NEW BRITAIN - The remnants of the Innovation boys basketball teamâ€™s state championship last season were scattered all around the gymnasium at Goodwin Tech during the Ravensâ€™ season opener against the Gladiators on Thursday night.
Head coach Matt Lance paced in front of Innovationâ€™s bench, rocking his championship ring on his left hand. So did Carlos Gonzalez, last yearâ€™s star point guard who graduated in June but made the short trip to Goodwin Tech to watch his former team begin its quest to repeat. There was also L.J. Hazelwood, an All-State selection from last season who spent most of his night navigating through triple teams to find open looks in what was a gritty 50-49 win.
In a way, Hazelwoodâ€™s night represented what the early parts of this season may look like for him and the rest of the Ravens. Opponents will be hyper-focused on slowing down the only remaining pillar of last yearâ€™s championship team, and itâ€™s up to the teamâ€™s new core to step in and provide production elsewhere and ensure Innovation doesnâ€™t suffer from a dropoff after reaching a peak last spring.
â€śI think thatâ€™s one of my roles,â€ť Hazelwood said. â€śNow that our main guards are gone, I feel like I have to facilitate more and get the offense going. Thatâ€™s something weâ€™re going to need.â€ť
Hazelwood fought for shots at the rim on Thursday night and finished with a team-high 17 points, but finding open looks was a task throughout the evening. The Gladiators made the senior the focal point of their defensive scheme, daring the Ravensâ€™ inexperienced guards to take their own shots and leave Hazelwood to fight for rebounds.
It started well for Innovation, as first-year starters Michael Blackman and Gabe Matias combined to shoot 4-for-5 from deep to start the game, but the shots quickly stopped falling, and an eight-point lead turned into a dogfight the rest of the way.
Hazelwood sank five free throws down the stretch to avoid the upset, but the season-opening win served as confirmation that the Ravens have a lot of room to grow as the season moves along.
Of course, this should hardly be a surprise. Hazelwood is the only returning starter from last yearâ€™s group, and aside from himself, only senior captain C.J. Allen represents a returning player that recorded a point in the teamâ€™s state championship win over Old Lyme last season.
â€śThe chemistry is just not there yet, and the intensity we had isnâ€™t there yet,â€ť Hazelwood said. â€śBut once we get that, things are going to look a lot different than they do right now. As the season progresses, I feel like there will definitely be improvements. We just need to connect more and let the chemistry build.â€ť
Last year, Innovation rode an active and pressing defense to its first-ever state title, recording 11 steals, nine blocks and forcing 21 turnovers at Mohegan Sun Arena in the Division V final last March.
With an inexperienced offensive core outside of Hazelwood, the Ravens will certainly need a similar defensive effort if they want to make another deep tournament run this year, and Lance plans on making the early parts of this season about preaching what that kind of defense requires on a nightly basis.
â€śI think they all buy into it,â€ť Lance said of the teamâ€™s defensive mindset. â€śI just donâ€™t think they realize how hard it is to be that good defensively for 32 minutes. There were moments (Thursday) when we were phenomenal defensively. But watching what we did last year, I think people took it for granted. Itâ€™s hard for people to understand the discipline that takes. I think it was a good lesson to see how well we played when we were communicating and doing all the little things. When we didnâ€™t, we got exposed. Itâ€™s stuff theyâ€™re going to learn, but first theyâ€™re going to see how difficult it is.â€ť
Things might be difficult for Hazelwood at first as well. No longer on the floor with him is Gonzalez or fellow All-State selection Lenny Okonya. But both he and Lance have faith in the supporting cast around him, and look forward to seeing what they do with the open looks that Hazelwood will help generate.
It may take some time to get going, but the Ravens still like what they have this year, even if the roster looks a whole lot different than its historic predecessor.
â€śL.J. isnâ€™t a secret anymore,â€ť Lance said. â€śTeams know what he can do, and heâ€™s going to be their primary focus. I tell my kids that thatâ€™s fine. If you shut down one kid, we have five or six others that can shoot threes and thrive down in the post. We have some really good shooters. We just have to space the floor and penetrate and kick. Weâ€™re more than just L.J. I think what we saw (Thursday) is what weâ€™ll see a lot this season, and I trust the guys I have.â€ť
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org