By Ken Morse, Citizen’s News
You can take a player out of the game, but you can never take the game out of the player.
Former Naugatuck Greyhound Robert Sanders, a high school senior, was not about to let the decision to delay the winter sports season step in the way of his dream of playing basketball in college.
The CIAC postponed the winter high school sports season until at least Jan. 19 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it remained unclear last week how, and if, the season will proceed.
Sanders, who earned All-Iron Division honors in 2019, wanted to be sure that he showed colleges his game during his senior season, even if it meant moving 1,200 miles away to do so. Sanders moved in with his father, former New London High School standout and Providence College player Robert Sanders, in Florida, and is enrolled and playing ball at Durant High School in Plant City, Fla.
“It was something I was thinking about for a while,” Sanders said. “Things were not looking promising in Connecticut and this being my last year, I took the opportunity.”
“We are playing without masks and a limited number of fans in the stands,” he added. “We wear masks on the bench and are doing the social distance thing, but we are playing basketball.”
Sanders quickly showed his new teammates he’s got game. He scored 29 points in Durant’s first game — a 71-30 win over Lenard on Dec. 1.
“It’s definitely a challenge for any player to go to another team like that, especially in your senior year,” Durant head coach Sean Hayes said. “But our guys knew that a player like Robert could come in here and help us, and he certainly showed that in the first game of the season.”
Sanders followed up his season-opening performance with games of 28 and 22 points, as the Cougars busted out to a 5-0 record. Sanders is also focusing on his all-around game, tightening up his defense and crashing the boards.
“My points have dropped off but I’m distributing the ball well and getting in there for some boards,” Sanders said. “It’s a lot different from the NVL. There is a wider variety of teams down here. The league is so big and the talent level is right up there.”
Through 13 games, Durant stood at 10-3 and entrenched in a run to make the state playoffs after going 7-18 last year.
Coach Hayes is quite pleased with the addition of the former Naugatuck Greyhound, who averaged 16.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game through 13 games.
“Robert got here about a week before the season started, so we didn’t have a lot of time to get him acclimated,” Hayes said. “So it took a little while for Robert to get comfortable in his new surroundings to get his overall game clicking. He is just a calming presence out there on the court.”
“There is a level of trust that needs to be developed, and we have seen real good progress heading into the New Year,” Hayes added. “It’s shaping up to be a special season with a chance to move on in the districts and the regionals in the postseason.”
Durant started two freshmen last year and brought another one off the bench. Hayes said the team took its lumps last season, but heading into this year he knew the team had the right mixture to make a run.
“Robert was just icing on the cake,” Hayes said. “He is a tremendous playmaker, especially in the open court. We like his drive in transition and it’s been fun to watch. He doesn’t force anything, he kind of picks his spots, and that goes back to the trust level.”
There is still a lot of season to go for the Durant Cougars, but a strong first half of the season has everyone’s attention in their league.
Hayes said the team and district have navigated the pandemic fairly well thus far.
“We did have a couple of players quarantined for a few games,” Hayes said. “But for the most part no teams down here in our district have had to cancel any games. It’s usually a player or two that had a classmate test positive, so they had to quarantine and that has happened to a few schools, but for the most part we are getting through the season in pretty good shape.”
Sanders was a key player for the Greyhounds, who won their first Naugatuck Valley League championship in 51 years last March.
Naugatuck head coach Mike Wilson said Sanders would have been one of the best players in the state this year, but he’s happy to see him excel and showcase his skills for colleges.
“That was the best case scenario for Robert,” Wilson said. “He had the opportunity and he took it because we don’t know what’s going to happen this season. So far he is killing it down there, good for him.”
“This is his senior year and he would have been one of the best players in the state for us,” Wilson added. “I know Sacred Heart University down in Fairfield really likes him a lot but they want to see what he can do his senior year. Mike Makubika, a former Naugatuck guy, is coaching at Florida Southern, and that’s only about ten miles from Durant, so they may be looking at Robert, as well.”