By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – Can the Bristol Eastern boys basketball team win eight games this season and break into the state tournament mix?
It’s possible but the program, a little lean on height, will have to do it without a true center in the mix.
But the team returns third year veteran Carter Dziedzic and a host of seniors who are itching to end the regular season ready to play basketball in March.
Let’s take a look at this season’s squad from Bristol Eastern:
BRISTOL EASTERN BOYS BASKETBALL
Head Coach: Bunty Ray (2nd season)
Overall Record: 5-15 (5-17 unofficially in games Ray filled in for former coach Mike Giovinazzo over the years).
Last Season’s Record: 5-15 (Did not qualify for the Class L Tournament).
Subtractions: Tom Gonzales (center), Jake Violette (forward), Rod Jenkins (guard), Justin Blake (forward/center).
Key Players: Carter Dziedzic (jr, forward), Tyler Mason (sr, guard/forward), Camryn Tate (sr, guard), Ariza Kolloverja (sr, guard/forward), Rajon Collins (sr, center), Nate Silva (sr, shooting guard), Mac Goulet (sr, guard/forward), Matt D’Amato (so, guard), Jake Lafferty (sr, forward).
Strengths: Versatility, willingness to get better
Weaknesses: Height, speed
Bristol Eastern basketball 2017-18: Like last year, the team – off a five-win campaign – doesn’t have a ton of expectations so an eight-victory season would be a big deal.
The boys team at Eastern boasts seven seniors with various levels of experience.
Because of injuries, subtractions, and the like over the years, several of those seniors have seen various amounts of court time and improved over the seasons.
But the leaders of the group will be a talented junior in the form of Carter Dziedzic (10.4 points, 4.9 rebounds-per-game in 2016-17) who has been playing varsity since his freshman campaign and senior Tyler Mason (3.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg) – both starters from last season’s five-win campaign.
Even with that experience, getting that team chemistry is still a work in progress.
“Besides the two starters, a lot of kids had limited (varsity) minutes so getting them to mesh as a group is going to take a little bit of time,” said Ray. “Hopefully, with repetitions, putting in some new offenses to get them shot opportunities, we’ll be able to function as a unit.
Dziedzic is going to be the center by default but the 6-foot-4 athlete is not a post-player by trade.
But the junior has a boatload of talent that simply can’t be ignored.
Dziedzic can hit three-pointers from long range and can put the ball on the floor, gliding to the hoop for easy buckets.
He’ll also grab his share of rebounds, make the right passes, get to the free throw line, and helps to make each player on the court better.
Dziedzic will be counted on both sides of the ball this season and should have another career year.
“He’s got the most minutes [on the floor] than anybody, he’s put the most time in and that’s pretty evident by the way he’s performing,” said Ray of Dziedzic. “He’s added a lot to his game: a mid-range game, he attacks the rim, [and] he can hit three-pointers. He’s physically mature now. I think he’s doing an excellent job handling the ball. He’s made himself into a complete player in the offseason and hopefully it translates into a good season for him.”
Then there’s a senior core that can be successful if the group can put it all together on the court.
Mason is an option at small forward and another third year performer on the squad.
He’ll do a little of everything for Eastern, can and will hit three-pointers, crash the boards and expect the senior to help direct his mates out on the court.
If Eastern is to win games this season, Mason must put the ball in the hoop.
Also at forward, senior Mac Goulet is in his second year of varsity action and has vastly improved his rebounding coming into the season.
He’ll hit the boards, pass the ball when called upon but won’t force shots up at the basket.
The Mason/Goulet duo could be a small front-court but if the group can keep the ball moving and score, that size won’t matter.
In the backcourt, both Camryn Tate and Nate Silva saw minutes at the varsity level last season and will need to help direct the offense, this time around as starters.
Tate won’t be shooting the ball left and right but will pick his spots on offense and certainly could lead the squad in assists.
In the preseason, Tate certainly upped his game, getting his hands on the ball in Eastern’s defensive schemes and is looking forward to a big season.
Silva (3.1 ppg) is probably more suited for the off guard position but he will net a couple assists every game for Eastern from that other guard spot in the line-up.
But make no mistake, Silva is going to look like former Boston Celtics standout Danny Ainge at the NBA 3-point contest, firing up the three’s so expect long bombs to drop in early and often.
Three seniors should also see time off the bench in the form of forward/center Rajon Collins, guard/forward Ariza Kolloverja, and forward Jake Lafferty – a transfer from St. Paul Catholic.
That grouping could also start in a pinch and don’t be surprised if Ray mixes and matches those reserves with the starters for any particular opponent.
Collins (6-foot-3, 230 pounds, 1 .8 ppg) is a bit of a bruiser inside but isn’t a bad passer for his size and will finish at the basket.
Kolloverja, a 6-foot-1 forward, is an excellent change of pace component for Eastern and when he’s on, don’t be surprised to see him score hoops in bunches.
He has driving ability to the basket but can also hit from three-point territory.
And then there’s Lafferty who will get his share of rebounds off the pine and has shown a nice touch from the foul line in.
There’s opportunity and Lafferty is looking to seize it.
It’s a coachable group of players but if Eastern runs into any kind of size, the program will be challenged from the start.
“We still have to be able to defend and I think that’s going to be the key for us. [We have to] figure out what our identity is on defense,” said Ray. “I don’t know if we can match-up [and] play man [defense] every night so we might have to mix in some zone. The bottom line is our effort towards the ball.”
“We have to be able to get loose balls, limit other teams possessions. Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you can’t box out properly, use technique, and a little bit of heart and effort to go get the ball.”
Finally, the back-up point guard role could rise from the ranks of the junior varsity level with players such as sophomore Matt D’Amato getting the call or someone else once the season has commenced.
The bottom line with this group is that they could look really good one night and lose by 20 the next.
It’s going to be a grind to eight wins this but that’s the goal of the campaign.
“We can’t make any excuses,” said Ray. “We are who we are so we’re going to just have to work a little bit harder on the intensity and see if we can limit team’s possessions.”
Outside of conference affairs, Ray has made the non-conference portion of the schedule competitive with a home-and-home series against Derby and a challenge against Watertown, all out of the Naugatuck Valley League.
“I would think they could (get eight wins),” said Ray. “Anybody with a heartbeat can go out there and compete every night. Anything’s possible. I think for us, it’s going to be a matter of execution. It’s going to be a matter if we can put the ball in the basket.”
CCC South Outlook: The CCC South Patriot Division will probably be won by Bristol Central this season, according to Ray.
The squad has the speed, the size and the tenacity to be one of the best – not just in the Patriot Division – but in the South overall.
“It’s a three team race,” said Ray of the Patriot Division. “Obviously Bristol Central is [the favorite] with all their returners, their size and their experience. They’re probably the favorites to win the league.”
In the other portion of the CCC South, Ray likes Middletown to win the Colonial Division.
“Middletown is always tough,” said Ray. “The other team kind of plays the same style they always play. It’s just going to be a matter of who has the best match-ups on any given night and who’s performing. The South is the South. It’s always tough. It’s always competitive. There’s not any easy games.”