By BRIAN JENNINGS
The Blue Knights basketball team just missed the Class LL tournament by two games, finishing the regular season with a 6-14 record, 5-9 in the CCC West (sixth) and 6-12 in the CCC, but fans haven’t forgotten the late rally that brought the 0-7 team to the brink of a postseason berth.
After stepping into the head coaching gig for his first season, Blue Knights coach John Cessario said that he learned a lot about his team and the challenging schedule.
“I learned that the CCC is an extremely competitive conference and I learned that there isn’t a night off,” Cessario said. “I think that there’s a learning curve about everything that you do everyday. First-year blues definitely set in, meaning that you need some experience within the system we tried to put in. And that’s tough to do in year one.”
After starting the 2014-15 season by losing their first seven games, the Knights showed signs of resiliency, bouncing back to win six of the next 10 games, including a three-game winning streak.
“I saw a lot of perseverance, considering that we started the season 1-9,” he said. “We went into Bulkeley and won at Bulkeley, and beat a New Britain team that is faster and a little bit more skilled. We didn’t turn the ball over nearly at all. When that happens, it builds confidence in the guys for late runs. Even though we fell short, we did everything we had to do when it came to the measurement of handling the basketball. You can’t score if you don’t have possession, and we had more efficient possessions as the season went on, especially in the last 10.”
The Knights lost most of their starting five with the graduation of Brett Shaw, Mike Taylor, Kyle Borawski, and Mike Pagano. Taylor led the team at the point guard position and knew how to get all of his teammates involved, leading the team with 26 assists. On the other hand, Pagano finished his senior season as a scoring machine, leading the team in just about every other offensive category. Whether it was from the foul line or from downtown, Pagano always found a way to stroke the nylon in the most crucial moments of the game. He averaged 19.1 points per game (382 total points) and was the type of player that wouldn’t back down from the challenge of squeezing through defenders in the lane to get to the bucket.
The Knights will also be without Richard Rivera (junior), as he has chose not to play on the team this season. Rivera was a force in the paint and off the glass, averaging a team-high 6.8 rebounds per game (123 total rebounds).
Just as he did in the beginning of his first season, Cessario said that he has not chosen team captains for the 2015-16 season.
“If we don’t see all of the leadership qualities we need, we don’t just hand out that tag,” Cessario said. “Last year, we had Mike Taylor, and he wasn’t assigned captaincy until we started to see those leadership qualities. He definitively showed them within the first month.”
The only two key returning players with varsity experience from last season are guard Nate Blitz (senior) and forward John Mikosz (junior). Blitz is a guard that can knock down some jumpers from the outside, but can also round out his game by driving the lane to get to the rim. As one of the lankiest on the team standing at about six-foot-four, Mikosz presents himself as a slasher, who is extremely athletic and active on the glass. He can also hit a mid-range jumper when he needs to as well.
Other varsity players that will look to make an impact in the starting lineup include Mark Lindberg (senior), Michael DeFeo (junior), Michael Mauro (junior), Brendan Taylor (junior), and Jeremy Mercier (sophomore).
Lindberg presents himself as a big body down on the post. He plays extremely hard every game, finding different ways to work for his points by getting an inside look at the basket from the paint.
DeFeo can be pretty clever with the basketball when it comes to directing the offense from the top of the key. At the point guard position, he’s a good decision maker and knows the appropriate shots to take. He can work the flow of the offense with rhythm jumpers. If the best player is a point guard on the other team, he can change the game with lockdown defense.
Mauro is a solid defensive player and a good rebounder for his size, even though he is not the tallest one on the court. He is someone who understands the basics of the game and adheres to the fundamentals. He too, can be considered as a slasher of sorts. He’s very active on the floor, in great shape, and is reliable for executing the game plan. His teammates look to him for leadership.
Brendan Taylor, has a totally different style of play than that of his older brother. Mike was more on the defensive side of the ball as a great ball handler, whereas Brendan’s game is more above the rim. He may not be a point guard, but he can slip into the position if need be. He is quite diverse, and benefits from going up against other guards and forwards. His length of six-foot-one supports the ability to be a great rebounder and defender.
Mercier has steady, soft hands that help him finish with ease around the rim. One of the benefits from last season was how quickly he learned to use his body at such a young age, battling opponents inside the zone. He has fought through injuries, but he can a big presence inside. His intelligence of knowing where to be on the court at the right time transitions into having one of the highest basketball IQ’s on the team.
“We have 18 guys in the program at the junior varsity and varsity level, and they we see them each beginning to embrace their roles,” the coach said. “Some of the older guys carry do carry a little bit more of a physical attribute that can contribute. But what’s great is that they’re all attempting to benefit from one another’s attention to detail on defense and sharing the ball offensively. That to me shows that each of them are stepping up, which is a coach’s dream.”
As far as having success the second time around, Cessario said that his team has to compete everyday.
“We’re a young team with little to no varsity experience, but the one thing that these kids all have been drilled upon are the fundamentals,” Cessario said. “If the fundamentals can be applied, I feel like we at least have a chance to compete in every game. I don’t know how many we’re going to win. I don’t place it on that. I can’t put that pressure on them. All we do is ensure that if they apply the fundamentals, take care of the basketball, rebound, and defend, we give ourselves the greatest chance. It’s really exciting to have as many young guys that want to learn. That’s really refreshing to have as many sophomores as we do in our top 18 and how well they’re getting after it. We have a great core of juniors that are going to hopefully provide the leadership that we need.”
Cessario said that the major keys for the upcoming season will be committing to the defensive side of the floor, as well as rebounding.
“I’ve said this forever,” the coach said. “There’s always a puncher’s chance when you defend. If we can make it difficult for other teams to score, frustrate them, and not give them rhythm, I feel like we can potentially get some scores off of those defensive things. I think we have a somewhat athletic team. We can hopefully steal some transition buckets. I think we really have to apply ourselves on the defensive end. If we can defend, rebound, and take care of the basketball, a lot of other things get placed into where they should be.”
Cessario said that he sees depth as a big plus for his young squad.
“I think we’re going to be pretty deep on the bench,” the Knights coach said. “Even though we’re inexperienced, I think all of that experience can come to play after we get our repetition.”
Inexperience can be considered a weakness for the Knights, but Cessario said that he can find 15 guys to play the floor during any varsity game for this upcoming season.
“You have committed individuals that are going to fight for positions and time,” he said. “That creation is going to allow us to really play the hot hands and the guys that pick up the stuff the quickest. We’re extremely athletic and can get up and down the floor. We just have to look to harness it and get some experience to go along with that athleticism.”
After the realignment of the CCC, Southington is now in the Blue Division of the Central Region along with Conard, Hall, Glastonbury, Simsbury, Southington. The White Division contains Avon, Bulkeley, Farmington, Northwest Catholic, Weaver, and Windsor.
“We really have some of the greatest guys that are really unselfish,” said Cessario. “We have guys that are really committed to one another. You can see how competitive practices are. We are trying to reach out to the community and to one another. I think we’re going to really compete in ways that we need to compete to show growth. It’s going to be fun watching them grow up together.”