CROMWELL - As Cromwellâ€™s Nick Wright drove to the basket Saturday night looking for an easy layup, Lenny Okonya slid over slightly to his left and timed his jump.
The ball never made it to the basket. Instead, it went straight up into the air after Okonya, the 6-foot-4 big man for the Innovation boys basketball team, blocked it, causing the Ravens portion of the crowd at the Division V state tournament quarterfinals game to go wild.
Okonya pulled down the ball and passed it along.
It wasnâ€™t too long ago when Okoyna and Innovation were still trying to establish themselves as a team just trying to have a winning year, let alone make the postseason. Yet here they were, in the midst of the best season in the programâ€™s short history, vying for a chance to reach the semifinals.
While the game ended in a loss for the Ravens, Okonyaâ€™s development as a player, from a freshman simply learning how to play varsity basketball to an impact player as a junior, certainly played a key role in the teamâ€™s ascension to conference champions and a run in the state tournament.
â€śI feel like basketball is the best thing I do so I work hard at it,â€ť Okonya said. â€śWhen the season ended last year, [Innovation head] coach [Matt Lance] still held practices until the season was over officially throughout the state, and I attended those practices because I love getting better. Thatâ€™s all I wanted to do and see what I can do to reach my potential and be the best that I can be for my team. As a junior captain, I had to lead by example so I had to put in a lot of work and I want to put in a lot of work to take this team far, especially next year when Iâ€™m a senior captain hopefully.â€ť
Okonya has high expectations for himself in order to help Innovation accomplish what it untimely wants to do - win a championship.
Thatâ€™s also part of the reason Lance tends to coach Okonya the toughest out of all his players. He knows what the junior is capable of and sees how much better he can be.
â€śI think itâ€™s a confidence thing with him,â€ť Lance said. â€śBecause of the potential he has, the really scary thing is that heâ€™s not even close to hitting his ceiling. When a 6-4 kid can move that well laterally, can shoot the 3 as well as he can, be a presence [inside] and average four blocks a game and defending like he does in the post, once he adds a few more elements to his game, heâ€™s going to be one of the toughest players to guard that there is. Heâ€™s gotten so much better already.â€ť
Potential is often a word that gets used a lot. But Okonya is determined to make sure itâ€™s more than just a word to describe him.
Okonya has aspirations to play at the collegiate level, and as a result, is always looking for ways to improve his game. It started during those practices last winter and is sure to continue through the spring, summer and fall until next season rolls around.
As he put it, â€śthe skyâ€™s the limit.â€ť
â€śA lot of people are quick, so I have to get better on on-ball defense rather than just blocking shots,â€ť Okonya said. â€śBut on the offensive end, I feel like I need to get better at being a ball handler. Iâ€™m pretty good at shooting the ball. I just need to put on some weight and hit the weight room to get stronger, which should help make me tougher to guard because I can hit the outside shot and finish inside.â€ť
But first, Okonya and the rest of his teammates have some unfinished business to take care of. After all, this season represented more than just wins or losses.
â€śIt means hope honestly,â€ť Okonya said. â€śIâ€™m coming back next year, fortunately, with a lot of these guys. To see the growth we had this year and the success we had, we get to go through the offseason, get to play with each other a little bit more and come back next season even stronger. Itâ€™s really looking bright for next year.â€ť
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org