CENTRAL SQUARE — The Central Square girls basketball team struggled to open the season, but a resilient tournament victory and pair of unique bonding experiences over the holiday break could mark the turning point for the veteran squad.
The Redhawks entered the week with a 3-3 overall record after securing a pair of victories to win the Avon Tournament during Christmas vacation, capping off their enjoyable weekend stay in Rochester by climbing back to a .500 record and shaking off a 1-3 start.
Central Square coach Kevin Brazell, in the midst of his 35th season at the helm, also visited the Elderwood nursing home with his players on New Year’s Eve to socialize with residents, present gifts, and continue a long-standing program tradition.
Central Square brought back a bulk of its roster from a team that finished 12-8 last season, including four returning junior starters — Julia Mann, Morgan Ransom, Jessalyn Tennant, and Brianna Basile — many of whom have also contributed to the program’s four-year stretch of 10 wins or more.
“It was a good trip for the kids and they had a good time (over the school break),” Brazell said. “I think it might have brought us together a little bit, and I think we’re ready to start playing better.”
The Redhawks beat Rochester-based Wilson, 52-35, in the opening round and then captured a 49-39 victory over host Avon in the championship game the next day. They overcame a 16-4 deficit in the first quarter against Avon, rallying behind a 26-point effort from Mann, who was named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player.
“We didn’t know anything about the teams, what kind of defense they use or how they want to play, so coach (Brazell) came into the locker room and told us to just go out and play and have fun,” Tennant said.
Between tournament wins, players bonded over a team dinner and spent the night swimming and dancing together at the hotel for which they raised money to stay.
“I think off the court, we connected really well together as a team there, too,” Basile said. “We had a big ole dance competition and that was just a blast because we got to be goofy and have fun without worrying about winning a game right then and there.”
Soon after returning home, the Redhawks paid a New Year’s Eve visit to Elderwood, an annual occurrence that started early in Brazell’s tenure when a player with a grandmother in residence made the suggestion.
Each player purchased three small gifts to wrap and distribute — Tennant said that one resident cried after receiving a pair of socks and told her they were her only visitors — and they spent several hours sharing stories about their respective experiences in school and athletics. The collective group also played games such as “balloon volleyball,” and sang carols together.
“It’s so good to hear about their time compared to now and the differences, we loved hanging out with them,” Ransom said. “Some of them played (basketball) so there were a lot of stories and similarities to us.”
Basile added: “Seeing all the different people there and the different personalities, it was so fun interacting with everyone. Some you get to be goofy with and others you would be more sentimental with, and it’s just a lot of fun to experience all of that.”
Central Square returned to regular Salt City Athletic Conference play during the past week, and is hoping its further solidified chemistry can help fuel a strong run down the stretch.
Two of its three highest scoring totals of the season came during the holiday tournament victories, and the Redhawks have cited improvement in strengthening their style of playing aggressive full-court defense to ignite transition offense from their standout guards.
“We really find our success in our defense, we’ve been working on that a lot, and also our transition, pushing the ball, we got a lot of buckets off that and that comes from our defense,” said Mann, who entered the week just 40 points shy of becoming the first junior in school history to score 1,000 career points.
The Redhawks are aiming to secure a home game in the Section 3 Class A playoffs after suffering a first-round loss last season.