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  • Greg Lederer

Cheshire Seventh Grade Boys' B-Ball Travel Team Makes History, Girls' Squads Join Them As Champs

Updated: Apr 16

This season, Cheshire seventh grade boys' basketball became the first town travel squad to finish unbeaten and defend their championship. Submitted photo.

by Greg Lederer

Cheshire Sports Media

On March 17, the Cheshire seventh grade boys’ basketball team knew that they would be playing for more than a Connecticut Travel Basketball League crown against host Wethersfield at Silas Deane Middle School. Since no town youth travel squad had earned an unbeaten season or won consecutive titles, the boys had the chance to make history.

Through a collective effort, the team realized a dream together. Cheshire won 64-41 over Wethersfield to defend their crown and finish the season at 34-0 (25-0 in league).

While their opponent had the home court advantage, the local boys used teamwork to come out on top.

“They select the finals at the start of the season, so it happened that we played on their home floor,” stated Head Coach Shawn Simpson. “It was a lot tighter than a lot of our games. They (Wethersfield) cut the lead to six (points) in the third quarter and then we pulled away.”

As the favorite coming into this year, Simpson felt that the title was a relief for the team.

“We could take a big breath,” reflected Simpson. “Once we made the playoffs, we felt the pressure this year. Everything doesn’t matter if we don’t finish the job. We put it (pressure) on ourselves, as well, to make sure that we were playing at our best.”

Some players have been on the squad since fourth grade, but most of the team have been playing together for three years. In that span, the squad has earned a 63-3 record in their league.

“We’ve had three incredible years. As they pile up, it is more and more pressure,” explained Simpson. “We always play it one game at a time.”

Over time, the players have built up chemistry on the court.

“They know how to play really well together. It is nice to see how they’ve grown into young men,” said Simpson, whose son Palmer plays for the squad. “We run the same sets, but we tweak them from week to week.”

In the Nutmeg State Conference, Cheshire competes against teams like Southington, Wallingford, Avon, Farmington, Glastonbury, West Hartford, Wethersfield, and Simsbury. Teams have reached out to them about playing squads from the league in Milford.

“Things can change a lot from year to year,” stated Simpson. “Every year brings a new challenge.”

The coaching staff feels lucky to get to work with talented players and good people.

“They are unselfish kids,” said Simpson. “Sometimes, I have to remind the guys to be selfish and take an open shot. Our families have heard opponents and referees say that it is great to watch the guys play.”

Simpson enjoys coaching the boys with Jeff Pangaro and David Doyle.

“I could not have done it without them,” said Simpson. “We know each other so well. We often can look at each other and know that we need to sub someone out or give someone a breather. I think head coach is the title, but we are all equals because we all help each other out, for sure.”

Next season will be an emotional one for the staff, as they will wrap up coaching the boys in eighth grade.

“It (the time) goes by so quickly,” stated Simpson. “We want it back (as champions) and end on a high note.”

Along with the boys, Cheshire girls also brought home travel titles this season. In the lower division of their brackets, sixth grade and eighth grade squads finished up victorious on March 17 at Mortensen Community Center in Newington.

Eighth grade won nine of their last 13 games to finish at 14-14. As the top seed in their tournament, Cheshire beat Farmington in the semifinals and then claimed the crown with a 49-40 win over Bristol.

“We blew through the playoffs and played very well,” reflected Head Coach Matt Gogal. “The girls played fantastic and I was happy for them.”

He felt that grit and determination were strengths of the team.

“These girls never give up,” explained Gogal. “They like each other and pull for each other. They always moved in one direction. They are a special group of girls.”

The core of the 11-member squad had been playing together for five or six years, but four newcomers hadn’t played the sport before.

“I think a lot of them are friends off the team,” said Gogal. “There was never a negative reaction to getting the other girls up to speed. The girls were so embracing and great leaders.”

With season’s end, the players have finished up their time in youth travel basketball.

“It was bittersweet for them because they are all such good friends. There is still ceiling for growth,” stated Gogal. “I think a handful of them have the chance to go on and make a difference.”

For sixth grade, Cheshire pulled out a 21-19 victory over Southington in the title game. Gia Spinelli netted the winning basket with 40 seconds remaining.

“After Gia made the basket, we played good defense and got a rebound to win the game,” explained Head Coach Chris Hillson.

After his team won just two games in fifth grade, Hillson was very pleased to see the 10-girl team return to the court and win seven more games.

“They played as a team and looked for the open player. Team defense was the key, as well,” said Hillson. “I’m so proud of the girls. They kept getting better and better.”

Hillson added that the girls are looking forward to next season and plan to play together over the summer.

“We are pretty excited to see how good we can be,” stated Hillson.

The Cheshire sixth grade (above) and eighth grade (below) girls' basketball teams were excited to win their divisions. Submitted photos.

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