almost three years. And even when we played together in middle school and as kids growing up, we never really talked much outside of the basketball court,” Bradbury said.

“We had known each other for years, but we never really hung out together,” she added, noting that she and Ava first began playing together at ages 6 and 5 in various parks and recreation leagues around town.

Adds Ava: “In those years when we didn’t play together, our lives had moved forward without each other. We had drifted off in different directions.”

When she isn’t teaching and running a business, Jaimie Bickelhaupt (center) is coaching her Warriors to great heights. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Another factor complicating matters at the beginning of last season was that Valley had an established point guard returning for her senior year, meaning that Ava and Abby were essentially competing for the same 2-guard – or shooter — spot.

“We were fighting for the same position in the starting lineup, which was another reason why we weren’t crazy about each other,” Ava said.

“Tensions were running high,” Abby conceded.

Those tensions, however, were about to end in an unusual and innovative way.

About a month after the 2020-21 season ended, Bickelhaupt held the grand opening of her new business, Elite Nutrition. The juice bar, located at 33 Main St. in the Centerbrook section of Essex, offers healthy shakes, smoothies and tea.

Like any new business venture, Bickelhaupt needed a staff to serve customers. Ava was an early job-seeker at the new establishment and when Abby expressed an interest in coming aboard as the summer months approached, Bickelhaupt saw an opportunity to solve two problems with one clever move.

“I always knew that those two could become good friends if they could only get together and talk and realize how much they had in common,” the coach said. “Their personalities are so similar, they have so much common ground,” she added, noting that they each liked the same kinds of music and movies, they each hung around with the same types of friends, and both loved dogs.

“They just needed an opportunity to sit down together, just the two of them alone, and talk.”

So Bickelhaupt scheduled the two erstwhile rivals to work a three-hour shift together. Alone.

The thought horrified both young women.

Abby Bradbury had one of the best scoring averages in the Shoreline this season. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“That was really an awkward feeling,” Ava said, reflecting on how she felt when first informed of Bickelhaupt’s scheduling plan. “I was really dreading those three hours.”

“I don’t think either one of us was looking forward to that shift,” Abby adds.

But it only took about 15 minutes for the genius of Bickelhaupt’s plan to rise to the surface.

“We just started talking and it didn’t take us long to realize how much we had in common,” Ava said. “We talked about everything – we talked about our families and how we were raised in similar circumstances. We talked about music and the things we liked to do.

“Over the course of that shift, we discovered that we both shared a very similar view of the world.”

Abby said she couldn’t believe how quickly the two became comfortable in each other’s company.

“It didn’t take us long to start laughing together and sharing stories about growing up in Deep River (the two live within a six-minute drive of each other) and our families. It was like suddenly finding out you had another sibling.

“We’ve been best friends ever since that night, the kind of friends that are so close they can complete each other’s sentences.”

The two say they complement one another to an almost magical degree. While Abby tends to be impulsive and spontaneous, Ava is more of an organizer and planner.

“We just seem to balance each other out,” Abby said. “There’s total comfort between us.”

Bickelhaupt is not surprised that her two guards hit it off as well as they did.

“I kind of got eye rolls when I first mentioned teaming them together for a shift, but I knew how similar they were to each other and that their personalities would eventually mesh,” she said.

Communication is at the heart of the success Ava Cunningham (left) and Abby Bradbury share on the court. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“I knew their animosity towards one another was nothing more than their competitive natures and that they’d hash things out as soon as they got a chance to get together and know each other,” their coach said, adding that she purposefully left the juice bar for an hour at the beginning of the shift to help stimulate communications between the two.

“By the time I got back they were talking and laughing together like they had been friends for 50 years,” Bickelhaupt said. “I think putting those two together like that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for this team.”

The sudden rapport and cohesiveness between Valley’s two guards – Abby leads the team in scoring and Ava leads in assists — is one of the key factors behind the Warriors’ impressive 20-4 record as they enter the second round of the CIAC Class M tournament. All of which would seem to portend a happy ending to our story.

Except for one thing. Ava is a senior and will be off to college next year studying pre-law at an as-of-yet-undetermined bastion of higher education.

“I’m going to miss her,” Ava said.

“Next year is going to be real hard without her,” countered Abby. “Senior night (which was held at the school recently) was a very tough pill to swallow.”

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