Locals add to hoop excitement during state championships at Mohegan Sun Arena

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BY KEN MORSE
CITIZEN’S NEWS
Even though they represent other teams, there was a bit of a local feel to the high school basketball state championship games recently held at Mohegan Sun Arena. Former Naugatuck girls basketball coach Jodie Burns, now in her eighth season as an assistant coach at WCA for head coach Ronan O’Leary, remembers her days fondly with the Greyhounds.
“It feels like yesterday I was at Naugatuck,” said Burns. “Can’t believe this is my eighth year at Career, and what a season we had. It’s not anything that you can pinpoint or detect early on, it’s more of something you grow into.
“This team has been putting the pieces in place for a few years now and it just all came together. It was so surreal just being there. We had a real tough loss to Holy Cross around the midway point and I remember Ronan saying to the team, ‘I don’t want you to feel this way again,’ and we didn’t lose again the rest of the way.”
WCA pulled off a couple of firsts this season in their short eight-year history, compiling a sturdy 24-3 mark. The Spartans won their first NVL title, 68-57, over Kennedy, then rallied past Bloomfield, 74-58, for their first state championship in the Division III final.
“Naugatuck gave us a little scare in the (quarterfinals) of the NVL but we used that as a motivation,” said Burns. “The whole environment from the locker room to the court, to the jumbo-tron and the media, it’s an overwhelming experience just being there, but our kids have been very even keel all season long. They don’t let the pressure get to them. They were just there having fun. And what a memory to have winning a state championship.”
On the girls side of the court, former Woodland coach (girls soccer, softball, boys basketball) and current physical education teacher Joe Fortier has been guiding Pomperaug for over a decade now, but his charges had a year for themselves.
Pomperaug, the top seed in Class L, finished with a 22-4 record after dropping the championship game to No. 3 seed E.O. Smith, 58-46. The Panthers used the incentive of losing their SWC semifinal matchup against New Milford to reach their third state championship game.
“It was a great experience for the school, and the community really got excited about it,” said Fortier. “Certainly made for an entertaining few weeks this run in the states. Obviously ending up at Mohegan is always the goal but it takes everything coming together at the right time for that to happen.
“Early on this season you could tell how hard they worked together as a team. It wasn’t a bunch of individuals playing basketball. It was a team working together as a unit and that’s what it takes to be successful.”
This was the second season for Fortier’s assistant coach, former Woodland basketball player Jillian Chicano. It’s a cycle that has come full circle for both the head coach and his assistant.
“I taught Jill when she was in the fourth grade,” said Fortier. “Now here she is teaching my daughter.”
Chicano began teaching at the middle school level in Southbury and when the position for an assistant coach opened, she jumped at the chance.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be,” said Chicano. “Pomperaug is a good school and a great community and you can’t ask for a better AD in Ron Plasky. I like that coach Joe and myself have that Woodland connection. That really brings things full circle.
“We have a great staff. Coach Joe does a great job as head coach, I coach the freshman team and we have coach Robert Kasmire (as) the JV coach. We all have different personalities but work so well together.”
Chicano continued: “I think our team is phenomenal and not just from our athletic ability but from the overall way they handle themselves on and off the court. We would have liked to have a better outcome but just the experience of being at Mohegan is something the girls will remember forever.”