By BRIAN JENNINGS
John Cessario is entering his third year as head coach of the Blue Knight basketball team and hasn’t experienced the Class LL tournament or had a winning season since he arrived. But that hasn’t dampened the mood of the program.
Southington is entering the 2016-17 season with energy and enthusiasm, and Cessario said that none of their philosophy is changing.
“You want to get the most out of every player and each of their abilities, finding a cohesiveness among the veterans and the young guys to find that right combination,” the coach said. “We’ve learned that Southington has some incredible athletes, and what I’ve learned through time is that we’ve got incredible athletes that are great people.”
According to Cessario, the current state of the program is set up for that perfect combination, and the returning players that have been with Cessario since the beginning have bought into the program. All that’s left to do now is to play the game the way it needs to be played.
“We’ve got to put them in spots to get them comfortable and successful,” said Cessario. “I’ve learned in these past two years that the culture can be set, and we feel like we’ve achieved that. Our players can successfully gather some wins while being the people that we expect them to be when they’re not on the court.”
Adapting to a competitive, skilled conference is another aspect of the position that Cessario said he learned over his two-year stint with the Knights. Although the CCC might leave you bruised and battered from the style of play it offers by the time the playoffs roll around, Cessario said that it is still a benefit in the postseason to be a part of the CCC because it prepares you for the different types of teams throughout the state that you might be matched up with.
However, that competitiveness must be matched, in order to survive.
“We have to play programs with players that are completely dedicated to the basketball in their lives,” the coach said. “We’ve raised players playing multiple sports, but there are a lot of guys that prepare for their basketball seasons for a significant period of time. We’re trying to get those kinds of players that play all year long or nine months out of the year.”
Southington hasn’t had a winning record since the 2010-11 season when the Knights qualified for the 2011 Class LL tournament as the 13th-seed with a 14-6 regular season record, advancing to the second round. But Cessario said that he expects to win this season.
“I expect to compete as early and often as we can in every game,” the coach said. “Everyone else can place expectations, but I look at a player and want to work with him every day to be better than he was yesterday. In order for us to make the postseason, we have to be aware on every play. We have to defend every time we’re on defense and we have to make the right decision every time we’re on offense.”
Cessario said that he also expects his guys to be the hardest-working bunch out on the floor in every game as well.
“I coach so that these guys can be rewarded for their hard work,” said Cessario. “That’s a real driving force behind the entire coaching staff. They need to be rewarded for their hard work, and I feel like we can gather some tidbits of that this year.”
Southington finished the 2015-16 regular season with a 5-15 record, placing third in the CCC Central Blue behind Simsbury and Glastonbury with a 3-5 divisional record. Simsbury won the CCC Central Blue title.
The Knights missed the CCC tournament for the fifth-straight year and the Class LL tournament for the third-straight year.
The Knights are losing just three players to graduation, including Nate Blitz (guard), Mark Lindberg (guard), and Bryan Massabni. Blitz was one of the team’s leading scorers and three-point shooters last season. Lindberg was the team’s versatile slasher, driving the lane and finding the free throw line often.
Although they are just losing three seniors to graduation, the Knights will also be without 6-foot-4 and 175-pound center, John Mikosz.
“It was a player’s decision,” said Cessario. “He’s a tremendous young man who decided to stick with baseball. We wish him the best and wish that he could have stayed because he could have been an asset to our team. But it’s also something that we know we can fill spots with.”
Team captains for the upcoming season have not yet been announced, but key returners include seniors Michael DeFeo (point guard), Michael Mauro (forward), and Brendan Taylor (guard); and juniors Will Barmore (guard), Cameron Clynes (forward), Trevor Dufresne (point guard), Jack Herms (forward), Joe Koczera (guard), Andrew Lohneiss (guard), Jeremy Mercier (forward/center), and Tim O’Shea III (forward/center).
New additions to this year’s roster include senior Terrance Campbell (guard) and sophomores Colin Burdette (guard), Ryan Gesnaldo (guard), and Tim Walsh (forward).
Although the Knights aren’t an overall lengthy team, lack of size still makes up for strength in other areas. Cessario said that the team hopes to defend first, run next, and execute offensively if there isn’t a score off of the transition.
“We’re a pretty cerebral team,” said Cessario. “We think the game pretty well sometimes. We have to really use our speed to our advantage, but I know that these guys commit themselves to the defensive side of the floor. When you play defense, you can run a lot. We’re pretty good at the ball-handling side of things as well.”
Leadership is also going to be key to Southington’s success this season.
“We need leadership at both ends of the floor,” the coach said. “We need guys that can really rely on one another and know that it’s always going to be there. I know that we have some natural-born leaders on our team, but when you get that leadership, it makes the game fun.”