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Waterford - There was a time when Waterford coach Rob Von Achen lauded Kerrianne Dugan as having "the best work ethic of any player I've had."
And all you had to do is watch Dugan's New London High School girls' basketball team play Tuesday night - against Waterford - to know why Von Achen's words are truer now more than ever.
"Not at all," Von Achen said, asked if he was surprised to see New London's toughness. "They take after their coach. Kerrianne was that kind of player. Tough. And she's done an absolutely phenomenal job; she's turned the program around."
Dugan, in her first season as New London's coach, turned her homecoming at the Waterford Field House into a 52-35 victory over her alma mater.
Dugan, a 2007 Waterford graduate, was a 1,000-point scorer and all-state player under Von Achen, playing in two state championship games. Her sister, Kelley, is a senior on the Waterford team.
New London, 2-18 a season ago, is now 7-4 overall, one game away from qualifying for the state tournament for the first time since any of the current players have been in high school.
The Whalers last made the tournament in 2009, going 8-52 since that time.
"It's really exciting," said New London junior Lexus Childs-Harris, who led the Whalers with 19 points against Waterford. "After last year being kind of down - and I'm not down on last year - I think the adrenaline just gets to me."
Sophomore guard Deanna McCarvell, who wears the uniform number 1 and is shaped like it, too, pencil-thin, added 17 points for the Whalers, including four 3-pointers.
New London boxed out exceedingly well, scoring five times off of offensive rebounds just in the first quarter to take a 13-6 lead. Childs-Harris and freshman Charee Osborne gave the Whalers a 4-0 lead with two immediate conversions off offensive rebounds.
The Whalers also hit their free throws, going 12-for-18.
"I'm really tough on them. I'll say it," Dugan, who went on to play for Division I Central Connecticut State University, said of her expectations for her new team. "But I try to stay on their level. I try not to be this mean, hard coach.
"I'm extremely lucky. People were saying to me, 'Oh my gosh, you took the New London job.' But I have so much talent. It just needs to be pushed in the right direction. ... It's a blast. It really is."
Von Achen said last year Dugan came to practice a few times to help coach his Waterford players. He could tell then that Dugan would have a rapport with whatever team she eventually coached.
"I wouldn't be surprised in three or four years to see her as an assistant coach at some college," Von Achen said. "She's a great kid."
Kelley Dugan, who missed the first part of the season with a knee injury, was in the starting lineup against the Whalers and shook her sister's hand along with the rest of the Waterford starters. Kerrianne gave her a playful shove.
"It was definitely weird, playing here against coach and my sister," Dugan said. "I think it was the hardest for my parents (John and Julie). You look up at the (conference) championship banner and remember how much fun we had.
"Playing here was the best time of my life, playing basketball with all my best friends and coach."
Sarah Pacheco, a sophomore, was the leading scorer for Waterford with 11. The Lancers, already playing without senior Megan Spellman (knees, out for the season) and freshman Shea Spellman (ankle), lost starting center Julia Zawacki to an ankle injury in the first quarter Tuesday. She was helped off the court.
New London led 27-18 at halftime.