In a small gymnasium in northwest New Canaan up near the New York line, two of the best girls basketball players in the state are competing against each other several nights a week.
The only ones to see the epic showdowns are the 12 other girls and two coaches in the gym.
In fact, it is not just a matchup of two excellent guards but a gym full of talented players with nobody to challenge but themselves.
When the NEPSAC and FAA canceled their winter sports seasons, the St. Luke’s girls team was left in the lurch.
— Scott Ericson (@EricsonSports) February 8, 2021
That included returning junior All-American Caroline Lau and Mackenzie Nelson, a sophomore transfer from Greenwich, who was named to GameTimeCT’s All-State team after her freshman season in the FCIAC.
With a lack of games and knowing his players craved competition, St. Luke’s coach Matt Ward pitted his top two players against each other, making them captains of two teams that would go head-to-head in scrimmages in St. Luke’s gym.
Monday night in a shorter 10 minute scrimmage ending practice, Lau and Nelson took turns going at each other.
Lau would step back and drain a deep 3-pointer. Then Nelson would push the ball the other way and dish off to a low-post player for a layup. Lau would come back, driving to the hoop for a scoop layup followed by Nelson coming down and pulling up for a mid-range jumper.
To up the ante and get the competitive juices flowing, Ward made it into a best-of-three series between the maroon and white teams last week in full-game scrimmages.
“These kids are so used to competition, that’s all they want to do. So something like the best-of-three series we had got them really ready to go,” Ward said. “They seem to come at it with an open mind from the very beginning. We were very concerned about not playing, but also not practicing. We don’t have any seniors and I think that helped with this group.”
— Scott Ericson (@EricsonSports) February 8, 2021
Ward took over the Storm program five seasons ago and said while he has had some great talent, nothing quite compares to what is going on with Nelson and Lau every night.
“My first year we had Sydney Lowery (Boston College), Maya Klein (Providence) and McKenna Frank (Wake Forest). Those are three kids who went on to play Division I,” Ward said. “Caroline was a part of that team as a seventh grader. Caroline went up against Sydney Lowery a lot when she was a senior. I think in terms of going one-on-one each day, this is the best I have seen. To have two kids of that caliber face each other every single day, I don’t know that we’ve had that.”
Nelson said she has not been a part of in-team scrimmages quite like she has the last few weeks. She also wanted to point out her team won the best-of-three series.
“These scrimmages are very intense. We haven’t been able to play so everyone is getting after it here every day,” Nelson said. “My team won. It was very competitive. It is great to have this level of competition. I’m not sure I will go against anyone who is as great of a shooter as Caroline.”
Lau, who has been on the St. Luke’s varsity since seventh grade was excited the team added Nelson, but she had no idea they would end up battling each other more than opponents.
“It has been great because I get to push her and she gets to push me,” Lau said. “Back-and-forth. We all get better doing this. Once we play real games, I don’t think I will go against someone as good as Mac.”
While they were just happy to be practicing, the team found out last week that they will be playing seven games this season, all against FAA opponents.
The Storm will play a team other than themselves for the first time Thursday when they host Hamden Hall.
“We were pretty thrilled when they told us we would have games. We didn’t think we were going to get to play at all. It was kind of out of nowhere,” Lau said. “Everyone being out here when we didn’t know if we’d have games, shows how dedicated everyone is to wanting to get better. We have all returning players next year. We have no seniors. Next year we will have the same team. This group is just getting used to playing together. Hopefully putting in the work this year and next year we will be able to compete for the NEPSAC and in the FAA as always.”
The players were elated to find out they would be playing games and the Storm could have Lau and Nelson on the same side of the ball, creating arguably the best backcourt in the state.
“We weren’t even sure if we’d be able to practice. We thought our whole season was getting canceled. Now that we have games to look forward to, it’s great,” Nelson said. “It was great to get started. I obviously came here for basketball and that got cut but I love the family aspect of the team and the school. Everyone is great here.”
When the team was last on the floor, it was losing in the NEPSAC Class B championship game to Brooks School 63-45.
That followed the team winning the FAA for the fifth-straight season and extending their winning streak in the league to 55 games.
“We have the FAA winning streak they are trying to maintain but we have that banner up there with the FAA stuff but there is nothing under it and there is space,” Ward said. “We are using this year to really get ready for next year and making a run at the NEPSAC title next year. We want to put a NEPSAC Championship banner under the FAA one.”
The supporting cast around the two stars is a solid one with Ward saying the team can go 8 or 9 deep off the bench.
The fact that the team has no seniors is helping keep them all motivated to practice hard this year in hopes of winning championships in 2022.
Nelson and Lau are far from alone on the team with two sophomores in shooting guard Ava Sollenne (also a transfer from Greenwich) and forward Brielle Renwick, who saw important minutes as a freshman, joining them in the starting lineup.