WINSTED >> Gerry Hicks returned to the bench to coach the Gilbert girls basketball team hoping to reverse its fortunes. It took a few long years but Hicks and the Yellowjackets have taken a major step forward in the 2014-15 season.
After winning just four games in the previous four seasons with a 42-game losing streak at one point in that span, the Yellowjackets are tournament bound and are back in the Class S state tournament for the first time since 2007.
Gilbert earned the No. 25 seed for the Class S tournament and opens against No. 8 Old lyme (15-5) of the Shoreline Conference.
Hicks is in his fourth season back and in his second stint with the program having been on the Yellowjackets staff for 20 years, including 10 as the head coach before stepping away for a decade. Gilbert went to the state tournament in each of those 10 seasons and won a Berkshire League title in 1995-96, but had fallen on hard times.
That’s what brought Hicks back.
“I saw the way the program had gone down hill and thought I could come back and bring it back to where it was,” Hicks said. “Hopefully return to having some success and respectability. I looked to bring back the old attitude and work ethic and maybe we could turn things around.”
Things didn’t get turned around quickly, though, as the Yellowjackets went 1-19, 0-19 and and 1-19 in Hicks’ first three seasons back. This season the Yellowjackets have a roster of just nine players and have only one senior but have found a way to make it work.
“We have a core group of girls that have played ball a long time and they like to play,” Hicks said. “And we got in Liz Wexler, she came in as a scorer for us and it just raised everybody’s game.”
A freshman guard, Wexler is averaging 19.5 points per game and gave the Yellowjackets a go-to scorer for the first time in years.
“When she is scoring it raises everyone else’s confidence, they score as well and it has made a huge difference,” Hicks said.
The season started rough as Gilbert faced Thomaston, Nonnewaug and Lewis Mills to start the season, the three best teams in the league. Despite and 0-3 start there were signs that the tide was turning for the Yellowjackets as they played both the Chiefs and Spartans close, losing by seven and five points respectively.
Gilbert then became one of the biggest surprises in the league in the season’s early going and was 5-3 after a 50-34 victory over Terryville that stretched their win streak to five after that 0-3 start.
“In the past three years before this we were getting wiped out in some of these games,” Hicks said. “We’ve been more competitive against the top teams and it bodes well for the future.”
The future is so bright because of the nine players on the roster only Shachelly DeLaPaz is a senior. The rest of the roster is made up of one junior, four sophomores and and three freshmen. Because of injuries the Yellowjackets haven’t had all nine available but for a short stretch of the season.
“The girls are tough, they don’t come out, they give it all that they have got,” Hicks said. “They work as long and as hard as they can. They might be tires but they play and play hard.”
Hicks said the team had been thinking playoffs all year but at times it looked like it might not happen.
The five-game win streak was followed by four straight losses. Gilbert got its seventh win on Feb. 5 with a 50-40 victory over Wamogo but then dropped its next four including a pair of close four-point losses.
That left the Yellowjackets fighting for its tournament life in its final game of the regular season, senior night at home against Terryville. Not an ideal situation for a young squad but Gilbert responded with a 54-27 victory over the Kangaroos to earn a Class S berth as well as a spot in the BL Tournament.
“you don’t want to go into the last game needing the win for the tournament. Senior night, it’s home, you have all those distractions but they were really focused,” Hicks said. “They knew what had to be done and they went out and did it.”
It meant a lot to the entire program but probably a little more to DeLaPaz, who had suffered through the previous three seasons.
“I cried. I loved the feeling. I was speechless and so happy,” DeLaPaz said. “Especially with it being my senior year, to get to the BL Tournament and state tournament and get things going in the right direction, it has been great.”
The Yellowjackets appear primed to keep the momentum going over the next few seasons with players like Deanna Delacruz, Ali Brochu and Grace Valickis, as well as Wexler.
“This team has been playing together since middle school and even some travel,” Wexler said. “Now we are together in high school and it helps having played together before.”
The small roster means no JV team but it also means that everyone in the program is getting valuable varsity experience and this season some postseason experience as well. Regardless of the outcome this week in the Class S opener, Gilbert girls basketball appears to be undergoing a resurgence.
“Going forward we are looking pretty good and it appears that we will have some talented eighth graders coming in,” Hicks said. “With this mix with the girls who will be juniors and sophomores next season with the incoming freshmen, it looks like the program will be in good shape. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish.”