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Gomez and her Wildcats have the respect of the whole state ... and Scarlata

Norwich — A conference tournament championship game comes with all the requisite stress that the words "championship game" evoke. But this? This was different for Norwich Free Academy. This wasn't just to hang a banner Thursday night. This was for No.1 in the state.

"It means a lot to the program," NFA coach Courtney Gomez was saying, not long after her team did indeed very likely finish No. 1 with a 57-33 win over Waterford in the South Division championship game of the Eastern Connecticut Conference.

"Obviously, it's a different year," Gomez said. "We would have liked the chance to play in the state tournament, but that's not going to happen. There are some amazing teams in the state like Ridgefield and Notre Dame of Fairfield. ... In a pandemic, we went 13-0, showed up every day and didn't complain. I hope they wear that No. 1 ranking and wear it proudly."

This just in: You don't just get to be No. 1. You must be voted there, in this case by the state media. And given how those of us who cover high school sports get territorial sometimes about our own little fiefdoms — and aren't always hip to kids and programs from other outposts — it takes years for voters to appreciate, recognize and respect out-of-area schools.

It's worse in our part of the state. We are victims of geographical isolation, often meaning that our teams must do twice the work to get half the credit. Happily, that's not the case with NFA. Voters now reflexively consider the Wildcats a girls' basketball Rockefeller.

And it all began 25 years ago this March.

"Nobody really knew anything about us," said Bill Scarlata, the masterful maestro who coached NFA to seven state titles between 1996 and 2010. "Not until after we beat Southington (in 1996) for the first one. They were the big team (seven titles in 15 years to that point). We went into that game and everyone expected us to get blown out. I think we won by 15 or 16. (They won by nine). That's when people said 'hey maybe they're not bad.' We backed things up the next year and won again (over Masuk). Then people started to notice."

And so while the dramatis personae of 2021 — Jenissa Varela, Sarah Ericson and Anajah Ingram, among others — weren't yet born, the foundation for No. 1 in 2021 is 25 years old this spring.

"It's always something significant for somebody to think you're doing a good job," Scarlata said. "It would be nice to have played a whole state tournament on the court. But this is the times we live in. I guess a bunch of people think NFA is still one of the best teams in the state."

And a bunch of people know NFA hit a homer into the third deck with the hiring of Gomez, who played on one of Scarlata's championship teams and later at the University of Hartford.

"There are a lot of reasons I suggested we hire her," Scarlata said. "Her knowledge. Great with the kids. Works hard. She's got it all."

Not that this was easy. Gomez learned that likely her best returning player, Jada Mills, would transfer to Putnam Science Academy before the season began. Players transferred with Scarlata coaching, too. Coaches almost view transfers now as they would French fries: It comes with the meal.

"Right now, it seems like the biggest problem all coaches have is keeping players in your program before they go out to different places," Scarlata said. "I always thought that if kids leave, they made a decision on what's best for them. I don't think I was ever bitter. Disappointed, sure, because especially at the end, I thought we had some pretty good kids coming back. But I was always glad to see them do well.

"The other problem I had — and we always had great talent — is making sure you get the most out of the kids. Courtney is very good at it. I caught a couple of her games on GameDay. She's got three very good players and other kids who know their roles. That's hard to do as a coach. To get people to understand their roles."

Not a better guy to endorse your program than the one who built it. The COVID basketball season turned out pretty great for Gomez and her Wildcats. With the respect of the whole state.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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