NAUGATUCK — The closing last year of Hillside Middle School and the merging of students with City Hill Middle School created more than a few obstacles to overcome. One of the bridges in the gap would center on the merging of the two schools’ athletic programs.
One season into this new venture, the results appear to be a successful transition has been made. The City Hill Cyclones girls basketball team held its first practice in November and former Hillside head coach Fred Scheithe was the man at the helm.
Obviously the biggest challenge on everyone’s minds was how to make the transition from rivals to teammates. The Cyclones came together as one and enjoyed a successful season with the help of team managers Olivia Green, Ciara Stella and Amanda Pelosi.
“To tell you the truth, I was a little nervous going into that first of practice,” said Scheithe, who is in his 28th season as a head coach. “I didn’t really know what to expect. There would be no more comfort zone and it would be like starting all over again. At Hillside you pretty much knew who was coming back and had known these kids for a few years. Now you had a bunch of new faces looking up at you and we had to start fresh.”
One of the hardest parts of the transition came when Scheithe had to pare the team down to more manageable numbers. The day the final squad was selected and 16 girls made the team, Scheithe was taken back by the response.
“As the team was announced, the girls who didn’t make the team actually were applauding the girls who did make it,” Scheithe said. “There was no animosity and the girls quickly came together as a team. That is a tribute to them.”
Once the team was picked, Scheithe said all 16 girls battled for starting roles.
“There were no guarantees as far as starting positions went,” Scheithe said. “My philosophy has always been that you had to earn your position through hard work in practice. The former Hillside girls had no advantage over the City Hill girls. We had to start fresh as a new team with a new identity. And what made the transition so smooth was actually the kids themselves.”
Scheithe credited Naugatuck’s youth sports organizations and the parents for making the transition as seamless as possible.
“I think playing together in the YMCA league and youth soccer these girls were already friends before this merger,” Scheithe said. “But
I think the biggest help was the parents. They were so supportive and they would fill the gym for every game cheering these kids on.”
Scheithe had more than enough tools in the shed. Leading the way was starting center Raina Ceryak along with forward Lauren Burns. The Cyclones used a three-guard offense with Michaela Pernell, Taylor Campos and Andrea Mercer filling out the starting unit.
Guards Nicole Boucher, Stefanie Flores and Megan Warnke along with center Bailey Messenger provided the first line of help off the bench.
“Messenger really came on down the stretch and helped us out in the middle,” Scheithe said. “And over the last month of the season Warnke played with a lot more confidence. She scored 12 points in the season finale against Derby.”
Eighth-graders Kayla Carrelo, Kassie Colon, Sarah Hanks and Lindsay Thoren added experience off the bench with seventh-graders Taya Diaz, Madison Jensen and Ally Mezzo giving the Cyclones depth for the future.
“We certainly have some good experience coming back, as well as a group of players who will provide a solid unit that will help out at the high school level next season,” said Scheithe.
There were more than a few games that defined this team and how they came together with a never-give-up attitude. City Hill trailed Westside of Waterbury, 29-19, heading into the final period of a game earlier this season.
The Cyclones went on a 15-5 tear in the fourth quarter to pull victory from the jaws of defeat in a thrilling, 35-34 win. Mercer nailed a pair of 3-pointers to put Westside on notice. Ceryak scored with 40 seconds left to give City Hill its first lead of the game and then went on to score the winning basket.
That was not the last white-knuckle affair for the Cyclones. They trailed Ansonia, 33-23, going into the final period before banging the nails out in a 38-37 seat-grabber.
Ceryak (10 points), Burns (five) and Pernell (two) led the way as City Hill outscored Ansonia, 17-4, in the last quarter to pull out the victory.
Scheithe had a simple way to gauge this season as a success.
“Last season they were rivals and this year they learned to become teammates,” Scheithe said. “That is a successful transition.”