NEW BRITAIN - Basketball season is officially over, but that hasnât stopped the Innovation boys team from continuing its season of firsts.
A week after hoisting the Ravensâ first state title, head coach Matt Lance learned his pair of starting forwards had made the Connecticut High School Coaches Association All-State list on Sunday, and both players had vastly different reactions to hearing the news of becoming the first ones in the programâs history to receive such an honor.
Senior Lenny Okonya couldnât help but let out a scream of delight when Lance phoned him with the news that afternoon. Okonya, who told Lance of his goal to make All-State before the season started, couldnât contain his excitement as he had Lance on speakerphone in the car on his way home from work.
âI wanted to be an All-State athlete,â Okonya said. âWhen [Lance] told me I had accomplished that, it just put the cherry on top of the basketball season. It meant I accomplished everything I set out to, which was a state championship, averaging a double-double and getting All-State.â
While Okonya reacted to the news with a scream, his rim-protecting partner, LJ Hazelwood, responded with just the opposite: silence.
Hazelwood was told in person on Sunday, when he and Lance were working at an AAU clinic, before Lance told Hazelwood that he had important news.
âI got those jitters like âoh man, am I in trouble or something like that?ââ Hazelwood said. âThen he said I made All-State and congratulated me. I was in awe. I was kind of in shock.â
While Okonya had mapped out the goal before winter began, Hazelwood had never put it on his list, yet they both end their season with their names among the best basketball players in Connecticut after teaming up to help Innovation secure the programâs first-ever state championship.
âIt wasnât one of my goals, or something I was really aiming for,â Hazelwood said. âBut at the same time, all the hard work I put in at practice and AAU, and going to the gym by myself, I feel like it was all being recognized at that moment.â
While Okonya and Hazelwoodâ names will be etched individually on their All-State hardware, they both agree the recognition is more for the Ravens as a whole, a mentality that Lance also supports.
âI believe at the end of the day, these are really team awards,â Lance said. âWithout guards like Carlos [Gonzalez] pounding the ball inside, or without Ramiesh [Bogle] penetrating and dishing, and Lester [Emmanuel], who had some great games with eight or nine assists, this wouldnât be possible. This is not just an award for Lenny or LJ. I think this is a reflection of what everyone on our team was able to do.â
Even with the trio considering the honor a team achievement, both Okonya and Hazelwood arenât letting an All-State award take place of what they both believe to be their greatest athletic achievement: hoisting a state championship trophy after winning the Division V state tournament final on St. Patrickâs Day.
âI feel like winning at Mohegan was more important,â Hazelwood said. âWe all worked hard and got that. I would put that first.â
The state title not only tops the list for the two upperclassmen, but they believe the championship run helped show the state their ability to perform, which helped their chances of taking home All-State honors.
â[Lance] said those who win [All-State] are usually on teams that make it far,â Okonya said. âI knew it was a team effort as well as an individual achievement. The fact that my team was able to succeed helped me and LJ get the recognition we worked for.â
It was certainly a team effort for the Ravens, but having a pair of imposing presences like Okonya and Hazelwood lurking in the paint made things much easier for the team, which knew if it missed a shot, one of its two towering forwards would grab an offensive rebound, or should the perimeter defense get too aggressive an open up a driving lane, it would quickly close once one of its two All-State winners stepped forward.
âKnowing we could keep most teams to one shot was really important,â Lance said. âI think it allowed our defenders to be so much more aggressive on the ball, knowing they had Lenny and LJ protecting the rim. They made us better defensively all-around.â
Both Okonya and Hazelwood ended the season averaging a double-double, and both finished the year with championship medals around their necks. They now can add All-State winners to their list of shared accomplishments, which carries a particularly special meaning for a duo who have shared the floor since before they shared an Innovation uniform.
âWe have always pushed each other,â Hazelwood said. âWeâve known each other since middle school. For us both to be recognized, it really means a lot.â