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Sophomore guard Allie Bietz is penciled in to be a key part of the starting lineup for the Branford girls’ basketball squad if the 2021 winter season ends up getting played. The campaign is tentatively scheduled to get underway with practices on Tuesday, Jan. 19. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Head Coach Rob Manghnani wants to see his athletes on the Hornets’ girls’ basketball team get the chance to compete this winter. Branford features a new-look roster with several young players slated to make an impact. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Head Coach Rob Manghnani and the athletes on the Branford girls’ basketball team are wishing for an opportunity compete this winter. As they await final word from the CIAC on the 2021 winter season, the Hornets are doing whatever they can to stay ready for that moment when they are hopefully able to hit the court.
This marks Manghnani’s third year as Branford’s head coach. Last year, the Hornets finished with an overall record of 7-14 and qualified for the Class MM State Tournament, where they took a first-round loss against Killingly. The tournament was then canceled prior to the quarterfinal round as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Branford has graduated several key seniors from that team and will feature a much-younger club than it did last season, provided that the Hornets get to play in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
The winter campaign is tentatively scheduled to start with practices on Tuesday, Jan. 19. If that happens, the regular season would most likely commence during the first week of February. Last week, the CIAC approved mitigating strategies for winter sports and announced that it will hold another Board of Control meeting regarding the season on Thursday, Jan. 14.
Coach Manghnani said that he is “cautiously optimistic” that the CIAC’s plan to play a winter season will come to pass, even if that means playing fewer games than usual.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to start on the 19th,” said Manghnani. “We want to make sure that we have a safe environment. We are competitors, and we want to be given a chance to compete. Whether it’s two games or 20 games or whatever it is, we will take advantage of it and, hopefully, we get we get the opportunity to do that.”
Manghnani understands that any winter season would most certainly be shorter than normal since it would be starting so late. The possibility also exists that basketball players would have to wear masks while competing. Coach Manghnani has no problem with either of those changes as long as his players get to experience some semblance of a season this year.
“Anything that we get is gravy right now. Our expectation is that we want to play, but we also understand that it may not happen. So, even if it’s a 10- or 12-game season, we will take any opportunity that we have and be happy with whatever is decided,” Manghnani said. “When you get the opportunity to play, you have to make the most of it, because you never know if it will be one of the last times that you play. It’s a privilege. So, when we get the opportunity to go at it again, we will seize the most of it, play at a high level, and take advantage of every single second that we get to play basketball.”
Branford will be led by senior captains Gabby Lucertini and Francesca Valletta, who are both guards and are also the only two seniors on the Hornets’ roster. Lucertini enters her third year as a varsity starter, while Valletta is moving up into the varsity rotation after primarily playing for the JV team last season.
“Gabby is definitely someone we will rely on to do a lot of things in every aspect of the game. She’s made a lot of strides since her sophomore year. She had a good season last year, and we are expecting good things out of her this year,” said Manghnani. “Franny is someone who will be leaning on for her offensive ability and shot-making and to also provided a spark for the team when we need it. I’m hoping that she takes on the role as the heartbeat of the team and gets the girls in a place where we have a very positive atmosphere.”
Coach Manghnani added that Lucertini and Valletta each bring their own specific characteristics to the captain’s helm. He feels confident that both of them will thrive in that esteemed leadership role.
“I’ve been very pleased with them and their ability to mesh together and balance each other,” Manghnani said. “Gabby is a little more attention to detail. She leads by example and expects her teammates to work as hard as her. Franny is very encouraging and always makes sure that her teammates know she is there for them. I think the balance of their personalities will pay huge dividends, especially for the younger players that will be with us the next few years.”
Manghnani praised his captains for the way they’ve been leading the team through the offseason. Although the Hornets haven’t been able to have any practices, they’ve still been participating in virtual workouts run by Assistant Coach Penny Blauvelt and have also been bonding through chats in Google Meet, even holding a movie night from time to time.
While this is hardly the sort of offseason training to which his team is accustomed, Coach Manghnani feels pleased that his players are putting in work and staying unified, even if they aren’t physically together. Manghnani credited Lucertini and Valletta for leading that effort.
“We can’t be there with the kids or do anything basketball related, but there is an emphasis on conditioning and developing team chemistry,” said Manghnani, whose assistant coaches are Blauvelt, Jay Karlins, and volunteer DJ King. “Gabby and Franny have been great with getting the girls together as much as they can, and it’s a testament to all the girls that, regardless of all this stuff that’s going on, that they want to do anything they can to get better. You need chemistry, and you need to trust one another. We are hoping that an offseason of developing that will translate on the court.”
There are no juniors on the Hornets’ roster, although they feature a couple of sophomores and even a freshman who are expected to be key pieces of this year’s team. Sophomore Allie Bietz is slated to take on a starting role after providing Branford with some offense off the bench last year. Fellow sophomore Lauren Kendrick, a guard, saw a smattering of varsity time last season and will also be joining the Hornets’ starting lineup in 2021. Manghnani also expects freshman guard Lauren Thompson to make an immediate impact for the varsity squad.
Even though his team doesn’t feature a ton of varsity experience, Coach Manghnani likes the fact that he has some talented up-and-comers stepping into the varsity spotlight this year. Manghnani knows that bodes well for his program going forward.
“As a coach, it’s fortunate to get a young, athletic class coming in as sophomores and freshmen. They’re classes that we can shape and mold to be one of those next good teams that comes through Branford,” Manghnani said. “It’s an exciting time. We have a lot of players that are different age-wise, but they all have that same tenacity and mindset. I’m looking forward to working with them and hope that they not only try to replicate the success of our past players, but do better in the short term and long term.”
Coach Manghnani said that he would be “very disappointed for everyone” if there is no basketball played this winter. Manghnani is staying positive that high school hoops will happen in 2021, but on the heels of the unpredictable year that was 2020, the coach wants every member of his program to be prepared for any contingency.
“We are still not really sure, so we are trying to prepare for all things which may happen or not happen. We’re trying to not get our hopes up too much,” said Manghnani. “High school student-athletes have seen a lot of things change, and we want to be mindful of all the things that can change, but we also have to be ready for everything, because we may start at any second or we may not play at all. We have to continue to work and, when it happens, make sure that we are ready to go.”