NEW BRITAIN - The first few years were rough. Thatâ€™s something Matt Lance says without hesitation.
When he took over Innovationâ€™s boys basketball program in 2015, Lance was tasked with building a team that had yet to win a game by re-tooling its infrastructure.
Four years later, itâ€™s safe to say the developing process worked. And itâ€™s arguable to assert the project is near completion as the No. 1-seeded Ravens (21-2) head into a Division V state tournament quarterfinal game against No. 9 HMTCA (15-7) at 6 p.m. tonight at Goodwin Tech High School.
â€śThe first few years, we were struggling, not gonna lie,â€ť said junior LJ Hazelwood, who missed half of his freshman season with a broken bone in his foot and half of his sophomore campaign with a torn meniscus. â€śI had to do a lot of watching since I was hurt. Iâ€™ve been able to watch my teammates and the chemistry just grow between all of us. As that got stronger, our record got better, and weâ€™ve been starting to prove how good we are.â€ť
In the programâ€™s first season (2013-14), the Ravens played a JV schedule, and in their first varsity campaign the following year, they went 0-15.
In Lanceâ€™s first season (2015-16), it was only a 2-18 effort as the Ravens continued to develop a roster that had a lack of veteran experience, all while implementing brand-new offensive and defensive systems as the players got more comfortable with the tutelage of the head coach and assistant Phil Smith.
â€śIâ€™m competitive. I donâ€™t like to lose. None of my kids like to lose,â€ť Lance said. â€śBut I had to constantly tell myself youâ€™re working with freshmen and sophomores who are going against seniors. Itâ€™s going to happen. We were improving. Even if we only went from zero wins to two wins, we were getting better. Even with two wins or six wins, our expectations and demands were the same as what they are now. It just took us a while to meet what our program expectations are, which is understandable.â€ť
Lance had a strong image of what his program could become, and he credits his players for believing in that vision, even when at times it was tough to see.
â€śItâ€™s hard to do what they did, and thatâ€™s to buy in to doing things even when we werenâ€™t winning,â€ť Lance said. â€śPart of it was you have guys that get older. We were playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores on varsity right away. Youâ€™re gonna take your bumps and bruises there, but I think itâ€™s buying in to realizing things need to be done a certain way even when youâ€™re not winning.â€ť
Last season, the Ravens won 16 games, going 12-8 in the regular season to earn an 11 seed in the Division V tournament. Their turnaround began with a six-game winning streak from Jan. 26-Feb. 6 that Innovation senior Lenny Okonya called a true â€śturning point.â€ť
They then won the programâ€™s first conference tourney title and first state postseason game at home, and then pulled out a four-point upset on the road before falling 57-55 to eventual state champion Cromwell in the quarterfinals - proving to be the Panthersâ€™ toughest test on the way to a title run, as they won their other three games by 17.7 points apiece.
The standout 2017-18 campaign led the way to what the Ravens are doing now - steamrolling through the schedule to capture second straight CRAL regular season and tournament championships, going a combined 24-0 in the regular season and 4-0 in the tournament.
The Ravensâ€™ balanced offense and deadly defense won their 12 conference games this season by 35.3 points per game and their six non-conference contests by 24.7 points. Their only losses came in a 24-point defeat to one of this yearâ€™s Division II semifinalists, Manchester (19-4), and a two-point loss at the buzzer to Suffield (12-10).
But because Innovation plays in such a small conference and is in just its sixth year, the program is still mostly unknown across the state. That leaves the Ravens with a chip-on-their-shoulder approach, having to battle for recognition.
â€śWe knew we were capable of this,â€ť Okonya said. â€śWeâ€™ve known weâ€™ve had this in us, and itâ€™s making us hungrier because weâ€™re the No. 1 seed. We know weâ€™re supposed to win every game so it makes us hungry. We still have to prove things because not a lot of people still know who we are. We still have to fight for our name every day.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s a respect type of thing, you know?â€ť Hazelwood said. â€śWeâ€™re trying to earn everybodyâ€™s respect. We want everybody to know that Innovation is a school out here. Weâ€™re a good basketball program. We can compete. If we donâ€™t win then we havenâ€™t accomplished our goal.â€ť
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org