As the snow begins to fall in our small town, the boy’s basketball team at Masuk prepares for their big winter season. The team had tryouts on the first, second, and third of December. Now with a complete team, the boys work hard daily to pursue greatness. Many players returned from last year with the hopes of bringing the team great success. Seniors and Captains Greg Nivison, Dylan Jackson, Owen Smith and Mike Cafaro all start their final season as a Panther. Coach Pete Sklarz returns again for another year with a plan to rebound after a difficult end to last year’s season.
Many new faces are present as well in the lineup. Sophomores Stephen Sentementes, Alex Simoulidis and Oliver Irving showed out and proved themselves amongst the difficult competition. Newcomer and freshman Tyler Newsom looks to be a big game-changer for the Panthers this year. Coming in at 6’4, he brings height into a lacking Masuk team compared to other teams in the league.
Also a newcomer this year is junior Ethan Palma. Palma transferred this year from St. Joes High School with plans to be a game-time factor for the Panthers. Other varsity juniors are Colin Francisco, Matt Domenichelli, Malachi Roy and Ben Londono.
“We have a strong group and all the guys are ready to go this season,” Nivison stated “Everyone can play at a high level. Our goal is to win and make conference and state tournament runs.”
The guys are all working hard. Practice takes place Monday-Friday after school, providing there is no game of course. They spend several hours running through game scenarios, drills, plays and doing loads of conditioning and running.
Last year, the Panthers made a strong run in the division 3 state championship as well as their South-West Conference championship. They finished at 10-10 for the regular season and found themselves as the No. 21 seed in the state tournament. After a tough battle, the Panthers fell to No. 12 ranked Ledyard 58-47 in the first round. They battled through many injuries in the first half from their pivotal players, which set them back a little bit every time.
The Panthers look to train harder than ever this year. They hope to shake their injury woes and remain healthy physically and consistent in the head throughout the year.
“We are definitely taking injuries more seriously this year,” Sentementes said “Identifying them early to prevent injuries that last more than a few days. Intensity has definitely picked up from last year and we are playing as more of a unit than in previous years.”
The boys are set to face their first opponent the Trumbull Eagles on Thursday, Dec. 15th. Last winter the Eagles had a fairly similar season to the Panthers, going 8-12 in the regular season and being seated as the No. 20 seed in Division 1. They ended up losing the first round of states 65-45 to No. 13 West Haven. Coach Sklarz and the boys are hoping to bounce back from last year’s opening 60-49 loss to the Eagles. This year they have home court advantage and a vastly different team. Losing five seniors contributed to the rebuilding of the team that took place this year.
On top of that, they have different strategies. The Panthers are more unified than in past years. They are a mix of all four grade levels and every player knows they need to have each others’ backs otherwise they will falter. This is especially true in basketball: everyone needs to know what is going on and they all need to move the ball around as a unit.
“We have great chemistry,” sophomore Sentementes exclaimed “We’re a young team so we gotta work a little harder to compete with the older and bigger guys, but I think we’ll get better throughout the year and continue to progress.”
Young players such as Sentementes, Simoulidis, Irving, and Newsom can be looked upon as the future of the Masuk program; each one with lots to learn from the Juniors and Seniors.
The team is definitely feeling good. The guys are confident and they trust each other, their coaching, and their plays. The energy is there and so is the morale. Coach Sklarz and the boys look to make some final tweaks and adjustments in practice ahead of the Trumbull game. Show out Thursday night to bring your support for the Panthers, at 7pm in the David Strong Gymnasium at home.