Greyhounds earn their place in history

Spencer Dreher
Spencer Dreher

As I walked through Mohegan Sun Sunday, I was almost in awe. It seemed as if every row of slot machines, every store at the gorgeous mall, every long line in front of Krispy Kreme that I walked by, I ran in to folks from the borough of Naugatuck.

Why did so many of them come out? History has shown that the Naugy boys basketball team doesn’t make a deep run in the state tournament have that often.

This year was different.

The No. 7-seeded Greyhounds were in their first state final since 1974 on Sunday. Their last basketball title came back in 1942. Naugatuck ultimately came up short to No. 9 Bunnell, 72-61.

However, the game on Sunday doesn’t define the Greyhounds’ season.

Naugatuck had its best season since head coach Mike Wilson was a player in the late 1990s. The Greyhounds went 16-4 in the regular season and earned their highest seed (two) in the NVL tournament in Wilson’s tenure at the helm.

But what made this team seem so special? Yes, they won games. They had talented players and, in my opinion, a fantastic coaching staff, which included basketball knowledge, wisdom and motivation. But what made so many Naugy citizens who haven’t attended a game all year make the 70-minute drive to The Sun on Sunday?

I have had the privilege to cover this team all season, and through talking to Wilson and his players, it is now safe to say that this team was one-of-a-kind.

To coach Wilson, basketball is more than just a game. In his post-game interview on Sunday, Wilson explained the message that he gave his players after the loss.

“In life, you’re going to face a lot of adversity,” Wilson explicated. “As hard of a loss this is, this makes us better people and if losing the state championship is the most painful moment of your life, you are going to live a very fortunate life.”

All season, Wilson has taught life lessons through basketball and his players were fortunate enough to experience that every day. An example of that would be their volunteer assistant coach, Marcus Melchionno.

Wilson did not bring Marcus on the staff just to get his team pumped up before every game (although he did a superb job in doing so). Melchionno’s life changed after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a near-fatal car crash in 2008.

Melchionno brings that message of fighting through adversity that Wilson was talking about. After the crash, he fought through the pain and suffering, but now he is walking and he is happy.

This team took Melchionno’s message into the state tournament. After a loss to Crosby in the NVL tournament semifinal, the Greyhounds seemed pretty down. However, I will never forget what Wilson said to me after the game.

“This gets us itching that much more for that state title,” the coach said.

I knew right then and there that this team was not going down without a fight.

If you were to ask anybody in the NVL at the start of the season what they thought of the Greyhounds’ shot of being contenders, they probably wouldn’t have thought much of it. I think that is how Wilson, his staff, and his players wanted it. They wanted to shock people.

That is why you could not ask for a better team to make this run. They respected their coach and listened to what he had to say. They fought through a lot of different obstacles year: injuries, suspensions, and running in to a brick wall when they were defeated badly by Sacred Heart, 88-59.

But to quote Rocky Balboa, “It’s not how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you get hit and keep moving forward.”

The Greyhounds followed that motto all season.

So why did I run in to all of those “Naugatuckians” on Sunday? They came to witness a critical moment in Naugy sports history — one that will no doubt inspire the youth to join in the effort to get back to Mohegan.

Senior Josh Aviles, who sat out the states with a shoulder injury, confirms it.

“I saw a lot of little kids out here today, and I know that they are going to want to be in same spot as we are.”

The fight that Naugy showed this season not only changed my life, but the lives of the generation behind me. They have earned their place in history.

Spencer Dreher is a contributing sportswriter to the Citizen’s News.