A decade ago, a small school in New Haven known as Amistad Academy began playing a varsity boys basketball schedule of just nine games. The team didn’t win any of them.
Year two brought six victories in 12 games and a spot in the Class S state tournament. Year No. 3 brought its first postseason victory.
Since then, Amistad dropped the Academy portion of its title, moved into a new building, changed coaches (Rich Walton the first three seasons, Ryan Ott ever since), but still no varsity program at the school had advanced beyond the second round of any CIAC tournament.
Not until this month, anyways. Amistad won four straight games in the Division III state tournament to reach its first final Sunday at 1 p.m. against Farmington at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
“I think it’s a great accomplishment. We are hoping to finish it off with a win,” Ott said.”This is not a surprise to our kids and not a surprise to our coaches.”
Amistad, still an independent school, finished the regular season at 14-6. The Wolves earned the No. 9 seed, defeated SMSA, Berlin, Shelton and Torrington in succession to get to its first final.
“We are not some Cinderella story that needs some miracle,” Ott said. “I don’t think it was a massive shocking upset (Torrington). This is what we’ve been building toward and what we’ve been planning to do. It’s been a pretty steady progression.”
Senior guard A.J. Edwards remembers how Ott would constantly remind the team during his sophomore season how hard to work to get to the ultimate goal.
“He’d instill in us every day to work hard, take it slow and by this time of our senior year, we were going to be one of the top teams in the state,” Edwards said. “To be even in this predicament we are in now to play for a Division III state title is amazing.”
Said sophomore guard Eli Blackwell: “New Haven is all about the Hillhouses and the (Wilbur) Crosses. This shows the city that we are really here. It’s not just about those schools.”
Each season, Ott has toughened up the schedule to get ready for March. But it took some time for this year’s team to jell together.
Ott said he had so many different starting lineups for one reason or another over the first few weeks of the season. Amistad lost four of its firsts even games.
The only two losses since have been against Cromwell, which won its first 23 games and was the top seed in Division IV, and Classical Magnet on the road in overtime. Classical was a semifinalist in Division IV.
“We started to establish our identity with our defensive intensity, our defensive work ethic and our toughness,” Ott said. “Offensively, as the season went along, we became even more balanced.”
Once he saw the Wolves were placed in Division III when the divisions were decided last spring, Ott went out and scheduled some teams with height that would present matchup problems — and prepare the Wolves for this run.
Farmington, having played a difficult schedule in the Central Connecticut Conference, is another team that could provide matchup problems with its size.
“They have great guard play, great understanding of the game and very well-coached,” Farmington coach Duane Witter said. “Their kids can really shoot it, they rebound well for their size and they push it (up the floor). We understand this is a great challenge for us.”
The weekend brings a delicate balance for each team playing: taking care of business while also enjoying the experience of playing in a professional arena before thousands of people.
“I think it will be a fun experience,” Edwards said. “To be able to see the big crowd be in that arena is going to be good.”
Said Ott: “We can celebrate when it’s over, but we are here to take care of business. I’ve said to them before every tournament game, ‘Don’t let the moment get too big. Go out there, take care of business, do your job, play your role and no one has to do anything extra or special. We have to continue to play like we have.”