Boys Basketball preview: Realignment raises tourney expectations

By BRIAN JENNINGS

STAFF WRITER

They’re a seasoned team with players that have been in the program for three years now. They haven’t skipped a beat in the practices they’ve had since tryouts. They’ve already had a successful scrimmage and look like they’re ready to go.

Returning players were able to get eight months of preparation onto the court. These are all ingredients for a recipe of a promising run at a state title.

“It feels great to see how they changed their bodies, how their attitudes are so positive, how they’re responding to one another, and how hard they’re working,” said Southington coach John Cessario. “And it’s great to be in a gym teaching these guys. They really get after it.”

The regular season hasn’t even started yet, but if you sat in one of Southington’s practices, you wouldn’t know the difference. One of Cessario’s mainstay rules is to play hard, no matter who the opponent is, and his boys are doing that in a practice setting.

“I love the fact that we can be considered to be in preparation for our opening night against Glastonbury,” said Cessario. “It’s a testament to these guys and what it is that they want to accomplish this year.”

The Blue Knights finished last year’s regular season at 9-11 overall (5-5 home, 4-6 away), going 7-7 in the CCC Central Region and 5-3 in the CCC Central Blue Division (3rd). In the postseason, the Knights didn’t qualify for the conference tournament after tying for 19th in the CCC, but they made an appearance in the state tournament for the first time in Cessario’s tenure with the program to dispel a three-year drought. However, it took just one game before Southington’s postseason run ended, as the Knights fell, 69-31, to eventual Class LL champion, No. 2 Hillhouse, in the first round.

“Outside of a hiccup that would have made us qualify for the CCC tournament, we could have had two postseason games,” said Cessario. “We really thought that this could be a springboard into this season. Of foundations that were laid over several years, we were able to accomplish something that I didn’t think we were going to be able to do in three years.”

The Knights lost three players to graduation after last season, all of which were team captains, including their all-conference guard that averaged a team high of 10.7 points per game.

Cessario found some experience in returning players from last year’s team, which will become valuable in the preparation for a season that he’s considering for 2017-18. But more importantly, the unselfishness that he saw in his three graduated captains is certainly going to carry over from last year and spill onto the court this season. Whether it was the leadership or the quality of play they brought day in and day out, there’s no doubt that last year’s seniors helped prepare the senior class returning for the upcoming season.

“We felt last year was very successful because it was really something that the guys achieved within a goal,” said Cessario. “That was to play in March, and they were able to do that.”

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One through five, Cessario said that this team is as strong as it’s ever been during his time at Southington. There are several guards that can seamlessly find each other in transition and in space. Cessario goes a step beyond complementary when it comes to the forwards with a talented set of starters and backups.

“I just love how seasoned we are at the positions,” said Cessario. “One can say one is a strength more so than the other, but they really, truly complement one another. When you can have strengths at all five positions that really come to the forefront because of unselfishness, that’s the sign of a great team.”

Since he came into the program, Cessario’s teams have always been defensive-minded. This season will be no different, as the goal will be to keep teams to under 40 points.

“If you can give a team one shot every possession, you are really setting yourself up for success,” said Cessario. “Rebounding and defending lead to so many positives that we need to always get better defensively every day. But along with that, we need to be the best rebounding team in the CCC.”

Aside from losing three players to graduation, the Knights will also be without seniors William Barmore, Jack Herms, and Joseph Koczera. Herms suffered a season-ending injury during the football season, and Barmore and Koczera chose not to return.

Cessario is entering his fourth year as head coach of the varsity boys basketball program and named four team captains for the upcoming season for the first time in his coaching career. Those captains include Cameron Clynes (forward), Andrew Lohneiss (guard), Jeremy Mercier (forward), and Timothy O’Shea (forward), of whom are the only returning seniors from last year’s squad. Mercier led the team with 6.7 rebounds per game last year.

Lohneiss wasn’t part of the Southington’s youth system, but he came into the program as a freshman wanting to make a statement. According to Cessario, he is a self-motivated player who has exponentially grown within the sport since he entered the program.

“We loved every second of him from the day we first saw him play,” said Cessario. “He’s someone that I can’t speak enough about, and we would love to clone and make a part of him in every player. He’s worked on deficiencies and has become a very confident player…not overly confident, but the right confidence level, in order to be a success at the high school varsity level.”

Lohneiss can burn opponents behind the three-point line, but he’s not just a lethal shooter. Cessario said that the multifaceted senior embraces physicality and has learned how to get to the rim with an explosive athleticism.

“When you have a guy that can get to the rim, shoot it, or draw the attention of multiple defenders and still give it up, you have a guy that presents an opportunity to his teammates,” said Cessario. “You can’t just dwell on one thing with him. He understands the game and is someone who teams will have to take many looks at, in order to find out how to stop him.”

O’Shea is another Knight that has brought a toughness to Southington inside the paint. He’s not a 6-foot-8 center…he’s a 6-foot-4 center. But he’s been working on positioning himself to become a potential 10-rebound-a-night big.

“He’s looking to finish more because he’s got guys around him that can create opportunities for him,” said Cessario. “He’s someone who I think will be a real solid presence inside, and we have many expectations for him that I know he’s willing to take on.”

Although he may be considered an undersized center, it’s not hard to understand why O’Shea could be one of the most physical players on the post for the Knights this winter. As a starting receiver on Southington’s football team during the fall, his ability to fight for a jump ball in the end zone on the turf translates to his ability to battle for position underneath the hoop on the hardwood.

O’Shea can make getting to the rim offensively, as well as grabbing rebounds off the glass defensively, look easy.

“He’s a nonstop guy and is someone who you want to be more like when you’re watching him,” said Cessario.

Colin Burdette (guard) is the lone returning junior from last year’s team. Burdette came off the bench and started in multiples games last year after point guard Michael DeFeo went down with an injury, averaging 5.3 assists per game.

New additions for the upcoming season that could make an immediate impact on the varsity lineup include senior Ryan Middendorf (forward); juniors Ryan Gesnaldo (guard) and Adam Hunter (forward); and sophomore Billy Wadolowski (guard).

After a new realignment of the CCC, Southington is now in the West Colonial Division with Conard, Hall, and NW Catholic. The West Patriot Division includes Avon, Farmington, Glastonbury, and Simsbury.

To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at bjennings@southingtonobserver.com.

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