TORRINGTON — Success is always relative, subject to unexpected reversals.
Hundreds of high school athletes learn that life lesson every year. Number that in the thousands in this era of Covid-19.
Nevertheless, coaches and players on Wolcott Tech’s girls basketball team have had it pounded into them harder than most.
The Wildcats zipped through a shortened regular season 8-0, then beat their league tournament quarterfinal opponent, Wright Tech, 46-14, Tuesday night.
“It was happening,” said Wolcott Tech coach Jen Garzone, who spent her own playing days at Waterbury’s Sacred Heart.
“Regardless of the league you play in, putting a banner up in the gym is a life-changing experience,” Garzone said, a day after the Wildcats’ Connecticut Technical Conference quarterfinal triumph and a day before their No. 2 seeding was set to host No. 3 Platt Tech in a Nutmeg Division semifinal.
Then the shoe dropped.
Practice was interrupted with the news that a player tested positive for the virus. The season was over.
“It hurts most for the seniors,” said Garzone, a fifth-year coach leading her team into their third straight qualification for a state tournament if there was one and second straight in which Covid-19 cut that opportunity for everyone.
“It depends on how you measure success — on the scoreboard or elsewhere,” said veteran assistant coach Jim Pepper, citing Tuesday’s opponent as a prime example.
“Wright Tech ended up with six players and they chose to come all the way from Stamford for the game,” he said. “They came to play and did it enthusiastically. Our girls respected that.”
In return, Warrior assistant coach Scott Carson said after Tuesday’s game, “Your whole team must play AAU.”
Wolcott Tech’s coaches bowed and scoffed at that notion simultaneously.
“We have students come out for the program who are die-hard players, but not necessarily basketball players when they get here,” said Garzone. “Their success has created a culture.”
Covid-19 has actually helped build it, the coaches maintain.
“The main thing is we got to play,” says Pepper. “They put everything on the floor in practice because the phone call might come the next day to end the season. Without this whole situation, we might not have been as close-knit as we are.”
But it was never easy.
The CTC divided itself into four pods of four teams each across the state under Covid protocols. Whitney Tech left Wolcott Tech’s pod with three teams after dropping its girls program for the season, so the Wildcats ended up having to play one team — Wilcox Tech — three times just to fill out its schedule — this after canceling their first four games because the state had yet to clear them to play.
“After the first few games, some of the girls said, ‘Is this all we’re playing?’” said Garzone.
And still that relativity shined through.
“We try to instill looking at things as a challenge more than a problem,” said Pepper, offering a drill called Kai Zen as an example which aims directly at mind sets. “It’s more than coaching basketball this year. Covid makes us deal with emotions, health, family issues…”
The result has been success by any standard. Boasting a team of selfless players more than their winning scores, the coaches offer junior star Yennifer Sarmiento as one of their best examples.
Last week, Sarmiento was a Republican American Athlete of the Week for her scoring prowess. The next game, she scored a single point while leading the team in assists.
In the end, undefeated is undefeated, regardless of the schedule, regardless of a season’s cruel ending.
Hopefully, there’s a lifelong banner for that hanging on these kids’ mental walls.