By JOHN GORALSKI
Blue Knight basketball coach John Cessario points to his players as they huddle in a small room off the high school gym. The hum of conversation and laughter fills the area as the boys lounge around before practice, and the first-year coach smiles at a visitor with a sense of satisfaction.
The first-year coach has spent much of his early practices trying to instill a sense of family and community with his young team. Last season, the Knights were mired in a one-win win season, so Cessario is trying to foster a sense of family within his team. He wants them to work together in the trenches. He wants them to embrace their goals together. If the Knights are going to shed their recent troubles, it’s going to take a group effort.
“We have a bunch of personalities, and I think that they are all starting to mesh. They are all starting to come to the middle. Listen to them, and you’ll see that they like each other’s company. There are no real cliques, and these guys are getting into it,” he said. “When they like to share their time together, you’ll start to see them ready to do anything for one another on the floor.”
The first year coach is enthusiastic about the challenges that Southington faces this winter, and he’s optimistic about the team’s chances to grow. For the past 20 years Cessario has been coaching area teams, first as an assistant at East Catholic High School and Berlin. Finally, as a head coach in East Windsor. At every step, Cessario’s teams have grown. In East Windsor, they grew into a competitive program.
Now, he wants to bring that success to his hometown. Cessario believes that Southington can be a basketball town.
“The Southington athletic programs have a prowess that makes a lot of people envious. Basketball has been what it’s been, but I feel like it’s foundational,” he said. “We’re starting with a grass roots movement. We start with the travel programs, and we see all the positives that can lead up to the progression and succession that these guys can have when they get to the high school.”
So Cessario wants his teams to keep one eye on the future and another on the past. If basketball is going to continue to grow as a program, they have to embrace the past and build on it. That’s why he selected the motto, “For each other…plus one.” It’s a nod to previous coaches.
“That ‘one’ is referring to the late John Salerno, who was the coach here back in the day,” Cessario said. Salerno was recently inducted into the local sports hall of fame, and Cessario spent the night talking about the history of Southington basketball with Salerno’s family and friends. “We’re going to make sure that everything that these guys do, individually and as a team, will be the right thing for our community. In respect for the previous regime, John Salerno, and everyone that came before them, I want there to be an excitement about coming into this gym. We know that this is community driven. People are going to find themselves sitting here rooting for a team that you just can’t help rooting for.”
On the floor, the Knights will look decidedly different after graduating six varsity players from last year’s team, including two of their top three scorers and three of their top five rebounders. But the Knights return a solid core of players.
Mike Pagano was the second highest scorer last season with 185 points (9.3 ppg) and led the defense in steals (17). Brett Shaw was a leading scorer last season (110 points, 78 rebounds) before suffering injuries down the stretch. Kyle Borawski, Michael Taylor, and Nick Blitz all contributed off the bench. With an influx of new talent, Cessario expects to hit the ground running this winter.
“I want us to compete every day and never take a play off,” he said. “We preach never taking any thing for chance. When you’re prepared physically, good stuff will happen. They’re willing to go to war together.”
Pagano, Shaw, and Taylor are the veteran guards in the lineup. Mike DeFeo and Dylan Dean are promising newcomers. John Mikosz, Matt Becotte, Quinn Becotte, and Ryan Sheehan, a 6- foot-4 sophomore, will be the main big men, but Shaw and Pagano can both shift to forward in a pinch.
“I think we’ve got guys that are learning their roles progressively from top to bottom,” said Cessario. “We run a bit of a point guard by committee. You can be the guy that gives it up right away, or after three or four passes. You have to be able to handle the ball whether you’re a big guy or a guard. All our guys have to know how to catch, and touch, and give, and go.”
It won’t be easy. The schedule will be as difficult as last season when the Knights went 1-19. Southington wasn’t able to score a single win in the conference last winter, and they won’t come easily this year, either, but Cessario feels that his team can compete if they box out, stick to the system, and learn their roles.
There are no captains. There are no cliques or pecking order on the bench. It’s all for one, and one for all.
“I think it’s vital over our first four games to get off to a good start even though only one of them is in our conference,” said the coach. “I think we have to have success. Ultimately, we want the win, but we have to at least play well. We need to take steps toward the ultimate place we want to be so we’ll be ready to take on the Weavers, the NW Catholics, and the Farmingtons. We have a 7-day stretch from the Jan. 2-Jan. 9 with three teams that can punch us right in the mouth. There’s talent at Newington and Bulkeley. Weaver is a runner up in Class M, and they’re all coming back. We have to be able to handle it.”
Will this be the year that Southington turns the corner? Will this be the foundation as they build a program that stands toe-to-toe with some of the more prolific ones at the high school? That’s the goal.
“Our basketball abilities are improving every day. I just want to compete,” Cessario said. “I just want to make sure that we’re boxing out every possession, we’re not turning it over, and we’re getting the best available look. I want to make it difficult for the other team to score. I want to do everything we can to get us there. If we do, eventually those shots will fall. We’ll get where we need to be.”