Coming into the 2011-12 girls basketball season, Middletown Head Coach Rob Smernoff wasn’t really sure how his team would fare in the CCC South. The Blue Dragons were a young and largely inexperienced squad with a starting lineup that featured only one returning player. Would the Blue Dragons be able to play together as a team? Would every player be able to contribute despite their inexperience? And would Middletown be ready and able to respond in close games and pressure situations when the time came? These were the questions facing MHS in November, and the team has answered them with a resounding yes.
After defeating Platt 37-29 at home Tuesday night, MHS is 8-4 on the season. With the victory, the team qualified for the Class L playoffs and are on their way to earning the most wins of Smernoff’s five-year tenure. The Blue Dragons have won six of seven, with their only loss coming at Plainville two weeks ago. At 5-2 in the CCC South, MHS is behind only Plainville and undefeated Berlin in the division.
“We’re on track to being the team we hoped we’d be,” said Smernoff. “The best thing is that all 12 of our players have contributed in their own way.”
At the beginning of the season Smernoff saw an inexperienced team that struggled to play together and was easily intimidated by formidable opponents. He doesn’t see that team anymore.
“Early on we were intimidated when we played New Britain and Berlin and lost,” said Smernoff. “Until you go through the pressure of playing an opponent like that you don’t know what it takes to handle it and win. Since then our players have matured and improved a lot. They understand how to handle close games and trust each other as a team.”
The coach cited the Blue Dragons win at Malony on January 10th, which he called his favorite game of the year, as one in which his team showed toughness and poise. Middletown used full-court pressure to outscore Maloney 20-7 in the fourth quarter, coming back to win 49-39.
“Nothing was going right for most of that game,” said Smernoff. “The kids got past it and stepped up huge at the end to get a big road win. They showed their maturation that night.”
Smernoff has had to do a lot of coaching with this squad, which started only one senior versus Platt along with two sophomores and two juniors. Zenobia Adgers is the lone senior who plays regularly for the Blue Dragons alongside a regular rotation that mostly features sophomores. While some coaches would be endlessly frustrated beginning the season with such a green team, Smernoff has embraced the opportunity to lead fresh faces.
“The great thing about having a young team is that they’re willing to learn and listen,” he said. “When a player’s coached by the same person for all four years there might come a few points where they zone a coach out and ignore their instructions, but that isn’t happening on this team. These players try extremely hard and are very coachable.”
MHS has relied heavily on junior captain DeAsia Lawrence. In a breakout season, the speedy guard has been a force on defense and especially on offense. Lawrence has been the team’s go-to player all year and scored 78 points in the last four games. She’s also the team’s floor leader.
“DeAsia is a really good player,” stated Smernoff. “We focus on trying to get her a lot of good looks on offense. We want her to take over games, and she’s finally starting to recognize how to do that.”
Smernoff also praised senior guard/forward Zenobia Adgers and sophomore guard Mikaela Cody, calling them glue players who can contribute in every facet of the game.
Their Head Coach still believes the Blue Dragons need to improve in a number of areas. While he says that MHS has great team speed and should always be quicker at all five positions to opponents, rebounding is a huge concern for a team that lacks much height. And Smernoff is concerned about his squad’s ball-handling and still well aware of their lack of experience. But with Middletown steadily improving and having already qualified for the state tournament, Smernoff can look ahead and see his team making a strong showing in the Class L tournament.
“E.O. Smith is a huge favorite, but Class L is wide open,” he said. “I could see 25 teams that can all beat each other. It’s going to be based on the draw. But if we can avoid E.O. Smith early and get a favorable draw, I can definitely see our team winning a few games. I just hope we finish the season strong enough to earn a home game in the tournament. Our team and especially our supporters would really deserve it.”