Newington senior Alex Cucuta plays defense during the Art Kohs Classic on Dec. 27 at Xavier High School. The Nor’easters suffered their first loss of the season, falling to the host Falcons, before rebounding the following night to defeat Waterford in the consolation game.
Scot Wenzel has picked up right where he left off as the boys’ basketball coach at Newington High School, leading the Nor’easters to wins in four of their first five games this season.
Wenzel coached the program from 2003-2017 before serving as the head coach in Plainville for a few seasons.
In August of 2022, Wenzel returned to his roots in Newington where he had previously guided the program to four conference championships.
“I have been very fortunate with my time at Newington, whether it is this year or the 14 years before. I have always had great kids,” stated Wenzel.
After defeating Berlin, Middletown, and New Britain to start the season, Wenzel’s team fell to Xavier in the first round of the Art Kohs Classic at Xavier High School on Dec. 27.
But even in defeat, the Nor’easters showed the grit and fight that is a trademark of Wenzel’s teams over the past two decades.
After Xavier jumped out to a 12-0 lead behind eight points and a pair of assists from Anthony Parker, Newington senior captain Alex Cucuta hit a three-pointer with 2:54 left in the first quarter to break the early scoring draught.
Cucuta’s triple sparked a 15-3 Newington run to close the first half.
Wenzel said Cucuta’s shot allowed the offense to relax, adding, “Once you hit one hopefully things start to steamroll and defensively I thought we did a pretty good job after that.”
“We struggled in the first quarter and they struggled in the second quarter,” added Wenzel. “We were able to come back, and we got a little momentum.”
Newington’s zone defense gave the Falcons fits in the second quarter, limiting them to a single bucket and three points total.
The Nor’easters continued to chip away at the deficit in the third quarter, eventually taking the lead at 25-23 with under a minute to play in the quarter after freshman Josiah Sims scored five straight points.
Sims worked a perfect give-and-go with Lebron Beckford to narrow the deficit to one and then converted a conventional three-point play when he was fouled on a layup and made the ensuing free throw with 40.5 second left in the third quarter.
However, the lead was short lived as Parker hit a high-arching three-pointer from just inside the midcourt strip as the third quarter buzzer sounded, giving Xavier a 26-25 advantage and a momentum boost heading into the fourth.
Parker’s buzzer-beater was part of a nine-point run for the host team, who scored the first six points of the final frame to extend a lead they would not relinquish.
A three-pointer from Newington’s Avery Mickens cut the deficit to 41-38 with 1:33 to play in regulation before Parker countered with a layup and free throw with 24.6 remaining.
“It was a back-and-forth game but give them credit they hit the shots when they needed to,” Wenzel said of Xavier’s 20-point fourth quarter.
Seven Newington players scored in the defeat, led by Gavin Gray with nine.
Xavier would go on to win the annual holiday tourney, rallying to defeat Glastonbury 48-46 after forcing a handful of turnovers in the final minutes and getting a go-ahead bucket from Aiden Driscoll in the closing seconds.
This season’s tournament marked the 19th year of the Art Kohs Classic, named after the school’s longtime athletic director and basketball coach, who passed away last March.
Current Xavier head coach Mike Kohs, who is the son of Art Kohs, was moved by the team winning the tourney this year, saying, “This means a ton to me to win this tournament in the year my father passed.”
“Tonight was without question one of the most special wins I’ve had in my career,” added Kohs. “I’m so proud of my team and my coaching staff.”
In the tourney’s consolation game, Newington rebounded with a 50-46 victory over Waterford. Mickens led the way with 14, while Beckford added 11 and Gray scored 10.
The win improved Newington to 4-1 on the young season.
“This is a special group that we have. It’s a great group of kids that work hard and are very coachable,” stated Wenzel. “We have some work to do, but I love these kids. We just have to continue to get better.”
Next up for Newington is a home date against Tolland on Thursday, Jan. 5 at NHS. Tip-off is at 6:45 p.m.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin