By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – For the first time since 1982, the Bristol Eastern boys basketball program will have a new coach.
Long time assistant Bunty Ray takes over for Mike Giovinazzo as the fifth-ever head coach in program history.
Ray inherits a young squad, a little lean on basketball IQ, but there’s enough on the squad to surprise a couple teams along the way.
With a transfer in from Waterbury Career Academy in the form of senior Roderick Jenkins, the Lancers have a nifty floor general that the squad so desperately needs.
So, where do the Lancers go in 2016-17? Here’s a look at the squad from Bristol Eastern:
BRISTOL EASTERN BOYS BASKETBALL
Head Coach: Bunty Ray (first season)
Overall Record: Unofficially, Ray is 0-2 in filling in for outgoing coach Mike Giovinazzo over the years. Currently, Ray’s the head coach of the Bristol Central baseball team and lead assistant on the Bristol Eastern boys soccer squad.
Last Season’s Record: 2-18 (Did not qualify for the Class L Tournament bracket).
Subtractions: Nate Hickey (guard/forward), Darieyn Tate (forward/guard), Riley Mason (guard/forward), Tyler Arbuckle (jr, transferred to St. Paul Catholic).
Key Players: Tom Gonzales (sr, center), Tyler Mason (jr, guard/forward), Carter Dziedzic (so, forward); Jake Violette (sr, forward), Roderick Jenkins (sr, guard; transfer from Waterbury), Camryn Tate (jr, guard), Ariza Kolloverja (jr, guard/forward), Rajon Collins (jr, center), Justin Blake (sr, forward/center), Nate Silva (jr, shooting guard), Adam Case (jr, guard), MacGregor Goulet (jr, guard/forward).
Strengths: Young assets
Weaknesses: Lack of identity, scoring punch
Why Eastern will be successful: The squad, off a two-win season, has nowhere to go but up.
Overview: Last season, the Lancers – due to injury and inexperience – struggled through an unusual season that saw the squad post two wins and miss the state tournament fray.
And, acknowledging the pink elephant in the room, the transfer of junior Tyler Arbuckle from Eastern to St. Paul Catholic turns the squad from a surefire state tournament qualifier to a team that probably is looking from the outside in.
Or is that really the case?
Eastern is a curious mix of athletes but if Ray can get this group to gel, on any given night, the Lancers could be a tough squad to top.
“We’re looking for improvement every day,” said Ray, “but improvement isn’t just necessarily night in and night out win-loss record. We’re looking to go out there as a team, prepare, do the little things we preach in practice, and play together. If we do those things, we’re hoping it adds up to wins but that schedule is very difficult and we’re going to have to continue to get better every night.”
With the one major subtraction to the squad, one major addition will certainly help in the incoming transfer of senior Roderick Jenkins from Waterbury Career Academy.
Jenkins was the second leading scorer on the 12-win squad from last season, punching home nearly 14 points-per-game while nabbing 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals-per-game.
He is a unique blend of speed and passing ability and he could be a tremendous help to center Tom Gonzales and forward Carter Dziedzic.
But the upside of having Jenkins at the point guard point is tremendous for the squad.
“We have to get him under control a little bit, he comes from a little different style of play,” said Ray of Jenkins.
There are plenty of question marks to go around on this team but if the individual players can rise to the occasion, it will be a huge bonus for the program.
It’s an interesting puzzle for the first year coach to put into place.
“The key for us this season is trying to get all the different pieces to work together,” said Ray. “I think we have some guys that can do some things. I just think we just have to get them to mesh. A lot of times, we’re going in as the hunted and not the hunters and we’re going to have to be able to counter some things the other teams do to us.”
“And that will depend on how we develop our instincts and how we develop our team chemistry.
That Gonzales/Carter duo will have to provide scoring and defensive rebounding punch if Eastern hopes to qualify for state tournament play.
Dziedzic made several starts for the program as a freshman last season and showed flashes of becoming an all-around solid contributor and Gonzales will finish at the hoop, can drain jumpers from outside, block shots and is capable of double-figure rebounding on a nightly basis.
Tyler Mason also showed ability over the second half of last season in several spot showings, especially from three-point range, as did sharp-shooting forward Jake Violette and back-up center Justin Blake.
All those players earned varsity minutes last season but this year, must step up even more and that crew will have to give something in order for the Lancers to be competitive in 2016-17.
“They’ve seen the speed of the game,” said Ray of last season’s players. “Just because they’ve had minutes doesn’t mean they had productivity. If you really look back at their statistics, now I’m going to ask them to not only just show up on the court, I’m going to ask them to produce. That’s a bigger burden on them, not just being a year older and being a year better.”
“You can see the improvement but we have a lot of JV bad habits we still have to break.”
Rajon Collins can rebound a bit up front and will spell Gonzales in the pivot while youngster Camryn Tate showed flashes here and there when given the few varsity minutes he earned last season.
The X-factor on the squad could be the likes of junior guard/forward Ariza Kolloverja who will see his first real time on the court at the varsity level.
He can rebound, has a nose for the ball and will take any shot that comes his way.
If he can shoot with any kind of reliability, his contribution could help the Lancers get to the next level.
Eastern will also employ the spot-shooting of Nate Silva who can and will drain shots from downtown.
Others could help out as the season goes on will be MacGregor Goblet who will see more minutes as the season progresses, and Adam Case, another shooter on the squad.
Team speed will be an issue and if opponents make games a track meet, the Lancers will be challenged to keep the pace.
“We’re going to have to make up for our lack of team speed with really good court positioning,” said Ray. “I mean, I tell [the players] in practice that it’s going to take five guys to defend the ball. You talk about team defense, we really have to emphasize that. We’re going to have to help each up off the dribble, closing out on shots. Our communication’s going to be key and it’s not one of our strengths right now.”
True, there are question marks throughout the squad and the state tournament could be a pipe dream but the season, especially for the first year mentor in Ray, won’t be a trying one because he’s been there and done that and knows the grind of what the campaign will be.
Eight wins might be a long-shot but any and everything will be on the table for the Lancers this year.
“We were forced into playing a lot of players last year and that was a benefit to them,” said Ray. “But I thought, emotionally, they were challenged a little bit last year. I hoping they can shake off what they did last year and learn [to handle] adversity. When things are going well, we’re pretty good, most teams are.”
“We’re still looking for that run stopper so games don’t get away from us. We’re looking for an identity on offense…and we need to learn what a good shot is because we could get run out of the gym if we’re not careful and we take bad shots.”
CCC South Outlook: When talking to the coaches around the CCC South, Newington always seems to be the first squad mentioned in terms of division finish at the top.
“Newington, obviously, is still the cream of the crop. They have Jared Simmons and Bristol Central is very good. Their young kids aren’t young anymore. They were winning last year. Wethersfield is also well coached.”
“And that’s just on our side [of the the CCC South].”
Ray expects those crossover CCC South games to be just as tough with several former Eastern conference opponents in the mix as well.
“Middletown was in the state championship last year, Berlin’s always tough, Maloney’s got a great coach and they’ve always got talent. Platt’s [also] starting to come on.”
“I hate to sound cliche but I don’t see an easy game anywhere. Hopefully we can go out and compete. I think scouting is going to be big for us.”
Games to watch this season: Eastern is once again involved with the Nonnewaug Christmas Tournament on consecutive days (Dec. 28 and Dec. 29). The Lancers reconnect with long time rival Southington on Saturday, Jan. 14 as well.