The 2011-12 season has been one of ups and downs for the Lady Warriors basketball team. But both the lows and the highs have been essential to their ability to establish a team identity on their way to a tournament win and a spot in the second round Friday night.
Best of all, their identity — a scrappy squad that fills games with steals, plenty of fast breaks and hard-nosed defensive play — has made games fun, and has provided the girls with lessons on life.
"The wins and losses are nice, but those go away," says Coach Vinnie Cianfarani. "If there's one thing I try to teach to my kids it's that this is about life.
"You learn how to work hard, win, lose as a team, how to get yourself through adversity. That's one of the great things about basketball — it teaches the game of life."
One of the greatest lessons the girls have learned this season, during which they have built a 12-9 record, is the ability to identify their weaknesses and work to overcome them to remain competitive and record enough wins to allow for a run at the state title.
"In the beginning of the year, we weren't really confident... We knew we were a lot smaller than other teams, and we didn't know what our strengths were going to be," says senior point guard Keniece Walker.
"Over the year, we definitely have stepped up our defense, we definitely have stepped up our transition game — we want get out there and run, run, run.
"If a team is bigger than us, cool, because we can definitely out run them, we can definitely beat them to the basket, and that's what we found out halfway through the season."
The moment the lightbulb went off, Walker says, was during an two-point overtime loss to South Windsor. It was the second time they played the Bobcats this season, losing the first competition by 16 points, but the Lady Warriors played man-to-man defense and pressed successfully throughout the game, which led the team to realize 'Wow, this really works," says Walker.
It's been a complete team effort, says Cianfarani.
"Really every kid that I put on the court knows how important [defense] is. Sydnee Over has been a very, very good defensive player because she just so athletic... and Keniece Walker has been a good defensive player along with Amber Flagg... Those two have helped us become a better team."
Not only have they become better as a team, but they've also become closer.
"We're all just a really big family," says junior forward Sydnee Over. "I love being around them. Even off of the court we all hang out."
The positive rapport between players is especially true of the squads four seniors: Walker, Flagg, Amanda Lopez and A'Lexus Williams.
"Our chemistry is amazing," says Walker. "We are all guards, and we're all so different.
"I'm really defensive, Amanda is a really great shooter, Amber is more handle than shooter, and Lexi is really strong. Together, we make a really strong team."
The girls head to Mansfield Friday to take on undefeated E.O. Smith at 7 p.m. in the second round of the Class L tournament.