By Andy Hutchison
WESTPORT — Although many basketball fans are focused on what is left of this season, including the upcoming State Tournament, you will have to excuse the Staples High School girls team for looking farther ahead.
Sure, the Wreckers may or may not qualify for the FCIAC Tournament this winter, but they have a goal to do much more than simply be a part of the conference bracket next season.
“We want to win the FCIAC next year — that’s our goal,” Staples Coach Paco Fabian said after his team fell 46-39 to visiting Fairfield Warde on Feb. 6.
That setback, in some ways, served as a microcosm of what the Wreckers are about this year.
They showed second-half improvement and resiliency, erased a double-digit lead to pull in front, and hung in there against a more-experienced, 12-win opponent. In the end, youth and less varsity experience perhaps prevented the Wreckers from finishing the job. Fouls, turnovers as Warde pressured the young Wreckers, along with a late-game scoring drought cost Staples a possible win.
Staples is close to where it wants to be as far as being a championship contender, and Fabian and company can feel it.
“I think we can win the FCIAC in the next two years,” said sophomore standout starter Sarah VonDohlen.
Although only a second-year high school player, VonDohlen is Staples’ go-to team member. She averages over 20 points per game and, like most high-scorers, is a threat to drain a 3-pointer as much as she is a weapon in the paint, driving to the hoop.
“She’s phenomenal. She’s one of the best girls in the FCIAC,” Fabian said. “It’s not only her shooting — it’s everything. It’s how hard she works … She’s a pleasure to coach.”
VonDohlen and many of her teammates, including the sophomores who comprise a big portion of the lineup, have been playing together for several years.
“We have so much chemistry,” VonDohlen said.
Other sophomores who start or see regular playing time are Emma Asiel, Marley Belzer, Freya Harvey and Reese Rein. Juniors Ella Harrington and Sofia Martin, along with freshman Chloe Smith are also big components of this team. There are other underclassmen on the roster who are gaining valuable practice and occasional game experience.
The Wreckers, following a 3-5 start, won five of their next eight to get to .500 and qualify for the State Tournament with four games to spare.
“There’s so much improvement that we’ve made. We work every day in practice,” VonDohlen said.
A point of emphasis for the Wreckers has been defense. Staples, in the second half of the campaign, has significantly cut down on points against. In the early going, opposing teams regularly amassed 50 and 60-plus points. Including the Warde game, Staples allowed point totals no higher than in the 40s eight consecutive times.
“Defense is a huge difference. We changed our defense and they bought into it,” Fabian said.
“Defense is the root of our team,” Belzer added. “We’ve been working really hard on a different defenses.”
The Wreckers are hopeful this improved defensive play combined with another year of growth and maturity will continue to pay dividends this winter and carry over into next season — and beyond.
“Next year we’re going to come out strong and prove everybody wrong,” said Belzer, anticipating the Wreckers being overlooked by some.
“The girls have a really bright future ahead of them,” Fabian added.
Andy Hutchison has been covering school sports — including Staples athletics — as well as news and feature stories in Fairfield County, since the 1990s.