By KEVIN ROBERTS
John Cessario’s fourth season as the Southington boys basketball coach was a turning point. It was the first senior class he coached from the start, and the Blue Knights found a level of success not seen in nearly a decade.
Not only did Southington finish above .500, the team qualified for the CCC tournament, the Class LL tournament, and rallied for three postseason victories.
The Blue Knights won a game in the CCC Tournament, then claimed a pair of victories in Class LL before falling to eventual state champion Waterford in the quarterfinal round on the road. Southington had 14 wins in the regular season, the most since 2010-11 (14-6), and it finished with a record of 17-8 overall. It was an incredible journey for Blue Knight seniors Andrew Lohniess (All-CCC West Region), Cameron Clynes, Jeremy Mercier, Ryan Middendorf and Tim O’Shea.
Those seniors are gone, and with them their dependability and leadership skills. Can the next class do it again? That’s the question fans are asking as Cessario gets ready to battle with his second group of seniors.
Senior captains Ryan Gesnaldo, Adam Hunter, Colin Burdette and Jacob Flynn will look to carry the success of 2017-18 into this season. The four captains collectively occupy every position on the basketball court from point guard to center.
“They’re significantly interchangeable, so they can give leadership at all five spots. We’re very blessed for that,” Cessario said after a preseason practice.
For Southington, it all starts with defense.
“Defensively, we carry a pride like none other, to switch, to find out what an opponent may have as a weakness, and we need to have everything in the bag of tricks in order to get a team where we need them to be,” Cessario said.
Southington will show several types of defense, from man-to-man and zone to pressure. A big component of Blue Knight success in 2018-19 will be the ability to rebound at all positions. During practice, the Southington forwards gathered at one basket while the guards were at the other basket. Each side worked on boxing out and rebounding. It doesn’t matter how tall you are. Each and every Blue Knight needs to hit the backboards, and it needs to be a team effort. Southington hopes to get 6-foot-4 junior Zach Zembrzuski back, but is preparing to be without him. Zembrzuski tore up his knee during football season, so everyone else will have to step up.
“Let’s rebound,” Cessario said. “Let’s find our opponent, box out, secure, and find out what the defense gives us in transition.”
Defense and rebounding lend into Cessario’s approach of turning good defense into offense. The Blue Knights want to defend, rebound and run the floor. When Southington has to run a half-court set, it will have a bunch of plays at its disposal. There are also some very confident outside shooters, and the team-first attitude of the Blue Knights will only help them get better looks.
“The maturation process has been great with our guys,” Cessario said. “You don’t just show up and play. They’ve learned the system, they’ve learned how to play well together and unselfishly.”
That attitude of togetherness has been strong amongst the juniors and sophomores as well.
“I feel like no matter what the age group, they’re meshing already, and that breeds some real leadership qualities in our older guys,” Cessario said.
Southington will be looking for juniors like Jared Kelly, Jake Napoli, Billy Wadolowski, Jake Delmonte and Sean Olson to step into bigger roles. They got a taste of the big time when they traveled to Waterford for the state quarterfinal, but now they’re working to become more significant pieces. Sophomores Ricky Macioce, Aeden Derrick and Dylan Olson have also been working hard.
The Blue Knights are well aware of the work that must be put in. There are no nights off when you play in the CCC, which has plenty of height, athleticism and skill to go around.
“Tolland will be up, South Windsor will be better, NW [Catholic] will be better,” Cessario said. “We have Newington as an [out-of-division] game, and they have some very, very good players. Simsbury will always be good, Glastonbury is absolutely loaded.”
Southington started a new legacy of winning in 2017-18. They will be working every day to continue that legacy into this season.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com.