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    Saturday, January 28, 2023

    If this can happen to Waterford, it can happen to anybody else, too

    Waterford — Not many other coaches in our corner of the world do the aw shucks thing better than Bill Bassett, whose habitual reaction to his 129-44 record coaching basketball at Waterford High is a shoulder shrug, followed by hosannas about talented players and a great staff.

    That’s 129-44 with four division titles, two conference tournament titles and two state championships.

    And yet the Lancers, whose hardwood exploits are unmatched around here since 2010, have proven plenty mortal this season. They began last week a ghastly 1-7, before a pair of wins offered some hope and sense of normalcy around a program that still played before nice crowds at East Lyme and then Friday at X during a win over Woodstock.

    Waterford, despite its credentials from recent seasons, remains a cautionary tale for sports programs at modest sized public schools. And a billboard for the significance of the out-of-season coaching allowance that CIAC is expected to approve in the near future.

    “Coming into the season, we had what felt like hundreds of football players and soccer players on our team,” Bassett said Friday night. “We have athletes, but basketball might not be their first sport. It takes a little time to get all those things cooking. And I knew it was going to take us a little bit to get our rhythm. I feel like we're starting to take steps in the right direction. Guys are trusting each other. Sharing the basketball. Trusting on defense.”

    The experiences of Waterford’s starting five mirrors the issues kids face at other small/medium schools, playing two and three sports for several reasons, not the least of which is that enrollment necessitates as much. Nate Hynes and C.J. Landry played football in the fall. Evan Piotrowski played soccer. Logan Peabody sat with mononucleosis.

    The residual effect: It takes time to morph into basketball shape and form. Add a schedule of St. Bernard, Windham, Glastonbury, Hall and Newington. Hello, 1-7.

    “Just being 1-7 hurts. Is that the best word? I guess it is. It hurts,” said junior center Juan Morel, who had a combined 26 points and 28 rebounds in the two recent wins.

    “The expectations are really high because we have ‘Lancers’ across our chest,” Morel said. “Coach Bassett has won a lot here. They had JJ Brennan and Mikey Buscetto. So it’s carrying a legacy of back-to-back state championships. Trying to keep that up throughout the years is really difficult. But we’re getting better every day.”

    Bassett has managed to keep his sense of humor. Recently, the GameDay crew showed up for a video shoot at Waterford in advance of the rivalry game at East Lyme. Bassett took one look at us and cracked, “well, it’s nice to see we’re still relevant.”

    Make no mistake: 1-7 stings.

    “GameDay is almost like the Game of the Week,” Bassett said. “It's special, especially for the kids. And I know this year we’ve struggled. When I saw you guys in here, I was like, ‘hold on … people still recognize Waterford and Waterford’s gonna figure it out.”

    Bassett understands that his program is no more or less significant at Waterford than football, baseball, lacrosse or soccer, four sports which also place demands on the kids in the offseason. He’s never going to require that his kids devote their entire offseason to basketball.

    Except that the new out-of-season coaching rule — early rumblings are that coaches will be given four hours per week to work with their kids in the summer — offers hope for every program if the right steps are taken.

    To wit: Kids have more choices than ever to choose their high school. Cheating happens already — and that’s before coaches realize the potential of the new Name/Image/Likeness opportunities. All that means that public school coaches must thoroughly cultivate what they have in their towns.

    If I ran a program, I’d appoint a Director of Offseason Improvement, using the out-of-season coaching allowance to coordinate skill development with AAU/summer league opportunities to bring the kids back with a better chance to avoid early season stagnation. It’s would require time and significant organizational skills. But it sure beats 1-7.

    The overarching idea here: If this can happen to Waterford, it can happen to anybody. But now a rare moment of lucidity from CIAC will give coaches, kids and programs a true (and authorized) chance to get better in the offseason. Those who take advantage will have a better chance to avoid 1-7.

    “No one is going to help us out. No one's crying for us. Nobody is going to give us anything,” Bassett said, looking forward to the second half of the season. “But I truly believe this: Everything we need to win is in our own locker room.”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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