The exponential improvement in the quality of top-notch girls basketball in Connecticut was on display at Chick Shea Gym Friday night.
Bulkeley at New Britain. The rivalry has been going strong for a decade, but the current crop of players exhibit superior strength and durability. The gap between the girls and boys product has diminished.
I like to get to where I'm going early so I made sure I'd see at least some of the junior varsity game. Believe me when I tell you that the understudies in these two proud programs could give more than half the varsity teams in the state a run. New Britain's Emily Polkowski, sporting a major shiner that must have been delivered by a stray elbow in a previous game, was sensational in scoring 23 points in a Hurricane victory.
The first quarter of the varsity game featured New Britain riding an emotional high to an unthinkable 20-3 lead. Every Herald sports reader and Division I coaches around the nation have known about NB junior sensation Symone Roberts for awhile now. She's always been fast and she's always been smart, but she's better than ever now.
I saw Roberts against Windsor on opening night Dec. 5. She scored 21 points in New Britain's only loss despite suffering one of her poorer shooting nights. I didn't see the 'Canes during their subsequent eight-game tear and the difference in her game is stunning.
The fluidity of her moves on her lightning-like thrusts to the hole was captivating. She is finishing her shots so much better, exhibiting a soft touch off the glass and a variety of moves that allow her to thread her shots through the maze of arms. No player that I've ever seen has been able to harness the kind of speed she possesses.
The talents and desire of her backcourt runningmate Sarah Sideranko may not come through in box scores but she complements Roberts to a tee. Her floor burns are a testament to her hustle. She locates Roberts flying down the floor like Tom Brady zeroes in on Randy Moss, garnering assists by the bushel.
And sophomore center Tyler Kimball hit the ground running after missing the first four games. She consistently outmuscled taller and graceful Bulkeley center Samantha Sanchez. She has the agility to put the ball to the floor and leave frontcourt defenders standing still. She scored 16 points and grabbed 16 rebounds while getting Sanchez in foul trouble. With Sanchez forced to sit much of the third quarter, Bulkeley could not put together enough of a run to get any closer than nine points.
And how fortunate the girls are to have a coach like Karen Byrne come in on the heels of the legendary Beryl Piper's departure. As I overheard several observers say, Byrne guides and teaches like the college coach she once was, and like Piper will probably land another college job down the line if she so desires.
The only possible downfall for New Britain is depth. Monika Malec and Cassie Bell round out the starting five. Sophomore Shakoya Samuels was the only other player Byrne used. The hope is that Heather O'Bright, a promising freshman frontcourt player, can bounce back from a head injury and contribute. Maybe Polkowski can adjust to the speed and power of varsity ball to help out, too.
But the fact is that New Britain has the stuff to win a third straight Class LL title and having the chance to witness the journey is a treasure.