Boys basketball: Graduation takes a toll, but Warriors not lowering expectations
For the Wilton High boys basketball team, the question is: What do you do for an encore?
Coming one of the best seasons in program history, the Warriors will begin to find the answer to that question when the 2017-18 season opens on Wednesday at Pomperaug.
Despite graduating five key players, including four starters, Wilton plans to rebuild around seven players returning from last year — and hopefully continue where it left off.
“The goals don’t change. They definitely have the drive to build on what they did last year and have the same kind of year, if not better,” said head coach Joel Geriak. “They want to build on the legacy that was built last year.”
The legacy includes the team’s first-ever trip to the FCIAC championship game (where Wilton lost to Ridgefield in double overtime) and the second trip to the state semifinals in program history. Wilton's 1967-68 team reached the CIAC Class M championship game, losing to Middletown, 48-45.
The 20-7 season also set the program record for wins in a season.
The losses to graduation were substantial, with the team’s top three scorers gone in first-team all-FCIAC guard Matt Kronenberg (13.4 ppg), guard/forward Jack Williams (10.1 ppg) and guard Drew Connolly, who averaged 12.1 points per game and led the team in rebounding (7.8 rpg), assists (4.5 apg) and steals (2.2 spg). Also gone is all-FCIAC Defensive Team pick Jack Wood, and sixth man Sean Breslin (5.9 ppg, a team-high 39 3-pointers).
All told, the team graduated nearly 48 points and 26 rebounds per game — and in Kronenberg and Connolly, its two offensive catalysts.
“It’s going to be almost impossible to fill the shoes of the starters we had last year,” said Geriak. “That group was great, and I’m hoping this group can follow their lead.”
Geriak is counting on three returning players to carry the load this year. Seniors Kyle Maatallah and Scott Cunningham, and junior Nick Kronenberg, all saw significant playing time last year, especially in the post-season, when injuries ended the seasons for Wood and Williams.
Maatallah, a 6’0” guard and a tri-captain, established himself as a legitimate scoring threat and creator as last season progressed, and finished averaging 9.4 points per game. He was second in the team in 3-pointers, with 32. He scored 15 points or more in seven games.
Cunningham, a 6’1” guard, averaged 5.3 points per game and nailed 24 3-pointers, fifth best on the team. He scored a season-high 20 points in a win over Staples in the championship game of the FCIAC Holiday Tournament.
Nick Kronenberg, in his third year on the varsity team, is a 5’8” guard who averaged 5.8 points per game. Another threat from downtown, he was third on the team in 3-pointers (29), hitting 45% of his 3-point attempts. He led the team with 15 points, including five 3-pointers, in its win over Woodstock Academy in the first round of the state tournament.
Wilton also returns its two big men from a year ago in its other two senior tri-captains, 6’2” center Kyle Shifrin and 6’4” center Robbie Hermann. Last year, both were called upon mostly for rebounding, defense and picks, and Geriak is looking for both to up their offensive output this season.
Shifrin averaged 3.4 points and 4.7 rebounds, while Hermann averaged 2.3 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
The team’s other two returning players are 6’1” junior forwards Kyle Phillips and Ryan Schriber. Both saw significant action last year as defensive specialists, particularly when Williams and Wood went down, and were instrumental in shutting down Newington’s top scorer in Wilton’s state quarterfinal win.
The seven returning players will be bolstered by nine new varsity players: seniors Antonio Brancato and Matt Olson; juniors Zayvion Eusebe, Reilly Bingaman, Ryan Biberon, and Zach Pozzi; and sophomores Andrew Smith, Tucker Walden and Kyle Hyzy.
Brancato, a 5’11” guard who is currently sidelined by injury, is a key addition. He started at point guard for Fairfield Warde last season before leaving the team in February due to a conflict with the team’s coach. He is living with family friends in Wilton and attending Wilton High, and the transfer to Wilton was cleared by both schools, said Geriak. (The transfer also has been cleared by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. Brancato, who is 18 years old, is considered an adult under CIAC rules and is allowed to live where he chooses.)
When available, he would bring to Wilton the same all-around game — attacking the basket, tough defense, rebounding — that Connolly brought last season, Geriak said.
Eusebe, a 6’1” guard/forward, will be one of the first players off the bench. Two sophomores, 5’9” guard Tucker Walden and 6’3” forward Kyle Hyzy, are both expected to see good minutes off the bench, and fellow sophomore Andrew Smith, a 6’1” guard, adds to the team’s arsenal of shooters.
Ryan Biberon, a 6’6” junior, will back up Shifin and Hermann at center, and the Warriors will also try to work more height into the lineup as the season moves along with 6’5” senior center Matt Olsen. Zach Pozzi, a 5’10” junior guard, and Reilly Bingaman, a 6’1” junior forward, are also vying for playing time, as Geriak expects to go anywhere from 10 to 12 players deep, depending on the game.
With the addition of so many new players, Geriak will rely on the big-game experience of his veterans to keep Wilton at the top echelon of the FCIAC and, hopefully, make another post-season run — only farther this time.
“They know what to expect. They know what it feel like to be in that position,” he said. “They know what they did well and didn’t do well and have definitely learned from that, and know how to handle themselves in those situations.”