By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
BEACON FALLS — Woodland junior basketball player Kylie Bulinski knows what senior captain Ava DeLucia is about to ask her every time they step onto the floor for the opening tip.
“She always asks which way we are shooting,” Bulinski said.
There has to be a story behind that one.
“My first-ever varsity minutes as a freshman, I got put in the game and I didn’t know where we were shooting,” DeLucia admitted. “I ended up attempting to take a layup at the hoop we were defending. [It was] so embarrassing. So a couple of times a game, I always ask someone which hoop we are scoring at so I never have to experience that embarrassment again.”
That superstition may not have changed since freshman year, but Woodland coach Jess Moffo said that’s about the only similarity DeLucia holds from then until now.
“She came in her freshman year not really knowing anything about competitive basketball,” Moffo said. “I’ve told her all four years that she had it in her. She’s finally believed in herself [this year]. Each year, you’ve seen progression. This year she’s at a whole different level — averaging a double-double with four blocks a game and good defense.”
DeLucia’s improvement is a one reason why the Hawks went 8-4 during the regular season and earned the No. 4 seed in the Naugatuck Valley League tournament. But her on-court play pales in comparison to the importance of her leadership.
“She’s a great kid and a leader on and off the court,” Moffo said. “She’s a model student-athlete that anyone would be lucky to have. She shows up every day to practice with a smile.”
That was particularly crucial in mid-January when the team began conditioning with the uncomfortable mask requirements.
“She definitely kept everyone humble,” Moffo recalled. “When we came in, we weren’t in the best shape. She would talk everyone up in practice and tell them to keep working. She leads by example. They see her running with a mask, and they think they can do it, too.”
DeLucia said she took on that role as a result of what she’s learned during the pandemic. Her senior soccer season was cut short with a sudden postseason cancellation, and she watched her older brother, Nick, lose his senior baseball season last spring.
“I knew that every game could possibly be my last, so it was important to me to give 110% every game and every practice,” DeLucia said. “I was just so grateful that I was able to play another season with all my teammates when the chances for it were always somewhat slim. … As a senior captain, I wanted to be a good role model for all my teammates but also to enjoy every minute I had, because if I’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it was to never take a thing for granted because sometimes you won’t realize you lost it until it’s gone.”
Bulinski, who serves as a co-captain with DeLucia, has leaned on her older teammate’s leadership throughout the season.
“Ava has been a tremendous leader and team captain for all of us to look up to, especially the underclassmen,” Bulinski said. “She is a great asset to the program, and her energy on and off the court keeps the team together. She has shown great leadership during this COVID year when things were tough and we were unsure of a season. Over the past three years, Ava and I have become much closer both on and off the court, and we grew to form a special bond.”
Team leaders often suffer the harshest criticism from their coaches, but Moffo noted that DeLucia has embraced those moments and turned them into growth opportunities.
“She always wants to be team-first,” Moffo said. “She has her emotional side and can get upset, especially if I get on her, but she handles that and always ups her game. I got after her during the Oxford game (March 3), told her that she was being soft, and she stepped it up with five blocks in the fourth quarter.”
DeLucia’s improving skills and leadership coincided with increased confidence on the floor, too.
“Ava’s confidence gets better every time she is on the court,” Bulinski said. “She has become more vocal, more consistent, and an overall team player. Watching her develop over the years has made us all improve in each of our positions.”
“As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I have been able to be more confident on the court,” said DeLucia, who is undecided on her college plans. “Especially with being captain of the team, I’ve taken on a bigger responsibility, so I want to be a good role model for the rest of my teammates, which I think has also led me to be a little more confident on the court. Also, I have a very solid group of girls around me constantly, so knowing I have them to rely on and play with helps me feel more confident in my team.”