EAST HAMPTON — Coach Shaun Russell’s starting five sat just outside the doors of the East Hampton gym, where another all-business practice had ended just minutes earlier, to tackle questions about being deprived of the opportunity to win not one, but two, state championships.
Danielle Adams, Angela Mercaldi, Mya Field, Meryl Curtin and Hannah Barrientos — seniors all, mature and grounded, with bubbly personalities that no mask could hide.
They have known each other and shared court time together for so long, to ask a question of one would be to ask all five. One chimes in after the other, and pretty soon they’re all talking at once. Chaotic, but fun.
“The five of us have an insane amount of chemistry,” Barrientos said.
It was tough to keep up, which, come to think of it, is how a lot of their Shoreline Conference opponents felt last season playing against this special group. They have a Shoreline championship to defend starting Wednesday at home against Morgan, the team they beat for the title last March.
“All of us care so much about this sport,” said Adams, “that no matter what goes on outside, at school, whatever, the second we step on the court that’s all gone and we’re playing for each other.”
“It’s important that we’re there for each other,” Curtin said.
“Winning is fun to us,” said Field. “We have fun when the ball goes in the basket and we are celebrating on the way back down the court.”
“We’re all in it together,” said Mercaldi, a First Team All Shoreline and All-State performer last season. “We went 19-1 by playing together all the time.”
When the CIAC shut down all of last year’s winter tournaments after they had begun, the Bellringers (23-1 at that point) had a really good shot at winning their first Class S championship in 35 years. They had just rolled to their first Shoreline title in 12 seasons and were two Class S wins from making a bus trip to Mohegan Sun.
It took time for them to work through the suddenness of having it all end. Same for the Bellringers’ crazy loyal fan base.
Then it happened again last month. After two delays in the start of preseason practice, the CIAC announced a few days before Jan. 19 that a 12-game season would go forward — without the state tournament.
“There was a lot of outside conversation about that,” Russell said. “This town is very upset about how last year ended and that these kids won’t get a chance this year. So if you were in the grocery store or wherever, for a little while there was kind of funeral feeling where everyone felt terrible for them.”
With Russell helping them sort it out, the seniors had stronger stomachs to handle the disappointment of no state championship run at all in 2021.
“It was difficult for the five of them and they had to work through that on their own time and in terms of what it meant to them,” the coach said. “They have their feet under them. They know where they are today. Now they can say, ‘here’s the things that can happen’ and ‘OK, this is what’s in front of us.’”
Not forgetting the emotional toll of the last 11 months, the Bellringers do not want this new journey interrupted. They can minimize risk and take care of themselves, sure, but with COVID-19, so much is out their control.
“It’s go to school, go to basketball practice, go home and do it again,” Adams said with a straight face.
“Everyone has to be on their toes this year. We don’t know what could happen next,” Barrientos said.
After three weeks of conditioning, getting their minds right, melding with top underclassmen Madison Yorker and Jordan Murphy and tutoring nine freshmen players for what comes next, Adams, Mercaldi, Field, Curtin and Barrientos are ready to take on all comers.
“Since last season ended so abruptly, we felt we had unfinished business this year,” said Adams, who will attend UConn in the fall on a track scholarship. “With no state tournament again, we’re trying to finish strong for the five of us. It’s not the ending we wanted.”
“Trying to win the Shoreline again means everything now,” said Mercaldi, a long- and triple-jumper who will attend New Haven. She plans to study mechanical engineering, with a concentration in aerospace.
“Every game is like a state championship now,” said Field, who will study business marketing, possibly at the University of Georgia.
Curtin has been accepted at Penn State and intends to study biomedical engineering biomedical, while Barrientos has thought about majoring in criminal justice in college. Talented, smart, grateful seniors all, each aware that they have set the table for younger players who might one day acknowledge them with gratitude.
“Their legacy is what will be happening here two years from now,” said Russell. “You know, ‘are these nine ninth-graders watching and learning how we do things?’ That’s important to them in terms of how they want to be remembered.”