The Notre Dame-Fairfield girls basketball team ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the GameTimeCT Girls Basketball Top 10 poll on Jan. 5.
The Lancers never left that perch.
The first four games of the season gave Notre Dame three wins over 2019 state finalists (Canton 57-33, Hand 68-64 and New London 63-56) and one win over 2018 CIAC Class LL champion Mercy, 49-25.
To those outside the program, it looked like smooth sailing, as the team rolled through the season with no losses in state. But the team was constantly growing and adjusting to a new coach and system.
Maria Conlon took over the program in the offseason from longtime coach Eric DeMarco.
The only loss was to Hudson Catholic, a team ranked 14th in the nj.com Top 20 that went 24-5 and advanced to the New Jersey Non-Public A championship game.
The Lancers, like all teams this winter, did not get a chance to play for a state championship after the coronavirus scare shut down the state playoffs with Notre Dame in the CIAC Class L quarterfinals.
“This one still stings a bit. It really was a rollercoaster of a year for us. Even if it didn’t seem like it to the public eye,” said Conlon, who starred at both Seymour High and UConn. “I mean we went undefeated in state and I really believe we had everything in place and were locked in enough to win the whole thing. But this year was hard from many stand points. New coaching staff, new everything.”
With no state tournament, the Lancers were left with a resounding 70-40 win over the No. 3 team in the state, Newtown, in the SWC championship game.
The Lancers were hoping the SWC title was just a prelude of what was to come. But it now stands as a barometer of how far they came.
“It wasn’t always easy but we always figured it out when we needed to and I think the SWC championship was a culmination of all of that,” Conlon said. “We all set egos aside. Players, parents etc., and zoned in on doing something the school hadn’t done in four years and man was that a beautifully played game by us. We were so dialed in to our end goal and in our game plan, we were unbeatable that night. And Newtown is a great and well coached team. They had a ton of seniors and were very disciplined. We worked for that moment all year long and when the time came, we really put it together. Every single player did exactly what they were supposed to do.
“I am glad it played out like that in retrospect because obviously we won’t have an opportunity to get the big one,” Conlon said. “In a lot of ways I sometimes think it’s harder to win a league tournament or a league championship than it is to win a state one. Against a team that really knows you, and you know them, that can be tough. You have to really, really execute every single possession. And we did that. I am really proud of that. We celebrated that for a few days but then got geared into being focused for states so now that we don’t have that anymore I reflect back on that game and man that really was something special and something to be really proud of.”
Notre Dame was a young team by most standards. The team had two seniors but only one, Erin Harris, who saw significant playing time.
Harris missed time early in the season with an injury, leaving the team with just juniors and sophomores on the floor every night.
That provided the Lancers with the opportunity to give time to other players, helping develop them into quality varsity players.
Junior guard Mac Stone-Folmar benefitted the most during Harris’ absence, gaining valuable experience which eventually led to her being the high scorer with 18 points in the SWC final.
When Harris returned, her experience, ball-handling and defensive tenacity provided a spark to a team already playing at a very high level.
Along with the return of Harris, the Lancers learned lessons from their loss to Hudson Catholic, which propelled them forward.
“We made some changes and took a different approach to practice and it really came together,” Conlon said. “One of those things was putting 20 minutes on the clock in a half court set and telling them they had to score without dribbling. At first, they were like deer in a headlight, but eventually it became natural.”
Conlon said it was evident the team was improving game-by-game and hitting their stride in March.
“I think putting in a completely new offense and one that did not have a ton of set looks, it was hard in the beginning to get them to stop being robots and just play basketball,” Conlon said. “By the time the postseason rolled around we were getting really great at that. Not perfect. But much better than they were in December. When I first came in, the first couple of practices I couldn’t believe how little we moved without the ball or how little we played freely off of each other. The back-up play in the beginning for them was go one on one. I was fixated on trying to get them to move independent of that. Being able to score one on one is great, but a lot of people can do that. Be a basketball player was what I wanted to establish and we improved greatly at that.”
It helped that the team was led by all-state caliber players in junior guard Yamani McCollough and sophomore wing Aizhanique Mayo, who both could score in double digits any night.
Mayo averaged 18.2 points, 6.5 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals per game, shooting 45 percent from 3-point range.
McCollough averaged 13 points, 4 steals, 4 assists and 3 rebounds per game.
Along with the two big scoring threats, many others bought into taking on needed roles on the team including Harris, sophomores Kayla Tilus and Taylor Gibbs and juniors Ciara Brown and Stone-Folmar.
“I think this goes a bit unnoticed all the time,” Conlon said. “Without people doing the dirty work, grinding it out in the paint like Ciara, being the fourth or fifth option like Mac. Erin being a distributor. Players like Yamani and Nique (Mayo) don’t get as many great looks within our offense. Those kids were critical to what we needed to win.”
Stone-Folmar stepped up so much she was named the teams’ third captain along with Harris and McCollough.
Now, with no state title to play for, Conlon is left looking ahead to next season.
While the team should begin next year ranked No. 1 with almost everyone back, nothing is for certain.
“I don’t know how to feel honestly. We could look different next year. Who knows?” Conlon said. “We lose Erin for sure, which is a big loss. New players are unclear at this point. Elevating their games in the off-season is the biggest part of all this. You don’t get dramatically better during the season. Mainly because we have to do a ton of team stuff. The off-season is where you as a player put in your work. Now is the time to get to the next level. Make yourself uncomfortable and moving forward with progress. That I am excited for. The growth parts. I am excited to be a big part of that this time around. That’s the part that I think will differentiate the kids, us as a team and us as a coaching staff from everyone else. I am relentless when it comes to working hard and getting better. That’s the demeanor we need to have during the off season to position ourselves for a great year next year. That’s the absolute best part.”