Hoping, preparing for hoops

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By Ken Morse, Citizen’s News

Naugatuck boys basketball coach Michael Wilson calls out to his players during a game against Sacred Heart in February 2020 at Alumni Hall at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury. With the winter high school sports season on hold, coaches have had to find ways to stay engaged with their teams. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

With the winter high school sports season on hold until at least Jan. 19 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local basketball coaches are doing what they can to keep their teams ready to move forward when, and if, the season tips off.

Naugatuck boys basketball coach Mike Wilson and his team have been champing at the bit ever since they won their first NVL championship in 51 years last March before the CIAC shut down state tournaments.

Naugatuck will have a solid group of upperclassmen returning, led by All-NVL juniors Avery Hinnant — the 2020 NVL tournament MVP — and Ese Onakpoma, along with seniors Justin Barth and Julaquis Minnifield.

“We have strong upperclassmen who will help to bring the team together once we get back at it,” Wilson said. “We graduated some good seniors, especially All-Iron Derrick Jagello, and a senior this year, Rob Sanders, who moved and went to play in Florida. Rob would have been one of the top players in the state this year.”

Teams can hold conditioning practices, but only four players are allowed in gyms at a time. Not being able to practice as a team has been a challenge, and coaches are finding different ways to adjust.

“We have been getting together on a group messenger to stay in contact,” Wilson said. “We can go in the gym now to do conditioning, but only four at a time, and I’m just not going to do that and have to stand at the basketball hoops and not be able to use them. When we are allowed to get together as a team that’s when I’ll start it up.”

Woodland boys coach John Mariano compared what’s happening now to the time before AAU programs, personal trainers and skill camps, when players went out and practiced on their own if they wanted to get better.

“We have tried to provide different resources for the kids, but it comes down to working out on their own or in small groups to get better and stay ready for the season,” Mariano said.

Mariano led Woodland to the state tournament last season. The Hawks return key players, including senior Nate Smith and juniors Jason Palmieri and Nate Bodnar.

“We’ve had Zoom meetings and I have been challenging the kids to get creative in their workouts,” Mariano said. “It’s like it was 30 years ago. If you wanted to get better, you found a way to practice on your own to get better.”

Woodland girls coach Jess Moffo has been sending her players workouts to do, record and send back for review.

The Hawks, who went 14-6 last season, return senior Ava DeLucia and a solid group of juniors, including Gabby Mastropietro, Kylie Bulinski, Andra Bojka and Riley Kane.

“We have a good group of returners who will need to bring the rest of the team up to speed in a hurry once this gets going,” Moffo said. “We have been doing Zoom meetings. Some kids are getting together, doing the weekly workouts and sending them back to me.”

“My concern is injuries from not doing anything prior to the start of the season, so I’m trying to keep them in condition so that doesn’t happen,” Moffo added. “We have a solid vehicle for success. We just have it make it drivable again.”

Adam Purcaro is in his first season coaching the Naugatuck girls basketball team. The Greyhounds are teeming with talent, including All-Iron junior Kaylee Jackson and junior Kendall Allen.

“We can’t do any basketball workouts at this time,” Purcaro said.  “But what we are allowed to do is optional Zoom meetings, just to learn about my culture and what my philosophy is and come together as a team that way.”

Purcaro said the limited conditioning practices give the players a chance to at least get together and form that camaraderie that is essential in building a team.

“These are unique circumstances, and the hope is once Jan. 19 comes around we will be able to go full speed ahead,” he said.

Correction: Former Naugatuck High School player Sara Macary transferred to Notre Dame High School in Fairfield.