The center of attention

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Naugatuck’s Raina Ceryak shines on the court

City Hill Middle School student Raina Ceryak, right, in action during the U.S. Junior Nationals held the weekend of June 25-28 in Hershey, Pa. Ceryak plays for the AAU Connecticut Heat, who won the state championship to move onto the nationals. CONTRIBUTED

Playing center on a basketball team puts you right in the middle of the action. For Naugatuck middle school student Raina Ceryak that is exactly where she wants to be.

The soon to be eighth grader at City Hill Middle School has excelled on the basketball court over the past few years.

She credits much of her success to her coaches, and to her association with the AAU basketball team the Connecticut Heat. The Heat won the state championship and recently played at the U.S. Junior Nationals in Hershey, Pa.

“It was great exposure for her,” Raina’s mother Regina Ceryak said. “She got involved with the Heat last year through former Naugatuck High School 1,000-point scorer Jessica Webber.”

Over the past year of playing with the Heat, Regina has witnessed her daughter’s growth on the court.

“Her coach Taylor Nkomis plays for Western Connecticut State University. Raina has learned so much and has improved quite a bit this past year. Of course I always tell her that her school grades are the most important part and she works hard at it,” Regina said.

Ceryak was the starting center for the City Hill Cyclones last year and her experience with the Heat at the Nutmeg Games really showed her potential. She also gained a lot of knowledge playing on the Little Pal champion Hornets, hitting crucial foul shots down the stretch to help lead the Hornets to back-to-back titles.

“During tryouts, I noticed that Raina was very comfortable on the court,” City Hill head coach Fred Scheithe said. “It was obvious she had been playing basketball for a while. She had a better understanding of how the game was played.”

All that know-how will be tested next year as Scheithe has high hopes for Raina on the court.

“We have some strong teams in the league and she will be playing against some very big girls this season,” Scheithe said. “I have high expectations for Raina this coming season, and I’m sure she will do what ever is necessary to achieve them. One thing for sure, I will challenge her.”

The U.S. Junior Nationals is known as one of the premier competitions, bringing in teams from all over the country. The organization is the longest running girls basketball program since the 1980s.

“Playing at the Junior Nationals was a real eye-opener,” Raina said. “Playing against teams from other states exposed me to some very good competition. I feel the experience has helped me to become a better player. I had my moments at the competition.”

The Heat wound up with a 1-4 record at the Junior Nationals but the experience has shown Raina how far she has progressed and how far she needs to go.

“It was pretty exciting playing at that level,” Raina said. “I thought I did well with my foul shooting. In fact I feel I improved in all aspects of my game. I’m looking forward to this coming school year and I plan to work just as hard to become a better player.”