SOUTHINGTON - Establishing a prolonged winning tradition at the high school level is far from a guarantee as standout talents come and go in four-year intervals.
The Southington girls basketball team experienced it firsthand this offseason, losing starting guards Maggie Meehan and Hartlee Meier, two of its key players from last season.
Meehan was a 1,000-point career scorer for Southington and now plays at Williams College. Meier, a Bentley University commit, elected to transfer to play at Marianapolis Preparatory School in Thompson.
With the departures of the two, the Blue Knights had just one of their stars returning as Janette Wadolowski entered her senior season. The rest of the starting lineup hadn’t seen much game time. Two freshmen and two sophomores - Alli Carr (freshman), Kelley Marshall (freshman), Brianna Harris (sophomore) and Madison Hulten (sophomore) - rounded out Southington’s starting five.
In total, the Blue Knights have two upperclassmen on its roster and 13 underclassmen.
“They knew that we have a winning tradition here,” Wadolowski said. “We are Southington. We don’t go into any game believing that we’re going to lose.”
Southington’s first four games of the season came against quality opponents in RHAM, Hall, Glastonbury and Farmington, the Blue Knights were set up to see where they stood as a group.
In the first game of the season against RHAM, Southington trailed 41-40 with five minutes to go in regulation. The Blue Knights’ offense struggled down the stretch and the Sachems took advantage going on a 14-0 run to win the contest 55-40.
With Hall on deck it wasn’t going to get any easier.
Down three points to the Warrior, the Blue Knights had the ball with 15 seconds remaining. Hall was in a zone, keyed in on stopping Wadolowski, who got the ball but was guarded tight.
Wadolowski could’ve forced up a shot but rather she kicked the ball out to Longley who then found Harris open on the perimeter and she knocked down a 3-pointer to tie the game up. The Warriors had the ball and a chance to win the game but Carr came up with a huge steal finding Hulten down the floor, who then dished it back to Carr and she delivered a game-winning basket off the backboard.
The Blue Knights sat at 1-1 and the big scoring plays from their young players down the stretch provided Southington with a glimpse of what could come.
The momentum from the win, however, didn’t carry over as Southington dropped its next two games to Glastonbury and Farmington.
Following the loss to the Tomahawks, head coach Mike Forgione knew the team needed a wake-up call.
“I gave them a list of things to think about,” Forgione said following the Glastonbury loss. “Hopefully they’ll do it. I don’t know what else to do. I’ve never been through this in my career. 15 years and I’ve never experienced anything like this. We’ve been on top for the last three years and now obviously we’re not.”
Sitting at 1-3 on the year the Blue Knights were in an unfamiliar situation, as it was their worst start to a season in over a decade. The 29 points scored against the Tomahawks was the fourth time since the 2011-12 campaign that Southington was held to under 30 points on offense.
The Blue Knights had not had a losing season since 2011-12, which they finished 9- 11. Since that year, Southington has gone 70-30 in the following seasons.
With a losing record, it was test time.
Following the Farmington loss, the Blue Knights took part in the Wolcott Holiday Tournament with Meehan was in attendance as the team took on Brookfield in the first round.
“Maggie addressed the team before we played Brookfield,” Forgione said. “She talked about what she’s done to prepare. I think having her come back and talking to the girls before the game about tradition and what we’re trying to do pushed them to get to another level.”
The Blue Knights started off slow and trailed 35-28 at the end of the first half with Kaitlin Farias, the Bobcats primary scorer, scoring 17 points over the first 16 minutes of play.
Carr was tasked with keying in on her in the second half as the Blue Knights implemented a box-and-one zone defense, a style centered on shutting down an opposing team’s primary scorer. Farias was held to three points in the final half, while Wadolowski scored 27 of her 39 points in the same span and Southington went onto win 71-59.
The Blue Knights defeated Wolcott 70-41 in the championship game and Wadolowski was named the tournament MVP. Carr was named to the All-Tournament team.
With the two wins Southington was now .500 on the year at 3-3.
While Brookfield not a strong team, currently 3-10, the comeback and tournament title ignited the Blue Knights. More importantly the performance of the young players was trending up.
Since the tournament Southington has gone 4-1.
The four wins have come against teams with a combined 25-17 record including a pair of quality wins over 8-2 Plainville and 9-2 Conard. The one loss came against Hall in the second matchup between the two.
The Warriors got their star player, Amber Raisner, back in the contest, returning from her ACL injury. Raisner scored 14 in the game and the Blue Knights lost 63-51.
Still, Southington has gone 6-1 since that 1-4 start.
Much of the turnaround can be attributed to Wadolowski, both her play individually and willingness to work with the younger players.
Wadolowski has put in the time and effort to help the younger players get accustomed to playing at the varsity level and doing so has helped her as the group has begun to develop chemistry on the floor.
Since averaging just 36 points per game offensively in those first four games the Blue Knights have seen an 18-point improvement, averaging 54 points per game since.
Wadolowski’s hung tough early and all the work she and her teammates have put in is starting to pay off.
The chemistry showed in the 47-34 win over Newington. Wadolowski scored 15 points, but it was the performance of the entire starting five that stood out. Hulten had 10 points, Carr had nine, Harris had eight and Marshall had five.
With the improvement, the winning tradition is still intact for the Blue Knights.
Southington is now 7-4 and as the players continue their development under Forgione, the team may look back on the slow start as being just what was needed for this year’s Blue Knights team to get back to winning culture that has been established.
“I think the younger players realized they’re going to have to step up in some games especially when I’m being double teamed or the other team is playing box-and-one defense on me,” Wadolowski said. “They realized they’re going to have to step up and play out of their comfort zone and they have.”
Dan Orencole can be reached at 860-973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org