Rick Fuller had high expectations for his team this year. There was veteran leadership, an influx of skilled underclassmen and abundant athleticism that offered a multitude of strategic options.
But having an undefeated record and the No. 1 ranking in the state heading into the final week of the regular season? That was not on the radar for Fuller, the coach of Norwalk’s girls basketball team.
“That’s every coach’s dream, to have seasons like this, but there are so many good teams,” Fuller said. “You never anticipate this. You just want the girls to get better with each game.”
So far, mission accomplished. The Bears are 17-0 and only one game was won by a margin of fewer than 10 points. That was a recent 49-47 road win at New London, the No. 1 team in the state at the time.
“Our defense has been great,” Fuller said. “Our goal is to always keep teams under 40. If we do that we feel we can win, and we’ve been doing that pretty consistently.”
The Bears have been on a collision course all season with Trumbull, the defending league champion and No. 4 team in the state. The two schools have separated themselves from the rest of the FCIAC pack and meet Monday on the Eagles’ court, likely for the top seed in the conference tournament.
It could be a preview of the championship the following week. It is a game some coaches would prefer earlier in the season as opposed to the eve of the playoffs, but Fuller said it could prove beneficial.
“We still have to play McMahon on Thursday and we are not overlooking anyone, but like everyone else we’ve had that game circled on the calendar,” Fuller said. “If you want to be the best you have to beat the best, and the best in the FCIAC is Trumbull.”
Fuller has the personnel that allows for numerous options to best match up against different opponents, starting with Ashley Wilson, his senior leader, who leads the team with a 13 point scoring average. She was both an All-FCIAC and All-State selection a year ago.
“I told Ashley before the season she was going to have a target on her back,” Fuller said. “She does so many things well.”
Sanaa Boyd, another senior, is a 5-6 power forward who fills a role usually suited for someone much taller.
“She’s a lockdown defender,” Fuller said. “She plays bigger than she is. She draws the other team’s big girl. She can guard any position.”
Naeva Rene is the team’s third senior, a 6-foot space eater inside.
“She’s a freakish athlete,” Fuller said. “She can dunk a tennis ball. She’s long and rangy.”
Then there is Serenity Mayhew, a freshman who has made an instant impact. She was the leading scorer in the comeback against New London.
“She came up to me in that game and told me I can play against them,” Fuller said. “I liked her confidence. It was nice to see her step up like that.”
Fuller also has a strong class of juniors, led by Carsyn Langhorn, Anaijah Morgan and Belinda Hunte. Sophomore Jakara Murray is second on the team in scoring behind Wilson.
In fact, Fuller has a number of players averaging between six and nine points per game.
“We are lucky to have so many girls who can score so we don’t have to rely on one,” Fuller said. “All the girls chip in points. Ashley is the leading one but her numbers have gone down because of everyone else.”
The New London game carried a number of benefits, but perhaps the biggest one was forcing the Bears to have to make plays in the final minutes of a close game. That will be important in the postseason, when the likelihood of blowouts dissipate.
Monday’s game with Trumbull will give both teams an early taste of the postseason. It is by far the most anticipated game of the regular season.
“I tell the girls anytime you can play someone in a playoff atmosphere it is great,” Fuller said. “It’s intense.”
Norwalk has been eliminated in the opening round of the FCIAC Tournament in each of the last three years. Fuller said the road to one or two postseason titles will be a case of staying the course.
“We have to stay focused and do the things that got us here,” Fuller said. “Not doing anything different. It is too late to change who you are as a team. Maybe add a few wrinkles, but you keep doing what you are doing.”