Published December 05. 2012 4:00AM
It's a little bit like last year's Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament.
Coach Bill Scarlata's Norwich Free Academy girls' basketball team went in as the No. 5 seed and won the championship game in the fourth quarter as then-sophomore Alyssa Velles began making every shot imaginable.
Now, the Wildcats are underdogs again in their own division of the ECC, where Bacon Academy, last year's Large Division and Class L state tournament champion, returns four starters.
But, really. As eight local high school girls' basketball teams start their seasons with games today, don't count out the Wildcats, even though a few injuries have made things a little more difficult to piece together.
"What I like is we have everyone back, sort of," Scarlata said this week. "We've got a lot of pieces. It took us awhile, not having any seniors last year, to develop. We could struggle at the beginning, but by the end we could do the same thing as last year."
NFA was 8-7 on Jan. 25 last season before finishing 16-8, winning eight straight before a first-round loss to East Catholic in the Class LL state tournament.
The Wildcats return Velles, the Most Valuable Player of the ECC tournament, who averaged 15.7 points, six rebounds and two steals per game and is even better this season, according to Scarlata.
Olivia Marks, an ECC honorable mention selection at forward, suffered a broken ankle during soccer season and had 10 screws inserted. Also, starting guard Kayla Donovan played with a partially torn ligament in her knee last season and underwent surgery in the spring.
Donovan is expected to start practicing this week and Scarlata is expecting Marks back in a few weeks.
There should be at least some anticipation in the Large Division, despite Bacon's run through the Class L state tournament and their preseason ranking of No. 4 in the New Haven Register state poll. Bacon has The Day's All-Area Player of the Year in Taylor McLaughlin, who has signed to play next season for Southern Connecticut State University.
East Lyme, as well, defeated Bacon twice last season, including a win in the ECC tournament quarterfinals, and returns all-state point guard Allison Stoddard.
In the ECC Medium Division, reigning champion Waterford lost its top three scorers in All-Area guards Adily Martucci and Alyssa Hancock and starting center Christine Hadfield. That leaves a foot race for the division title between Waterford, Ledyard and Montville.
Montville returns two first team All-ECC picks in Cassidy Bundy and Jamie Hill. Waterford will be inexperienced, but still has a large number of athletes dotting its roster, including a strong group of freshmen.
"We're not going to just go and sit there and let them go up and down," said Waterford assistant coach Ed Kolnaski, filling in for coach Rob Von Achen, who is ill. "We're going to play as hard as we can."
Plainfield is the defending ECC Small Division champ, giving the league a great deal of talent throughout all three divisions.
"Bacon is tough because they won the state championship and they have four starters back plus a couple kids that came off the bench," said Scarlata, whose team also received votes in the preseason poll. "East Lyme's pretty good. Plainfield's still going to be good, Montville, Stonington, Ledyard.
"I'm a little old school in that I want things a certain way and right now it's a little like starting over because of the injuries. But it's something I learned with age: to be more patient. As long as the kids are working hard. They're working hard and the attitude has been great."