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Newtown High School’s girls’ basketball team has plenty of talent throughout the lineup this year as the Nighthawks look to tap their depth and achieve success on the court.
Newtown posted a regular-season record of 11-9, lost in the South-West Conference tournament quarterfinals to Pomperaug of Southbury, and fell in the first round of the Class LL state tournament last winter.
The Nighthawks lost six players, including five who started or played regularly, to graduation a season ago.
The Hawks are led by senior captains Olyvia Shaw and Nathalie Shaker, and junior Rylee Mulligan.
Among the many others who are in the mix for playing time are juniors Kira Smith, Greta Staubly, and Erin Burns; sophomores Nikki Dapra, Cailin Wilson, Ali Kelleher, Jackie Matthews, Carolina Stubbs, and Jenna Lavelle; and freshmen Cyleigh Wilson, Amy Sapenter, and Carlie Smith.
“We are extremely deep this year. For the first time in a long time we have a lot of competition and a lot of spots,” O’Connell said. “We have kids competing at every position. We’re going to be very interchangeable. It gives us an opportunity to be very more up-tempo than in years past.”
Despite the intra-team competitiveness, there is plenty of support to go around. Shaker notes that the Nighthawks are active on and off the court as players root for each other to do well.
Speed and hustle have long been trademarks of this program, but with the opportunity to rotate more players in and out of the lineup, O’Connell anticipates even more fast-paced action.
“We are a smaller team so we’ll have to outrun a lot of people — speed is on our side,” Shaw said.
“It’s a young team and we all have a lot of potential,” Mulligan adds.
O’Connell notes that, as always, offense will feed off the defense as the Hawks try to cash in on transition opportunities if they can make stops.
“Our defense will dictate how we do,” he said.
This season stands to be a bit of a learning experience for a bulk of the lineup.
“We have a lot of kids that don’t have a lot of varsity experience so they game speed is something they’re not used to,” O’Connell said. “Once they get a taste of game speed and understand the small nuances and differences of the game at the varsity level I think they’re going to be very successful.”
That said, success doesn’t stand to come easily in the competitive South-West Conference. Defending regular-season champion Notre Dame-Fairfield, Kolbe Cathedral of Bridgeport, Pomperaug of Southbury, Joel Barlow of Redding, and Bethel are among the tough foes to watch, O’Connell said. And New Fairfield, which lost a bulk of its starters from a year ago, is still the defending conference champion and a team that can cause problems, the coach added.
Then there’s Newtown’s nonconference schedule. Year in and year out, O’Connell schedules games against the toughest competition he can find — early on in the campaign no less — and this time around is no exception.
The Nighthawks will open the slate with back-to-back road contests against FCIAC schools Danbury (on Tuesday, December 13, beginning at 7 pm) and St Joseph of Trumbull (two days later, at 5 pm), also in Danbury as part of a season-opening tourney.
The first home game is Tuesday, December 20, when SWC foe Masuk of Monroe visits for the first of two meetings between the rivals.
Newtown also faces Cromwell on December 22, and will face another challenging opponent to be announced the next day, as part of the Threes For Sandy Hook tourney.
Saddle River of New Jersey will also host NHS later in the campaign, and former SWC rival Lauralton Hall of Milford is on the schedule, giving the Hawks plenty of good tests out of conference.
“If we play teams we beat by 40 we’re not learning anything,” the coach points out.
“Our beginning-of-the-season schedule is always one of the most difficult in the state,” said O’Connell, adding that his objective is to learn what the team needs to do early on, apply what it has determined as the season unfolds, and “put the pedal to the metal as the season gets toward the middle and end.”