The Day's All-Area Girls' Basketball Player of the Year: New London's Taina Pagan
Tai Pagan was 9 years old and her sister India was 11 when their parents, Moises and Carmen, signed them up to play recreation league basketball in New London.
"I do remember that day. I was genuinely so confused and mad as to why they would even do that to us," India Pagan, a 2017 New London High School graduate, said.
"My parents went to sign me and Indi up," Tai Pagan said. "We bawled our eyes out. After that first practice, it was like, 'I know this is what I want to do.' We're always thankful, thankful (our parents) didn't let us talk them out of it."
Tai Pagan, a New London High School senior, is The Day's 2019 All-Area Girls' Basketball Player of the Year.
While she has always seemed to belong to multiple communities — English-speaking and Spanish-speaking; that of the Marine Science Magnet High School in Groton (where she goes to school) and that of New London High School (which she represents with the No. 30 in green and gold) — basketball seems to have taken over as the thread which ties it all together.
Pagan played in the shadow of India, who earned all-state honors and led New London to a Class LL state championship as a senior. India plays for Division I Stony Brook University and has been a member of the Puerto Rican National Team, graduating from New London with more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
Tai blazed her own trail.
In the two seasons since replacing India as the Whalers' starting center, Tai's teams won a pair of Eastern Connecticut Conference regular season and tournament titles, accumulating an overall record of 50-4. She was a two-time ECC Division I all-star and a two-time selection to the league's Division I all-tournament team.
This year, the younger of the sisters capped her career back in the Class LL state championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena. (New London was the state runner-up to Norwalk, falling on the final play of the game.) The Whalers finished 25-3 and ranked No. 2 in the final GameTime CT Top 10 poll.
The 6-foot-2, 165-pound Pagan averaged 12.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, a double-double, to go with 3.8 blocks and 2.5 steals per game, someone coach Holly Misto calls the Whalers' "anchor to our defense in the middle." She finished with a field goal percentage of .602.
She was a Class LL all-state selection, a GameTimeCT all-state pick and has committed to play next season at Division II Post University in Waterbury.
"I don't think she ever tried to be India. She worked on her own game and became Tai," Misto said recently. "Tai is an excellent leader on and off the court. She's a strong rebounder with very good low post moves. She doesn't show a lot of emotion on the court; she does in practice, but on the court, it's all business. 'Let's go out there and let's play.' She's always been the quiet leader.
"She's definitely a team player. You need that. She's been an absolute pleasure to coach."
Both of Pagan's parents originally hail from Puerto Rico. She jokes that sentences at home are usually constructed half in English and half in Spanish, changing midstream.
She attended the Dual Language and Arts Magnet Middle School in Waterford, following that with the Marine Science school for high school.
But every day, she arrives back in New London, nowadays taking the bus straight to Jennings Elementary School, where she volunteers her time in Carmen Pagan's kindergarten class.
"It's been a blessing. It's fun having both sides," Tai Pagan said. "It's nice to have my friends at school and my friends in New London. The focus is completely different. At school, all I think about is studies. Then I get to practice and it's me and my team.
"New London is core New London. New London relationships I've had forever. I'm a diehard New London girl."
Pagan calls the New London girls' basketball team's winning culture a mindset.
The Whalers started two newcomers in the backcourt, but nevertheless quickly climbed to the No. 1 spot in the state poll.
"We've always has the same goal. Win the regular season, win the ECC championship, win the state championship," Pagan said. "We have freshmen and sophomores starting but they got the job done because of our mindset. They know our basketball side and they know our personal side and when it comes to business they know we're going to do whatever it takes to win. That was developed into our mentality.
"We grew. Our love for the game is indescribable."
Tai, unexpectedly perhaps, says that between her and India, "Indi is quiet. I'm more crazy."
"In the house there's no stopping me," she said, grinning. "I'm always saying something dumb, like the 'what-ifs' in the world. My goal is just to make (India) laugh. That's always been my role in our relationship."
Tai, who carries a 3.92 grade-point average, plans to major in international business at Post, which competes in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference. From Post, she received a full academic scholarship known as the Malcolm Baldridge School of Business Scholarship.
"I'm excited for what college has in store," Tai said. "People ask me, 'Are you going to Stony Brook?' I want to make my own path."
"I think she didn't let (the comparisons) get to her, clearly, if she had multiple games with 20-plus points with 10-plus rebounds," India said. "I probably was able to get 20 points maybe twice in my career. So in that aspect, I'm super proud that she was able to do even better than me."
Said India: "Little did we know (playing basketball) was going to be such a blessing for both of us, which has allowed us to have such amazing opportunities."
The Day's 2019 All-Area Girls' Basketball Team
Player of the Year — Taina Pagan (New London)
Megan Bauman (East Lyme)
Aliza Bell (Stonington)
Sophie Dubreuil (East Lyme)
Xaryia Melendez (New London)
Spencer Roman (New London)