-Written by Sports Information Director Procter Smith
While COVID-19 is bound to prove the toughest opponent on Salisbury’s – and every other school’s – schedule this winter, the Knights have worked hard all fall and through a recent week of try-outs to prepare for whatever competition might await in the unusual season ahead. Already, a slew of scheduled out-of-state games in the weeks before Christmas break have had to be canceled because of new restrictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control not only in Connecticut but also in Massachusetts and New York.
The new paradigm for interscholastic competition, even given the limitation to in-state games, includes widespread coronavirus testing ahead of every game: not only players but also coaching staffs, trainers, and others must test negative for any game to proceed. As a further precaution, spectators from off-campus will not be allowed into the Flood Center or comparable venues at other schools. As seating at games is restricted according to state-mandated social distancing requirements, only a limited number of students will be given access to the stands: 26 for basketball games. These are all, to say the least, sobering realities.
Nevertheless, there is excitement in the air. Salisbury returns to action after one of the most successful campaigns in program history. The team’s 18-6 record in 2019-20 brought it into the top five rankings in New England Class A, including a regular-season upset of top-ranked and previously undefeated Loomis-Chaffee and an appearance in the quarterfinals of the Class A Tournament – the team’s first post-season appearance since 2013. While four starters have graduated, including two – Justin Oliveras (SUNY New Paltz) and Brandon Roughley (Williams) – who have joined the college hoop ranks, the team returns sharpshooter Ford Cousin, sometime starter Jean Marc Togodgue, and sixth man Carlos Pena along with a host of other prospective contributors.
Cousin’s three-point prowess frustrated opposing defenders and brought the Coloradan All-New England Honorable Mention last season. This season, he will be a marked man and will not have the benefit of Oliveras and Roughley to draw opponents’ attentions in other directions, so he will look to supplement his long-range arsenal with drives to the paint to keep defenders guessing. Togodgue showed flashes of brilliance last season as a fourth former, when he started half of the games. He has worked hard to develop consistency in his performance, built on tenacious defense and aggressive play around the basket. Pena, a University of Missouri recruit for baseball who is already in the sights of MLB scouts, brings tremendous athleticism and basketball savvy to the court. “Carlos was a key reserve last season,” notes third-year coach Kyle Dudley, “and will step into the starting line-up this year.”
One of the more intriguing story-lines of the season will be the development of sixth former Jack Ruhanen. Ruhanen has two years of varsity experience behind him but has not seen much playing time. His ability to adapt to a significantly increased role may play a big part in how the Knights fare in the months ahead. Dudley projects him as a starter. Ruhanen joins Cousin and Pena as one of the team’s tri-captains.
Other returners include sixth former Peter Mauthe and fifth formers Griff Harblin, James Mathus, and Clarence Nurse. None saw much playing time last year, but all will compete for minutes off the bench in the season ahead. At this point, Dudley sees Nurse as the most likely of the group to provide key minutes on the court.
Among the newcomers to the program, none looms larger than fifth former James Morakis, a transfer from Class A St. Paul’s School (Concord, NH), where he was All-New England Honorable Mention last season as a fourth former. Morakis will step into the point guard position as a skilled playmaker and inside-outside shooter.
In addition to Morakis, other newcomers include sixth former Teddie Steffelin and fourth former Ashton Khoorchand. Steffelin was a key contributor to the j.v. team last winter and will likely be part of Dudley’s rotation this year. Khoorchand, new to the Hilltop this fall, will compete for minutes at the end of the rotation.
Completing this year’s roster are sixth formers Pierce Quinn, Junho Son, and Charlie Hauser along with fifth formers Jack Delaney and Easton Murphy. Quinn and Son played j.v. last season while Hauser moves up from the Ruskin Developmental League, a feeder program under the aegis of former All-New England Coach of the Year Jeff Ruskin.
In a recent conversation, Dudley offered a number of observations about the coming season. “I'm very excited about this year's team,” he began with characteristic ebullience. “While we lost a lot of key seniors to graduation, we bring back four players – Ford, Carlos, Jean Marc, and James Morakis – who played big minutes at this level last season and had a lot of success. Then we have guys like Jack Ruhanen,” Dudley continued, “who has sat on the bench for the last two seasons and is now hungry and excited for an expanded role.
“We have worked extremely hard this fall,” noted Dudley, in reference to the decision at Salisbury and other schools to allow out-of-season sports options the past two months, “and look forward to playing some games before Thanksgiving. We will be different this season,” he is quick to point out. “Last year's team had a lot of size; this year's team is smaller but also quicker and includes guys who can play interchangeably on both ends of the floor.”
The season will open Saturday, November 14, against Canterbury. The two teams will battle in the Flood Center at 2:00, then switch it up and play again Sunday in New Milford. “Canterbury is very talented,” asserts Dudley. “They were the best team we played last season [Ed. Note: The Saints won the 2020 New England Class B Championship.] so we get a huge test right away. We will need to adjust as well to playing with masks on.
“I think our guys are excited to compete,” Dudley concluded, “and enjoy playing with each other. It's a great group to coach.”