The impetus for Dr. James Naismith to invent basketball at the end of the 19th century was finding a means to provide compelling indoor team competition between the end of the football season and the start of baseball in the spring.
While the Springfield College educator used the game to induce student-athletes to come out of the cold, a host of local girls are responding in their offseason to the Heat, the Connecticut Heat.
The Connecticut Heat are one of several AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) teams that proliferates in central Connecticut, dedicated to teaching younger girls the game and giving high school players the opportunity to enhance their hoop résumés for college recruiters.
The Heat’s foundation lies in New Britain, its embers stoked by lifelong friends Michael Jones and Jay Nkonoki, but they are attracting girls from adjoining towns, too. The New Britain High trio of Eliannie Sola, Faith Ford and Nikira Hooks is among them.
Ford, Sola and Hooks play for one of the eight teams in the Heat family Jones calls the “exposure” team. He prepares an ambitious schedule where the girls will play tournaments in front of college coaches and their assistants ranging from Division I to III. Three of his “graduates” who have gone on to collegiate success are Uju Nwonkwo (Northwest Catholic/New Jersey Institute of Techonology), Jenniqua Bailey (Northwest Catholic/Bryant) and Tyler Kimball (New Britain High/Bentley).
Other members of the team include – Elle Fontanazza of West Hartford, Katie Dressel of Plainville, Tia Punter of Waterbury’s Kennedy High and Jamie Zoldy of Watertown. In June and July, the girls played at showcases in Hershey, Pa., York, Pa., and Washington, D.C.
“As far as exposure tournaments go, they competed well,” Jones said. “The record wasn’t great but a couple of games were decided by two or three points. In one they lost by one in overtime, another they won at the buzzer.
“But the colleges don’t care whether you win or you lose. It’s how they represented themselves, how they respect the game. These girls did themselves well. I’m sure they’ll get [recruiting] letters. That’s our goal. We want these girls to play on the next level, for some college, for some varsity.”
Ford, a 6-foot-2 center for coach Tasha Manzie’s Hurricanes, will be a senior in the fall.
“She’s been with us for five years. She played in the parochial schools until they closed, but didn’t really love basketball until the eighth grade,” Jones said, noting that city-sponsored programs and resources for girls basketball traditionally have been scarce. The physical education department established a league and postseason tournament at the middle school level for the first time last year.
“[Ford’s] been contacted by several college coaches on the AAU circuit. She’s a good volleyball player, too, and it gives her opportunities she wouldn’t have had,” he said.
Sola, a 5-foot-4 point guard, has taken full advantage of the Heat’s programs.
“She’s been with us since we started,” Jones said. “We did a clinic for Parks and Rec and she showed up when she was in fifth grade. She’s become a decent little player. This was her opportunity to do something she had a dream of doing.”
Hooks is a 5-foot-10 forward heading into her junior year.
“She’s just a bundle of energy,” Jones said. “She always plays hard and she’s getting looked at.”
In addition to the U16 “exposure” squad, the Heat offer opportunity for younger players building a foundation for potential careers in high school and beyond.
The Baby Heat are developmental for those in fifth grade or under. There are two seventh-grade teams, one for more elite players and another more local, although Jones said the difference in talent was negligible. The seventh-graders (U12) played in Hershey and finished ninth out of 41 entrants.
The eighth-grade teams are organized the same way. There is one team of ninth graders and another for 10th graders.
The U14 team recently won a gold medal at the Nutmeg Games.
The squad is coached by Nkonoki and his daughter Taylor. Among the girls is Alexis Gwynn, daughter of former UConn sharpshooter John Gwynn. The rest of the team features Rashana Siders, Destine Perry, Idalis Miranda, Century McCartney, Geanna Williams, Aliegha Partee, Mariah Dunn, Raina Ceryak and Elise Graham.
Perry scored 13 points and Miranda 11 in a 47-41 gold medal win over Connecticut Elite from New Haven. En route to the title game, they dominated pool play with victories averaging 20-point margins.
In addition to Jones, Nkonoki and Manzie, the coaching is provided by former Syracuse and Bristol high school star Ernestine (Austin) Faienza and Manzie’s former assistant at New Britain, Kara Cicchiello. Taylor Nkonoki, Mark Mercier and Nicole Rodriguez also provide coaching help.
Jones has a clinic set for Sept. 15 that is open to the public. Tryouts will take place in late October or early November.