Hannah Conneely is defended by Berlin's Clare McGeever during Rocky Hill's season opener last Tuesday
James McKinnon patiently waited to make his Rocky Hill girls’ basketball head coaching debut, guiding his team through multiple COVID-related delays, before the Terriers finally tipped off last Tuesday night at RHHS.
McKinnon’s team fell to Berlin, 34-28, but showed the promise of a program on the rise.
“This was the first game these girls have played in 13 months and we just finished our third restart,” said McKinnon, who replaces seven-year head coach Allyson Smith, “It was a tremendous effort, I told the girls we have absolutely nothing to hang our heads about. I am so happy with their effort.”
Rocky Hill put forth a defensive masterpiece in the first quarter, holding the Redcoats scoreless for the first three minutes and limiting the visitor to three points in the quarter.
The Terriers attacking defense and emphasis on rebounding continued throughout the first half, holding a 15-12 advantage at the break.
Freshman Olivia Bozzi closed the first half with bang, scoring her first high school points on 17-foot bank shot to beat the buzzer.
“We focused on defense the last three practices more than I ever have,” stated McKinnon, who previously coached at Portland High, “We watched the Berlin telecast about seven times and their best offense is their offensive rebounding, so we worked on weakside rebounding for a lot of minutes in practice.”
Senior Jillian Chipkin dominated the inside and every time a Berlin shot went up all five Terrier players boxed out the nearest Redcoat.
Chipkin finished the night with 11 rebounds to go along with six points, three assists, and two steals.
McKinnon praised Chipkin, “Jill is our most vocal leader, she’s an extension of the coaches. I absolutely love that kid. She works her tail off in practice and always cheers everyone else on. Her parents raised her the right way.”
Rocky Hill’s offense started to click in the third, reeling off seven straight points, which culminated with a baseline jumper from Chipkin after every offensive player had touched the ball on the possession.
Berlin seized momentum and regained the lead in the waning seconds of the third on a straight away three-pointer from Carly Grega, making it 23-22.
It was the Redcoats first lead since it was 3-2 at the 4:57 mark of the first quarter.
Grega’s three was part of an 11-0 run, which bled into the early stages of the fourth.
Alivia Halikas scored four of her game-high nine points over the final eight minutes as Berlin lead the rest of the way.
“Give them credit, they did a great job. I thought they had some nice finishes on the break, and they got us in the fourth quarter,” said McKinnon, “We’ll build up our legs but hats off to Berlin, they played great.”
Tuesday night’s game ended a turbulent couple of months that featured bouts of quarantine and several starts and stops. By the time Rocky Hill was finally cleared to play, most other winter sports team in the state had played a handful or more of games, including Berlin who came in with a record of 4-3.
All told, the Terriers waited 49 days from the time winter teams were permitted to start practicing on January 19 until they played an opponent.
McKinnon was forced to conduct more than a dozen virtual practices as he juggled players in and out of quarantine protocol, including his do-it-all point guard Hannah Conneely,
“As crazy as this sounds, last week I saw Hannah for the first time since January 25th. I went 38 days without seeing her due to all the quarantines,” recalled McKinnon, “She’s a gem. I call her Steve Nash in practice just the way she dribbled and makes plays around the paint.”
Conneely scored six points and dished out three assists, also excelling on the defensive end by keeping Berlin’s guards out of the paint, displaying the same toughness on the basketball court that she does on the soccer fields in the fall.
Because of continued protocols, the Terriers were without their full compliment of players, including senior Peggy Minga who will play a major role this season.
Sophomore’s Alyssa Gau and Kate Oostendorp started and played well in the opener. Gau scored five points and Oostendorp shined defensively, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking two shots.
No matter what the obstacle, McKinnon’s positive approach is evidenced in the player’s effort on the court, “We practice hard, we get ready. Our practices are competitive, they’re fast, they’re upbeat, they’re a full two hours, and we go hard every day. There’s no covid excuse or quarantine excuse. We are ready to play.”
The opener marked a homecoming for McKinnon, who is a 1998 graduate from RHHS and coached the Rocky Hill boys’ basketball program from 2006-2009.
Following his tenure as the girls’ basketball coach in Portland, the Rocky Hill native is glad to be back in familiar surroundings.
“Portland was a wonderful place for me to coach. I had four great years there, we were in the playoffs every single year and we had great kids who I still keep in touch with, but it was the right move for me at the right time,” stated McKinnon, who teaches math at Griswold Middle School, “I’ve had all these kids in class, so it’s a smooth transition. I can joke with them a little bit different. They know me already so I can bring up stuff that we’ve laughed about in the past in practice to lighten the mood. I’ve got great kids that work hard, and I look forward to being here for a long time.”
McKinnon and the team picked up win #1 last Thursday, downing Bulkeley/SMSA 54-26, before falling to Platt to closed last week.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin