As Canton High School graduate Sarah Benedetti prepares for the game of her life, she won’t be able to catch the Lady Warriors as they take on Thomaston in the Class S Finals at Mohegan Sun Saturday morning. However, she’ll be there in spirit.
“It is an incredible opportunity for them, one that the Canton Girls’ Basketball program has not had in a very long time,” Benedetti said. “It is a very exciting time, and a memory that they will never forget. The girls are very deserving of the chance to play at Mohegan and regardless of the outcome, should be proud of everything they have accomplished.”
Of course, Benedetti, a 2011 CHS graduate and senior forward at St. Francis Brooklyn has just a bit of her own basketball excitement Saturday. Her team is set to take on the UConn lady huskies in the opening round of the 2015 NCAA Division 1 tournament.
In the span of less than 12 hours, many fans of Canton girls basketball will witness two of the biggest events to ever happen for the program.
“I think Canton girls basketball at this point in time is really on the map,” said Canton Athletic Director Craig DeAngelis. He also praised the girls and the coaches for their hard work and perseverance this season.
The excitement is certainly building. On Wednesday, the current Canton Girls varsity team participated in a special Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference press conference and luncheon for the team participating in this weekend’s State Girls Basketball Tournament.
The girls traded their uniforms for heels and fine dresses, talked to the media, enjoyed lunch and expressed excitement both for their upcoming game. and the UConn- St. Francis Brooklyn matchup as well. Junior Emma Charron also represented her team during the program.
Several of the Canton players are also going to Storrs Saturday night.
Sophomore Emily Briggs has had the privilege of watching Benedetti play and working with her in formal and informal practice settings. She was even there when Benedetti entered the 1,000 point club on December 17 in a game against the Vermont Catamounts and plans to be there Saturday night.
“Growing up she was always a role model,” Briggs said. “I’m so proud that she made it this far. I think it’s really exciting.”
’I’m so excited for Sarah it’s amazing that she’s able to play UConn since they’re so huge in CT and we have our own town representative in that game,” Charron said.
Benedetti is humbled by the admiration.
“It is an amazing feeling knowing that I have been able to positively influence these kids,” she said. “It is always my pleasure coming to their practices, playing pickup, and even just hanging out and getting to know them. The girls on the team are all great kids, and the fact that they look up to me is incredibly flattering.”
Megan Roux certainly understands the weekend’s dual excitement. She graduated and played on the CHS court with Benedetti and now coaches Canton’s JV team and assists with the varsity. She also will be at Mohegan in the morning and Storrs at night.
“It’s like a giant Canton reunion this weekend,” she said.
Roux said it’s been fun watching her friend grow but she also sees so many parallels to Benedetti’s years at St. Francis and Canton’s recent experiences. Four years ago, St. Francis Brooklyn didn’t do too well and the Lady Warriors in Canton won just two games.
The St. Francis program has grown along with the Canton one. Benedetti has been come back to Canton when she could to work with the girls. Roux said the personality of the Canton’s team also closely mirrors that of the 2011 squad.
“It’s just another one of those parallels,” she said. “We just have a beautiful connection. Everyone’s very relaxed and all our personalities are so cohesive.”
Many in Canton are also on board with supporting Canton’s players, whether they are current or alumni.
Responding to an informal poll on Canton Compass facebook page, approximately a dozen residents said they would even support Benedetti over UConn.
And Benedetti said she’s received countless emails, texts and facebook notifications during the tournament run.
“It is a great feeling knowing that there are so many people back home that are supporting and cheering for my team and I,” she said. “The one thing that I have learned from this experience is how awesome the town of Canton is.”
Although a formidable, number 1 ranked opponent, Benedetti is excited to play the team that has done so much for women’s basketball.
“I am incredibly excited to play UConn,” she said. “They are an amazing team, that has historically been the best team in the nation. Previous to Selection Monday, we were projected to be a 16 seed. With that in mind, I knew right away who I wanted to play — UConn. If we were going to have to play one of the top 4 teams in the bracket, we might as well play the best of the best. I am very excited to play at Gampel against great competition in front of my family and friends that are coming to support my team and I.”
Before that historic UConn game, however, comes the morning contest for Canton.
They’re facing a defending champion that’s been to Mohegan the past three years.
At the press conference, the girls we’re still soaking it all in.
“I think It’s so surreal for all of us and we’re really enjoying it,” said senior Jacquie Grabowski.
Charron, who had the chance to speak as part of the program, hit on many points, and gave a nod to her opponents, teammates, coaches and fans, including those who were willing to wear banana costumes or bring inflatable whales to bolster spirit.
“We have such a tremendous anount of support from our town that we are beyond grateful for,” she said.
She also added a special word for parents.
“They’ve watched us since we’ve been little girls grow up to be big girls and now we’re big girls on this huge stage, just living in the moment and it’s just a thrill for all of us,” she said.
Charron also mentioned the growth of her team.
“We fight — whether winning or losing as a team – or more importantly as a family,” she said. “My team is full of support and love for one another.”
The team also knows it’s time to focus.
Senior Katie Walker is one who felt the team’s tough losses this season, including a rough one to Avon, were great learning experiences.
“We got a taste of what it was like to lose so we don’t want that happen again,” she said. “I think they brought a lot of focus to our game . . . We kind of focused in after that and thought about what we needed to do. “
That involved some changes in strategy but also in approach.
“I think we needed those losses,” said coach Brian Medeiros. “We had to take a look at ourselves in the mirror and I think we kind of changed some things but we’ve also kind of relaxed and put some things in perspective.”
“Yeah we lost a few times (but) we’ve learned, we’ve had good games, we’ve been competitive and I think it moved us forward,” he added.
He also added that a friend of his helped him put all the factors, outside excitement and a world-class venue in perspective when he called it a “Hoosiers-” like moment. The basket is still 10 feet tall, the girls are the same and the girls have grown. He plans to even encourage them to accept their feelings of nervousness and excitement but at the same time, plans to step up preparations these last few days.
“It’s just more or less trying to help them prepare and it’s just trying to get them having that calm feeling,” he said. I know they’re going to be excited – embrace it and I know they’re going to be nervous – embrace that too. “
The Canton girls will take on defending champions Thomaston at Mohegan Sun Arena at 10 a.m. Saturday. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the game or at https://oss.ticketmaster.com/aps/mohegan/EN/promotion/home
http://cptvsports.org will carry the game live.
The UConn game takes place at 9 p.m. at Gampel Pavillion in Storrs. See more at http://collinsvillepress.com/2015/03/benedetti-st-francis-draw-uconn-in-ncaa-tournament/7952/
Parents and fans are preparing for a big sendoff for the girls Saturday morning. Those who can make it are encouraged to come to the Canton High School parking lot at 6:30 a.m. to cheer the team on as it departments for Mohegan. School officials have also announced the team will have a police escort to the Burlington line.