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Old Lyme boys' basketball team gets right back at it

Old Lyme — Kirk Kaczor has seen just how passionate his Old Lyme boys’ basketball team is about the sport.

The Wildcats could have been state champs last year. They had arguably the finest season in team history and gave the program as good a shot at winning that elusive first state title as any team before it.

Old Lyme never got that chance because the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference canceled its postseason on March 10, 2020 as COVID-19 began sinking its fangs into America.

Kaczor gathered his team together for an informal practice that afternoon. The players were shocked, angry and devastated.

The Wildcats gathered for the first time since that date on Tuesday on the first day of the CIAC's 2021 winter season. Twenty players attended. Last season's entire starting lineup graduated. It’s mostly a team of underclassmen looking to get whatever basketball they can get during a pandemic.

“I kind of thought we’d play this year,” Kaczor said. “I think (the CIAC) saw how important it was psychologically to these kids to get something normal.”

Junior Maverick Swaney said, “We just want to take what we have and make the best of it.”

Win is what Old Lyme did almost every game last season. It finished 23-1 and went unbeaten in the Shoreline Conference en route to its first league title in nine years. It was the top seed in the CIAC Division V tournament, one season after losing in its first state championship appearance at Mohegan Sun Arena.

The Wildcats raked in the awards. Brady Sheffield and Aedan Using earned first-team All-Shoreline and All-State Division V honors. Ray Doll was a second-team Shoreline pick and Jared Ritchie was Shoreline honorable mention. Using was also the Shoreline Conference Player of the Year and The Day’s 2020 All-Area Boys’ Basketball Player of the Year.

Old Lyme never got to play in the state tournament. It received a bye to the second round and was scheduled to play No. 17 Stafford on March 11.

“Some of (the players) I had in class,” Kaczor said. “They struggled. They just couldn’t get it going too much. It took a while. ... I think some of the kids we have in school are struggling right now. It’s tough for everybody at every age.

“Once you saw that the NCAA tournament and the NBA (regular season) were canceled, you kind of looked at it and said, ‘This is for real. It kind of made you feel like you were just a small pod at that point. And you see people dying.

“I kept telling my players. ... ‘You know, you guys, we played 24 games together. We would’ve liked to have played four more games and (won) a state championship, but we played 24 games. Our last game, we walked off the court winning a (Shoreline) championship.’ If you had to write a story, it wouldn’t have been a bad story to finish right where we were.”

The 2021 Wildcats went through the paces for about two hours Tuesday. Everyone wore masks, a CIAC requirement for all winter sports.

“It’s definitely different,” Swaney said. “You just kind of inhale (the mask). It makes breathing a whole lot harder when you’re running. You’ve got to take a little longer to catch your breath.”

Conditioning is a primary concern for every coach this season because athletes have to get used to playing with masks.

“When we played pick-up outside, we’d always wear a mask,” Ritchie said. “There’d be eight kids at most.”

Basketballs had to be wiped down after practice. The gym floor and bleachers will be sanitized each day after all of Old Lyme’s practices end.

Teams may begin playing competition on Feb. 8 but not everyone will be ready. The Eastern Connecticut Conference announced Tuesday that it would begin its season on Feb. 12 because some of its schools are in remote learning and cannot practice.

Five of the Shoreline's 12 teams are in remote learning. A few don’t have a return date set.

Basketball and hockey teams may play up to 12 games. There are no state tournaments. Conferences may hold tournaments, however.

“I’m hoping to get another Shoreline championship,” Ritchie said. “Hopefully no games get canceled.

Asked how optimistic he was that there’d be a season, Ritchie said, “It’s 50-50 right now. Our school is doing a good job of keeping everybody safe, following our protocols. I think we have a good chance.”

n.griffen@theday.com

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