Morse: Greyhounds growth worth watching

Ken Morse

Every season begins with good intentions. Regardless of what the outlook may appear to be on paper, you still need to play the games. Oftentimes, a cautious, yet optimistic approach gives way to more realistic expectations.

Injuries, inexperience and just plain bad luck suddenly can turn the best-laid plans into a snowball’s chance at a barbecue. The once confident talk of contending for a title quickly changes tune and the phrase rebuilding enters the conversation.

On the surface it would appear that the Naugatuck boys basketball team has fallen on hard times—quite the contrary. Although a 3-13 record jumps off the page begging to differ, I have had the opportunity to view the situation first hand.

This team that appeared to be stumbling at times has somewhere along the line found all the tools in the shed. And, nothing can quite match the intensity and the desire that burns in the heart of the new first-year coach Mike Wilson.

He didn’t just happen to score a bunch of points in his career by accident. Wilson graduated from Naugatuck as the boys all-time leading scorer. Then he turned in a collegiate career that came within a handful of points of topping the 1,000-point mark.

And somewhere along the way, Wilson learned an awful lot about the game he loved. He couldn’t wait to come back home and teach the next generation of basketball stars all that he had learned.

When he was finally given the chance to take over the reins of the varsity unit, inexperienced faces looked up at him. But the enthusiasm could fill a gymnasium.

The difference was these inexperienced faces were not new faces. These were faces that grew up with the new coach when Wilson coached the freshman team. A bond of trust was formed long before they stepped onto the varsity court together.

That bond didn’t equate to wins right off the bat, and there have been some growing pains along the way. But in the process there were no hanging heads—only exuberant faces looking forward to the next challenge at hand.

There have been six games this season that the young Greyhounds could only wish they had back. There was a pair of two-point losses to Woodland and Kennedy, a three-point loss to Sacred Heart and a handful of games they were in right until the end.

Give or take about seven total points and this team could very well be entertaining state tournament hopes going down the stretch of the season. But the defining moment for this team came during a recent three-game stretch in losses to Crosby, Holy Cross and Pomperaug.

Naugatuck was never in any of those games and at that point no one would have blamed them if they threw in the towel while strapped with a 1-12 record.

Yet the Greyhounds responded and came within a basket of defeating a Kennedy team that had just upset the mighty Bulldogs of Crosby. What followed were back-to-back victories for the first time in over two seasons, beating Wolcott and Seymour in the last week.

Naugatuck seniors Tyler Conklin, Matt Zahornasky and Dan Bronko have spent this season leading this young group of players and the signs of growth is upon them. The word resilient can be best described by this year’s group of Greyhounds.

Along the way players like Adam Neveski, Zac Mercer and Husani Foote grew into their roles, while the emergence of players such as Nolan Kinne, Mick Pernell and Brandon Kuczenski have not gone unnoticed.

Kinne has shown signs of breaking out, scoring a career-high 17 points in the Greyhounds’ first win of the season, a 52-41 victory over Derby. Along the way, the junior guard has added a 10-point game against Sacred Heart and a 14-point production versus Crosby.

But the biggest steps forward belong to the Hounds inside-out combination. Pernell has been directing the ball up and down the floor in the face of the toughest defenses, putting up 10.5 points per game.

In the last eight games the point guard has reached double digits in scoring six times, including a career-high 24 points in Monday’s 61-54 win at Seymour.

Kuczenski has established the Greyhounds in the paint, hauling in double-digit rebound totals and a very noticeable 15.5 ppg average (ninth in the league). Kuczenski had a career-high 29 points this season against Wilby, and in the win at Seymour on Monday the big guy threw down 20 points in the paint to help lead Naugatuck to victory.

There are four games left on the season and how many more games will end up in the win column is anyone’s guess. But there is one thing that is certain: Naugatuck will play a basketball season next year and I, for one, can’t wait to see the progress made by this group of Greyhounds.