NVL basketball tourneys to be like no others in league history

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

Woodland’s Rob Moriarty (22) shoots between Seymour’s Joe Orlando (12) and Kevin Harmeling (5) during a game March 9 at Woodland Regional High School. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

In a school year unlike anything we’ve ever seen, the Naugatuck Valley League basketball tournaments will follow suit with a free-for-all format starting this Saturday.

For the first time in the league’s history, every hoops squad will make the postseason. Since the CIAC decided against holding state tournaments in this compressed winter season, a wide-open league tournament is the next best thing in the eyes of most.

“I’m just happy that we’re having something and it’s not just the end of the season,” Woodland girls coach Jess Moffo said. “It gives the girls something to be excited about and something to play for.”

The brackets will look much like a regional of the NCAA tournament — a 16-team format pitting No. 1 vs. No. 16, No. 2 vs. No. 15, and so on in first-round matchups. Those games are set for March 20 at the site of the higher-seeded team at times to be determined. It’s likely that the top one or two seeds in the girls’ tournament will earn byes due to some schools not being able to field enough players.

Winners will advance to the quarterfinals March 22, with semifinals set for March 24 and championships March 27. The spring season begins two days later, so it will be a sprint to the finish.

The everyone’s-invited style of this year’s tournaments stands in contrast to the style of tournaments the NVL operated just 15 years ago, when only the top four teams in the league qualified for tournaments that were essentially exhibitions and didn’t determine the league champion.

The tournaments expanded to an eight-team format with the league’s expansion in 2009-10, and it had been that same size throughout the past decade. The pandemic forced a change that seems like a welcome adjustment.

“I think it’s cool that they’re allowing everyone to be in it and all these teams get to play,” Moffo said. “I like the fact that there will be more than three games for a couple of teams.”

Standings entering the tournament are tough to sort for several reasons, namely the fact that many teams have experienced COVID-related postponements. Through March 14, the Wilby girls had played only three games, while the Crosby boys had played just six times. Other teams had as many as 10 games under their belts.

Sacred Heart led the boys standings with a 8-0 mark. Defending champion Naugatuck was close behind at 7-2, while Woodland was in the middle of the pack at 5-5.

On the girls side, defending champ Holy Cross led the pack with a 6-0 record, while Woodland (6-4) and Naugatuck (4-5) were fighting for mid-range seeds.

Naugatuck’s Kaylee Jackson (12) brings the ball up the court against Wolcott’s Mimi Reilly (20) during a game March 5 at Naugatuck High School. -LARAINE WESCHLER/NPS

NVL athletic directors and coaches will meet March 18 to determine final seeds due to the imbalance among team records. The one sure bet about the tournament is that all games will be closed to fans. Instead, the contests will be streamed online in the same way regular-season games have been broadcast.

The difficulty in determining tournament seeding, plus the unpredictability brought upon by the pandemic, will make it hard to prepare in traditional ways for tournament games.

“It’s hard to say, because any day, teams could be losing players due to quarantine,” Moffo said. “You really don’t know what team you’re going to get. You just have to do what you do and go out there and play.”

The Naugatuck boys were the latest program to have a COVID wrench thrown into their hoops plans as the Greyhounds went into quarantine last week. The COVID issue forced the Greyhounds to cancel their last three games of the regular season, including a rematch with Sacred Heart. They will be eligible to return in time for the NVL tournament, although their first-round game may be moved to March 21 to accommodate for one day of practice.

Hounds coach Mike Wilson could not be reached for comment.