By KEN MORSE
Plainville head coach Jessica Neuweiler and assistant coach Katie Mehlh came into the season with an agenda.
The first goal on the list was to win the Rybczyk Holiday Tournament for the first time since 2007. Mission accomplished.
The next goal was to qualify for the state tournament for the first time since 2014. The Lady Blue Devils achieved that goal earning a 49-34 win over South Windsor last Tuesday improving to 8-2 on the season.
Along the way have come growing pains as the team is comprised mostly of underclassman who are experiencing varsity basketball for the first time. The Blue Devils don’t come to the court empty handed led by senior captains Meghan Guimond and Isabel Lozefski, along with defensive specialist senior Amiyah Peters.
On most nights they look to junior Caitlin Barker (averaging 21 points per game) to provide the firepower. Junior Samantha Lozefski knows her way around the basketball court adding another experienced varsity hand, but after that the team is sophomores and wide-eyed freshmen looking to make their mark.
With so many crucial spots to fill in the lineup its not unusual to find two or three underclassman on the court at time and for the most part it has been a learning experience for the Lady Blue Devils.
Following the high of winning the Rybczyk Holiday Tournament, Plainville was brought back to earth when they took a tumble in their next game against Southington.
Coach Neuweiler brings such a positive approach to the game the girls ramped it up and ran off three straight wins to qualify for the state tournament. The Lady Blue Devils are at another crossroads as injuries have depleted the lineup and Plainville has lost the last two games bringing them to 8-4 on the season.
“We wanted to win our Holiday Tournament and we did that,” said Neuweiler. “We wanted to qualify for states and we did that. Now that we had the early success we want to be able to sustain that.”
“We have an opportunity to finish the season on a high note. Or we can just feel comfortable with our eight and not push it to the next level. I told them you guys need to figure out who you want to be. When we play on all cylinders, we can be a very good team. If we get complacent and not hustle the way we can we are a very different team.”
In last Thursday’s 50-41 loss to Sacred Heart Academy of Hamden, the Blue Devils lost the services of point guard Isabel Lozefski. The offense struggled to find some consistency even as Barker 22 points tried to carry the team on her back.
Over the past two losses, Barker has been the only player in double digits on the scoring end and Plainville is looking for someone to step up. Last Saturday, they got out to an impressive 13-2 lead at Bristol Eastern creating 11 first quarter turnovers but ended up on the wrong side of a 56-45 final when the offense struggled down the stretch.
“Having one of our senior captains out with an injury took its toll,” said Neuweiler. “That’s 10 points out of our offense along with her leadership on the court. Caitlin had a phenomenal game but we need others to step up.”
Coach Neuweiler is relying on another turn around to get back in the win column as the team did following the loss after the Rybczyk Holiday Tournament. Having Isabel Lozefski on the bench with an ankle injury takes an average of 10 points per game out of the lineup but more importantly the leadership of someone who can bring the ball up the court in the face of pressure from the defense.
Peters and freshman Jaida Vasquez did a good job sharing that responsibility against the Lancers last Saturday and Plainville busted out to a 13-2 advantage with 2:45 left in the first quarter.
Once Bristol Eastern started to win the rebounding battle that opened up the transition game and the Plainville offense began to struggle. Jordan Ouellette (12 points, 17 rebounds) was a big influence in the tide turning for the Lancers.
“I think the biggest difference this time around was we were able to stay out of foul trouble,” said Lancers head coach Tony Floyd, referring to the 61-55 loss to Plainville early in the season.
“We took away their dribble penetration and that slowed down their offense. We didn’t get the rebounds early on and we couldn’t get our transition game going. Once we started to get the rebounds we were able to fill the lanes really well.”
Miranda Janick started to heat up on the perimeter as she dropped 17 points through the cylinder. Bristol Eastern turned a 13-8 first quarter deficit into a 30-24 lead at the half.
Barker (32 points) drove the lane for a bucket and Vasquez (seven points, nine rebounds) hit a three-pointer to cut the third quarter deficit at 34-29 and Plainville was very much in the game.
Olivia Wazorko battled for a rebound with Krystyna Miller (three rebounds, three steals) and Kori Jones working to establish a presence underneath for the Blue Devils. That didn’t stop the Lancers from finishing out the quarter with an 8-1 run to open up a 42-30 advantage heading into the final eight minutes of the game.
Tessa Susco and Vanessa Xiques came on in the fourth quarter to give Plainville some defensive support. Peters (four steals) swiped an advance and dished it off to Samantha Lozefski (four points, seven rebounds) who wound up hitting a pair at the free throw line.
Barker continued to close the gap hitting a runner in the lane before draining a three-pointer at the top of the key making it a 51-42 deficit with 2:38 to play. Plainville couldn’t draw any closer as the Lancers closed out the 56-45 win.
“We are at midseason and we are starting to feel the bumps and bruises along the way,” said Neuweiler. “It’s a mental challenge to be able to get past it and continue on. We are in a place we haven’t been in a long time and we have the potential to be very successful.”
The Blue Devils have their work cut out for them with five of the remaining eight games in the regular season on the road. Plainville is 7-1 at home and 1-3 on the road so the challenge remains to reach the third goal of qualifying for the CCC league tournament.
This week will have Plainville hosting Northwest Catholic on Monday and then they travel to Windsor on Thursday.