Published February 22. 2014 4:00AM
Until recently, freshmen Mackenzie Burke and Hailey Conley were splitting time between the Norwich Free Academy varsity girls' basketball roster and the junior varsity.
"I told Mackenzie and Hailey, 'You're not playing JV the rest of the year,'" NFA coach Bill Scarlata said. "I think they were a little disappointed. They just like to play. … They've got such a high basketball IQ. I can get on them. They're coachable. It's not like you have to put gloves on to coach them."
Scarlata's sentiment regarding his freshmen rang true throughout eastern Connecticut this season.
There are India Pagan and Jada Lucas, both of whom start for Eastern Connecticut Conference Medium Division champion New London. There's Caitlyn Dittman, one of the top scorers for ECC Small champ St. Bernard. Old Lyme's Abby Stone helped lead the Wildcats back to the postseason before injuring her knee last week.
One thing all six of those freshmen have in common: They're all members of the Connecticut Storm's Grade 9 Premier team during AAU season.
They've been playing together since the sixth grade, played at the national tournament as seventh-graders and as freshmen dispersed to their own schools to make an impact.
NFA won the ECC Large Division, giving members of the Storm's Grade 9 team all three division titles. In all, eight of the 10 Storm players saw varsity time. The team will be coached this year by Chris Guisti, head coach of the NFA boys' varsity team.
"Me, Alenni and Hailey know each other really well," said Burke, speaking of Alenni Rosado, a third member of the same AAU team who played varsity minutes for NFA this year. "We know where to pass it to each other."
"I think we all helped each other make varsity," Conley said. "I think going in we didn't expect to play varsity right away.
"As long as you work hard in practice, there's a chance."
Not only do his freshmen work hard in practice, they make practices more competitive than they have been in several seasons, Scarlata said.
When NFA played New London on Feb. 14, the teams' only matchup during the regular season, Burke - the former part-time JV player - started for NFA in a 48-36 victory. Conley, meanwhile, added a 3-pointer as the Wildcats went on an 11-1 run late in the second quarter to extend their lead from seven to 17 points. Pagan scored 12 points for New London.
"I'm proud of everyone," said Stone, who will miss the rest of the season for Old Lyme, as well as AAU, with a torn ACL. "When you see all your other teammates in the paper and how well they did, it's nice. We're like a family.
"It starts at the beginning of March and goes on till whenever. I love going on these trips with them and playing with them in tournaments is amazing. We went to Cincinnati before and last year we went to Pennsylvania. It's a blast. The parents hang out and do their thing and we talk and play games and act crazy."
For his part, Guisti's daughter Maia is only 4, but he's been coaching girls' basketball with the Storm since 2007 and loves every minute of it.
He's coached players such as Allison Stoddard of East Lyme, Jahira Smith, Olivia Marks and Cebria Outlow of NFA and Sarah Rogers of Bacon Academy in the last few years.
Guisti said this year's could be the most talented team, one through 10, that he's ever had to start the season. He doesn't see a difference in coaching girls, as opposed to boys.
"As with teaching, individuals are different, regardless of gender," Guisti said. "You have to make connections with people. You have to make connections with kids. You try to meet them where they understand you. Overall, I'm pretty much the same person no matter who I'm coaching."
The ECC girls' tournament begins with first round games today at the site of the higher seed. Quarterfinals will be held Monday at Plainfield and Ledyard and the semifinals and finals will be contested at Plainfield later in the week.
Scarlata, for one, said making the freshmen a part of his varsity roster this year was an easy decision.
"They're pretty talented," Scarlata said. "The only thing I have to work on with them is defensive stuff because they told us they didn't play a lot of man-to-man before. But they work extremely hard; they push the people in front of them."