When David Bradbury took over the boys basketball program at Portland High School, the Highlanders were coming off a 5-15 season and hadn’t qualified for the state tournament in three years.
Three years later, Bradbury’s Highlanders recently wrapped up a 15-5 regular season and are one of the top teams in both their conference and division.
Bradbury credits the turnaround to a culture shift within the program.
“This is the type of success that I envision and I am very proud of the fact that this program has been able to get here,” said Bradbury. “Give all the credit to boys; they are doing all the hard work. When I first got here I had ideas and a vision of the culture I wanted, which is rooted in competitiveness and toughness.”
In his first season at the helm, the Highlanders won nine of 14 games during the COVID-19 condensed season in 2020-2021.
Last season, the team won a state tournament at home for the first time in program history before upsetting the tourney’s top-seed Terryville in the second round. The 2022 tourney run came to an end when they lost to the eventual state champions of Windham by only two points in the quarterfinals of the Division V state tournament.
Following the historic season, Bradbury welcomed back an experienced roster featuring six seniors, five of which start.
Captains Ben Fecteau and Harrison Collins, along with Joe Rusczyk, Ryan Kerr, Austin Vess, and William Favale are the senior voices that have helped Bradbury implement his brand of basketball over the last three seasons.
Fecteau said that Bradbury told the seniors immediately following the conclusion of last season that their “time was now.”
For the better part of a decade, the seniors have been on the court together, playing through the youth ranks together dating back to the third grade.
“It’s about playing a one unit,” added Fecteau. “Bradbury has got all the right game plans and it’s just about executing and giving effort day in and day out.”
Collins was an honorable mention all-conference player as a junior and is again the team’s floor general this winter, averaging over 20 points and dishing out nearly four assists a game.
“He’s been tremendous; I can’t say enough about him,” Bradbury said of Collins. “He’s been a leader offensively and the energy defensively, and something that he does extremely well is he’s become the best teammate possible.”
Collins style of play is also ideal for Bradbury’s up-tempo approach.
“Bradbury gives us all the freedom on offense,” stated Collins. “I love playing fast basketball and that is what we do.”
Helping Collins with the scoring load has been Rusczyk, who is averaging 15 points per game.
Both scoring leaders were instrumental in the state tourney run a year ago, each posting double figures in points as juniors, and Collins said that playing in big games a season ago has paid big dividends this winter.
On Jan. 10, the Highlanders knocked off the defending Shoreline Conference (SLC) champions from Cromwell (52-48) at Portland High School.
It turned out to be only one of two losses the Panthers of Cromwell suffered in the regular season. It was also the
Highlander’s second victory over the Panthers in the last three meetings after Cromwell had won the previous 22 meetings prior to Bradbury’s arrival.
Following the victory over Cromwell, Portland lost to Morgan––another conference powerhouse––before winning nine of their final ten games of the regular season,
Bradbury called the January victory over Cromwell a “huge confidence booster” for the team.
Collins added, “After the Cromwell game we were at an all-time high and after that Morgan game we were at our very low. That stretch in the season was the most important for us. It told us that we can beat anyone, but on any given night we could lose.”
The Highlanders lost only one game to a Shoreline Conference (SLC) opponent the entire regular season. The team’s four other losses came against bigger out-of-conference schools.
Bradbury said he purposely schedules tough out-of-conference games to challenge and prepare his team for postseason play.
On Feb. 16, the Highlanders went toe-to-toe with Ellington, a top-ranked team in Division IV, before losing in overtime.
“I think playing very good teams that are bigger schools late in the season prepares you for these big games,” stated Bradbury. “To have a loss at the end of the season is not the worst thing in the world. You get that sense of urgency knowing that we could lose and we have to come ready to play.”
The team has also not shied away from the goals they set out to make waves in the postseason.
Fecteau said the team talks about those goals on nearly a daily basis, adding, “[Bradbury] wants us to experience those championships and that’s what we are here to do.”
Collins added the key to reaching those goals is staying focused in games, adding “Anything can happen in a game. It’s about never getting too high or not getting too low, and always staying together.”
With the state tournament starting next week, Bradbury said that regardless of the outcome, this senior class has help lay the foundation for the future of the program.
“This is a mature group that has bought in and changed the culture with me,” stated Bradbury.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin