The screech of basketball shoes echoes through the gym as Lady Knight coach Mike Forgione shuffles his players through a preseason drill like a con artist in a shell game.
The offense weaves through the sea of changing faces. The defense is drawn one way. The ball goes the other, and a smooth lay-up draws cheers from the shifty coach.
Southington will not be the most experienced team when they step onto the court against Middletown in the season opener, but that’s nothing new. The Lady Knights will still be reeling from a preseason injury that forced the young team to reinvent themselves again before opening day, but Forgione said that his team has learned to take things in stride.
People called them underdogs two years ago as the Lady Knights stormed to the championship game in the conference tournament. With just two seniors and a freshman point guard last year, the Knights managed to battle to a 12-8 overall record and an 8-2 mark at home.
Even with depleted benches, the girls managed to stretch the floor, swarm their defense, and hold off more experienced lineups. Forgione said that the recipe won’t change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“We’re going to run. That’s our style,” he said. “We like to push the ball and play that up-tempo style. We’re going to be aggressive on both ends of the court, and we won’t slow down the ball like some coaches do when they face a schedule like ours. We’re going to go at them. We’re going to try to punch them in the jaw and see what happens.”
It helps that the Knights return four of their starting five. Senior co-captains Kaitlin Paterson and Nicole Fischer will team with junior co-captain Natalie Wadolowski as the veteran core of the Southington lineup. Forgione said that they will set the tone for Southington’s in-your-face play.
“All three of them have contributed for a couple of years. Kaitlin and Natalie have been impact players since their freshman years. Nicole came in to start as a junior,” said Forgione. “We have a difficult task ahead of us. We have to be mentally tough because this isn’t the type of schedule that allows for any excuses. We’ll have to play hard every game and earn every win.”
Despite their experience, the veterans will all be asked to step into unfamiliar roles. Wadolowski earned all-conference honors last season as a power forward, but she’ll shift to the center position to handle opposing big men. Paterson will shift from guard to power forward. Fischer will still roam the perimeter, but she’ll be forced to lead an influx of underclassmen at the guard position.
The only thing that won’t change from last season is Southington’s ball handler. Maggie Meehan took the conference by storm as a freshman. Once again, she’ll be asked to pace the attack.
“We’re really trying to build a solid base around those four. We have some kids that are going to have to step up right away, but it’s all about learning from adversity,” said the coach. “It’s about when you get knocked down, getting up. It’s about being mentally tough and never quitting. These three captains have been getting back up for years, and Maggie did it last year. They never quit until the last whistle.”
Once again, they are going to have to rise above adversity. For the second year in a row, Southington was expecting to welcome a highly touted freshman. Janette Wadolowski was expected to make an immediate impact on the varsity court, but the freshman phenom was sidelined by injury in the days leading up to the first practice.
Her season-ending surgery has curtailed her varsity debut, and that’s why coaches were forced to scramble the lineup at the first team practices.
“She is the type of kid that would have made an immediate impact much like Maggie Meehan did last year. It was a tough loss for us just two weeks before the season, but we’ll bounce back,” said Forgione. “Three or four girls are going to have to step up to fill those minutes, but everyone’s been working really hard from day one. It was a tough loss for us. There’s no way around it, but I hope that the other girls will step up and do the best they can to replace her.”
The good news is that Southington should have a deeper bench than they’ve had in years. Freshmen Hartlee Meier and Sarah Minkiewicz will join Fischer and Meehan in the backcourt. Sophomore Tyra O’Regan returns from injury to fill in as a guard and a forward, and junior forward Kayla Kavanagh is expected to help out in the paint.
At mid-season, Southington will get an extra boost when junior transfer Diana Verderame becomes eligible as a center/forward.
“We’re going to try to go with eight girls, and we could have nine players by the end of the year,” said Forgione. “We’ll be able to stay with whoever has that hot hand at the beginning of the game. We’re going to try to mix things up a bit and build experience. We have girls stepping into roles that I didn’t anticipate, but no one’s going to feel sorry for us. We’re 20-2 in our last 22 home games, and we’re over .500 on the road. We know that teams are going to come after us.”
Southington’s schedule won’t offer many breaks, but that’s been the situation for years. The biggest challenge will be Farmington—a veteran squad with three division one prospects—but it doesn’t get any easier after that.
“After Farmington, we still have NW Catholic, Hall, and Simsbury. There are no breaks in our schedule, but we’re going to keep battling,” Forgione said. “We’re going to learn a lot about being mentally tough, and I hope that’s a life lesson that they’ll take with them after high school. Life’s not always going to be easy. Sometimes the tougher road brings the greatest reward. I have a lot of respect for any kid that can battle through our schedule.”
Expectations are just as high. The Knights expect to keep their string of postseason qualifications alive, and once they get there—anything can happen. The Lady Knights will be battle tested. They will be ready, and they will be exciting to watch.
“I don’t think that a lot of teams are circling us on their calendar, so we’re going to try to sneak up on them and knock some teams off early,” said Forgione. “It really comes down to the same clichés every year. We have to take it one quarter at a time from game one to game 20. We start with Middletown. We end with New Britain, and there aren’t any breaks in between.”
Let’s get ready to rumble.