NEW BRITAIN - It was a powerful, telling moment. A microcosm of a young manâ€™s growth that has meant so much to his teamâ€™s program-changing season and it went unnoticed by almost everyone in the building.
But there sat Michael Jessie, finding it impossible to overlook what was right in front of him last Thursday night at Goodwin Tech High School.
It was the second round of the Division V state tournament, and Innovationâ€™s top-seeded boys basketball team was facing little resistance against an overmatched, 16th-seeded Coventry squad.
As they had most of the night, Innovation held a large lead, and point guard Carlos Gonzalez made a mistake, leading to a turnover. Following the giveaway, a Patriots player got into Gonzalezâ€™s face to taunt the Ravens senior - frankly, a mild attempt at provoking Gonzalez in the heat of a win-or-go-home postseason game.
Last season, there was a strong chance that Gonzalez would have let the incident provoke him into jawing back - perhaps hurting his team by drawing a technical, or at the very least allowing the Patriot player to get into his head.
What a difference a year makes.
Calmly, Gonzalez walked away toward the other end of the court to play defense, defusing the situation by not taking action, and play continued without confrontation. The Ravens went on to win 63-36 that night to advance them to the quarterfinals.
The potential in that moment for a contentious controversy was pointed out by Jessie, the Ravensâ€™ girls basketball head coach, who also serves as the boys head coach in summer and fall leagues.
Jessie has become a mentor to Gonzalez, who following another postseason win Monday night - a 73-60 victory over HMTCA that advanced the Ravens to the semifinals - wrapped his arm around Jessie and with a big smile proudly announced, â€śThis is my guy right here.â€ť
The senior readily admits that in past years, he was not nearly as mature as he should have been - his mom concedes that as well. But he credits Jessie, his AAU program and his teammates whom he is close with for turning around his character.
â€śIt was rough for me at first because everybody knew me as a hothead,â€ť Gonzalez said. â€śI would get really upset and angry, but it's because of these guys that made me who I am today. If it wasn't for these dudes, I wouldn't be who I am. They're always pushing me to get better and better. I don't know, it's just a different feeling with this team. I wouldn't change it for the world.â€ť
It wasnâ€™t just Gonzalezâ€™s calmness in the moment against Coventry that was noticeable.
In Monday nightâ€™s win, every time the Ravens made a big play, it set off a raucous crowd, one that seemed even louder and more electric inside the small, packed-in Goodwin Tech gym.
In an atmosphere such as that, it would be easy for the players to get caught up in the hysteria and lose focus.
The one-handed fast-break dunk by Lenny Okonya in the second quarter, the â€śand-oneâ€ť layup by Ramiesh Bogle with two and a half minutes to go in the third and Gonzalezâ€™s own assist to LJ Hazelwood at the two-minute mark of the fourth on a bucket that gave the Ravens an 11-point lead were all plays that energized a feverish crowd.
Yet there was Gonzalez, seemingly every time, telling his teammates to remain calm. There was still work to be done.
â€śI appreciate 'Los man,â€ť Bogle said. â€śEverything could come unraveled if you get too excited. You've gotta stay composed.â€ť
And thatâ€™s what Gonzalez brought to the table. Coolness in key moments.
â€śHis competitiveness sets him apart, and he's been doing a really good job of staying composed and being a floor general,â€ť Ravens head coach Matt Lance said.
And often, when his teammates would make a mistake, it was Gonzalez immediately rushing over to console them and encourage them to get it back the next play. Thatâ€™s a change from last season, Jessie says, when Gonzalez would get frustrated with his teammatesâ€™ mistakes.
â€śWe've been preaching that for two years that, 'Hey, in these moments, we need a guy who's gonna step up in these moments and be a floor general,'â€ť Lance said. â€śI think Ramiesh does it sometimes, and I think Carlos did that as well [Monday]. He kind of settled everyone down.
â€śI just think Carlos is the single most competitive kid I've ever coached, and I wouldn't want him to change his competitiveness. I think he's doing a really good job of channeling that. He's taking charge, focusing on what he can do. If you take away that competitive side of it, I think that takes away who he is as a player.â€ť
It might be a difficult line to play at times for Lance and his assistants - to let their intense senior let loose his fiery side but also have confidence he will stay a levelheaded leader at the point guard spot.
But allowing Gonzalez to show some fierceness has led to moments like at the 1:57 mark of the second period against HMTCA. When Lester Emanuel nearly came up with a steal near midcourt off the Ravensâ€™ press, the ball rolled out of bounds as Emanuel was sprawled out face down on the floor. Gonzalez immediately sprinted over from the 3-point line to help pick his teammate up, shouting encouragement at his fellow senior guard.
The competiveness has also led to much-needed sparks in production, such as Monday nightâ€™s 11-point, 6-assist effort, coming off a poor offensive performance in the second round in which Gonzalez made just one shot for three points.
He was not happy with the performance, and he put in extra time in the gym in the following days. And hours before tip-off against HMTCA, Jessie walked around with Gonzalez and spoke with him about shrugging off the rough shooting night.
The approach worked, as Gonzalez buried his first 3 of the night just two minutes in, and he went on to splash two more 3-pointers. That caused Gonzalezâ€™s mother to laugh and jokingly - well, maybe not entirely jokingly - tell Jessie, â€śWhatever you did today, do it again next time.â€ť
â€śEvery time I talk about Carlos, I always say that people don't realize how complete of a player he is,â€ť Lance said. â€śHe can shoot the ball really well. He hit his 3s [Monday] because he put some extra time in. He worked at it, but I don't think people realize everything he has to offer. This state tournament's been the most complete defense he's played for us. In the conference tournament, he started taking his defense to another level.Â
â€śI've seen that competitiveness build up on a defensive level. He's taking his assignments personally. 'That's my guy? It's my job to stop him?' Alright, that's what I'm gonna do.â€™ He's in this zone where he only really cares about is what the team's doing and what he can do [to help the team]. That's his sole focus.â€ť
Gonzalez confirms thatâ€™s his approach to each game, saying that if he scores three points and the Ravens win, itâ€™s a great game. If he scores 20 and they lose, â€śitâ€™s the worst game. Itâ€™s all about winning at this point.â€ť
Backed by the two-headed monster of LJ Hazelwood and Lenny Okonya inside, guard play from Emanuel, Bogle and Armoni Alonso off the bench, some solid minutes from forward CJ Allen and the leadership of Gonzalez, the Ravens (22-2) have done plenty of winning.
They have advanced to the state semifinals for the first time in the programâ€™s six-year history, one season after coming two points short in the quarterfinals against eventual state champion Cromwell.
At 7 p.m. tonight, Innovation will face No. 5 Valley Regional (17-5) at Bulkeley High School.
The Warriors played in the Shoreline Conference, being â€śtested on a nightly basis,â€ť says Lance, by Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Morgan and Cromwell.
Lance has seen Valley Regional play this season, saying they play as hard as any team the Ravens have faced thus far. This talented, balanced Warriors squad is what stands in the way of what Innovation continues to prioritize as its top goal.
â€śTo me, no state championship means an unsuccessful season,â€ť Gonzalez said. â€śA state championship means we did what we wanted to do. That'll be our last goal on our list. If we check that off, our seniors get to leave on a good note and leave all our young guys ready to prepare for next year and the years to come.â€ť
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org