A championship class

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By Ken Morse, Citizen’s News

Greyhounds’ run to last NVL title sparked by close-knit group

Naugatuck High School basketball players, from left, Jamie Raczkowski, Jen Butkus, Jen Gessick, Michelle Decerbo, Nicky Plourde and Lauren Fitzgerald are shown on their senior night in 2002. –CONTRIBUTED

Queen’s “We Are The Champions” blared in the gymnasium at Seymour High School as Naugatuck High seniors Krystal Pabey and Caitlin Garnish — wearing freshly cut basketball nets around their necks — embraced at midcourt 20 years ago to celebrate winning the Naugatuck Valley League championship on the final night of the regular season.

Little did the throng of exuberant Greyhound fans realize at the time that the win would mark the last time Naugy won a girls basketball championship.

Seymour owned the NVL for the five years before that game in 2001, riding the coattails of Maria Conlon and her state-record 246 3-pointers. The Wildcats were especially tough on their home court, and built a 15-14 first quarter lead over Naugatuck.

That’s when Naugy’s suffocating defense kicked in gear.

The Greyhounds held Seymour scoreless for over 15 minutes and bolted to a 43-17 lead going into the final quarter. The 19-2 run over the second and third quarters was reminiscent of the Greyhounds’ run through the league that year, finishing 19-1 in the regular season.

Defense wasn’t the Greyhounds’ only calling card. Naugy had some gamers.

Lauren Fitzgerald knocked down 11 of the teams’ 13 points in the third quarter. Michelle Decerbo finished with 11 points and Pabey added 10 in the convincing 65-35 win.

The Greyhounds went on to dispose of Holy Cross, 35-33, in the NVL tournament championship final — back then the tournament didn’t decide the league champion like it does today.

Decerbo blocked four shots in the first quarter against the Crusaders to set the tone for Naugy. Jamie Raczkowski, who was named tournament MVP, scored nine points and had seven of the team’s 16 steals.

In the end, it was Garnish who hit a free throw with seven seconds remaining to ensure the margin of victory.

“Wow that seems like ages ago,” said the always tough-as-nails Garnish. “Krystal was such an incredible athlete, and we wouldn’t have gone anywhere without Michelle and that group of smaller players who were just feisty.”

The road to a championship began in the winter of 1998 when head coach Keith Raczkowski ushered in a new assistant, Ron Plasky, and a group of freshmen that would go on to compile a 69-11 regular-season record over the next four years.

“I had those Hillside girls as students when they played for Fred Scheithe,” Plasky said. “I saw them play against City Hill and Michelle Decerbo, so I knew this was a special group. Shannon Mesaros, Stephanie Dunn, we had 11 freshmen come into the program that year. That was one of the main reasons I moved up to the high school to coach them.

“Art Nunes was the freshman coach then. It was the start of something really special. My brother, Rob, came in as freshman coach during that championship season and it was so much fun.”

In that group was Raczkowski’s daughter, Jamie, who played at St. Francis Grammar School, Decerbo, who came from City Hill, and Jen Butkus, Nicky Plourde, Jen Gesseck and Fitzgerald, who all played at Hillside.

Decerbo, at 6 feet tall, was the centerpiece of the team and surrounded by a group of players that seemed to barely break 5 feet standing on the tip of their toes. But what they lacked in height they made up for with tenacity and passion that buckled the knees of their opponent.

“It was such a fun time,” said Decerbo, who went on to star at Northwestern and is now a physical education teacher in Worcester, Mass. “The energy and passion of our coaches just made it fun to go to practice. Those girls were so little, but they were scrappy. They would just swarm the other team and knock the ball away. They were little, but fast, and they can shoot the lights out.”

“We had some real tough players too, like Holly McGrath and Alison Rossi,” Decerbo added. “The NVL had some great teams and to finally get by Seymour was so special. Jen helped me on the boards and we just had it all covered. It was special to be part of.”

It wasn’t Coach Raz’s first heralded freshman class. He guided a run of six straight NVL championships and won 105 straight NVL games from 1989-1995. Those teams included names like Jessica Mudry, Naugatuck’s all-time leading scorer with 2,056 points, and Jen Rimkus, who tallied 1,174 points in her career.

But this class was special. This was the coach’s daughter and her friends who grew up together and were determined to make their mark.

“It turned out to be quite a great ride,” said Raczkowski, who won 349 games and seven NVL titles in 22 years at Naugatuck. He came out of retirement two years ago and is coaching again at South Windsor.

“When it’s your kid and her friends, it just made it that much more special. And my wife even said when it ended, ‘I’m really going to miss this.’ We had some tough kids — Brynn Davey, Tiffany Bosco and Bridget Squires — who were older and helped the younger ones develop.”

Raczkowski said there was never any talk that his daughter played because he was the coach.

“She earned everything she got and worked so hard every time she was on the court,” he said. “We didn’t spend a whole lot of time at home talking about basketball.”

Jamie Raczkowski loved playing for her dad.

“As a kid, he was always my coach and playing for him in high school brought us closer,” said Jamie Raczkowski, who now helps her father coach in South Windsor. “In my senior year, I joined the cross country team to spend more time with him.”

“He treated us all the same,” she added. “I didn’t get any special treatment from him, in fact he probably expected more from me being his daughter. We began to realize by our junior year that we could do something special and we started to work together more as a team.”

The girls honed their game growing up playing pick-up games at Pam and Bruce LaCharity’s house on Walnut Street against big brothers: Bobby Plourde and Bob Butkus. By the time they reached high school, they were battletested.

“It was amazing to grow up in that kind of neighborhood,” Nicky Plourde said. “I loved growing up in Naugatuck and Walnut Street. In fact, when my husband and I were looking for a house that was the one priority — we wanted to raise our kids in the same kind of neighborhood I grew up in. The old-school-kind-of-environment where all the neighborhood kids are getting together and playing and learning how to sort out our own problems with each other.

“I really think that helped us to develop into the kind of team we had that year we won the championship. It really helped to shape me as a person and gave me good social skills. It was a very special time in my life and I’m very grateful for that.”