NEW BRITAIN - When Beryl Piper decided to return to New Britain High School as the girls basketball coach in November, the biggest caveat that came with the job was the start date.
The CIAC was yet to determine if there would be a winter sports season this year and prospects of Piper commanding Hurricanes’ bench were looking bleak. So once a winter sports plan was agreed upon, the sudden and swift nature with which everything moved from that moment compounded the challenges of a coach starting from scratch with a new program.
“It was tough because I really didn’t think we were going to have a season,” Piper said. “Then all of a sudden it was like, you’re gonna play, and I was [surprised] because I really didn’t think we were going to have a season. So that was probably the toughest part, all of a sudden, boom, like that you’re going to play.”
Shortly after, Piper began conducting video meetings with the team, doing her best to start relationships with her new players under these uncomfortable circumstances. She said the start of physical practices made everything a little bit easier because the players’ energy and excitement to be playing again came through.
The team was forced back to virtual communication, however, just before the start of the season when a positive coronavirus test forced the team into quarantine. This time, Piper had her players working on their games from home to make good use of the gym-time they lost.
“We were doing Google Meets for practice, watching box-out drills, doing conditioning drills” Piper said. “The kids were at home, the kids were doing ball handling stuff at home with online stuff so it was bizarre. Then we came back and only had a few days before the first game, so that was tough, that was crazy.”
With all of the bumps in the road, it took some time for Piper to figure out what play style would work with this team. With one game left in this abridged regular season, New Britain is 5-6 and growing as a team with every game. Piper won three state championships at the helm of the Hurricanes during her tenure as head coach from 1988-2008, so is experienced with building a strong program. And at the end of her first season, the players are responding.
“In the beginning, we were a little unsure because we don’t know her, but we started to get to know here and I think she’s a great coach,” sophomore Kaylee Cahill said.
Obviously creating relationships with her players would be easier and move faster if everyone were allowed to operate freely and not abide by such strict pandemic protocols, but Piper is appreciative of the opportunity to coach a group of players with good attitudes that are interested in improving.
“It feels awesome to be back,” Piper said. “The kids are great kids, they come in every day, they work hard. They don’t come in the gym and sit down, they come in the gym and grab a ball, they’re shooting. They want to get better and as a coach, you can’t ask for more than that. I’m happy to see that they’re in the gym, they’re shooting around, they’re working on some things and trying to get better.”
The Hurricanes are winners of two in a row, including a senior night win over Bristol Central on Monday. Piper was appreciative about the role her two seniors played this year amid her introduction as head coach, helping lead the team on the court.
Senior Maya Slisz said she was thrilled by the opportunity to have someone of Piper’s experience be her coach. Piper followed her original stint at New Britain with 13 years as the head coach of the Central Connecticut State University women’s basketball team.
“It’s been a totally different experience,” Slisz said. “Having a Division I coach for high school, it’s so great. Every day we just listen to her, we value everything she says to us because she knows her stuff. We’re just happy to have her.”
With the prospects of next basketball season looking more like how it did pre-pandemic, the Hurricanes will have the chance to take greater strides in Piper’s first complete season. The 2021 season was a solid start, but an uninhibited year will be beneficial for growing the program.
“I’m still getting to know them,” Piper said. “It’s been such a short season and they’re not in school, most of them are home remote [learning] and they come in for practice, so it’s not like normal where you see kids during the day and you have a chance to get to see them in the school environment. You see them for practice and that’s about it, so I feel like in terms of getting to know them, there’s still a lot that has to happen.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org