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Senior captain Bret Fee helped the North Branford boys’ basketball team improve from one win last year to five victories this season. (File photo by Susan Lambert/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain Mike Sitro finished his career with T-Birds’ boys’ hoops by making the All-Shoreline First Team and winning North Branford MVP Award. (File photo by Susan Lambert/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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The North Branford boys’ basketball team was led by a couple of powerful presences in the paint this winter. With senior captains Bret Fee and Mike Sitro controlling things down low, the Thunderbirds were able to increase their win total by five from last season. Along with their size, the two 6-plus-footers provided excellent leadership on a squad that dealt with injuries throughout the year.
After winning just one game last season, North Branford finished with a record of 6-14 for the 2019-’20 campaign. While his club missed out on the playoffs, Head Coach Cliff Yerkes feels proud about the improvements that the T-Birds made in his second year with the program.
“We made great strides. To go from winning one game the year before to six, I think any coach would take that improvement any year,” said Yerkes. “I thought we made the appropriate jump, winning five more games. We had a lot of adversity we had to overcome down the stretch. Everyone kept fighting, playing hard, and showing up. We were in some tight games late. It could have gone either way.”
North Branford had just one varsity letterman on its roster during Yerkes’s first year as head coach. This season, the T-Birds featured four lettermen, including three seniors. One of those seniors was Fee, the starting center and a captain who proved crucial in the team’s improvement. At 6 feet, 5 inches, Fee consistently commanded the paint and forced opponents into taking bad shots. Fee received North Branford's Desire and Dedication Award for his efforts this season.
“Bret was a big force for us, being 6-5. He’s long, he can rebound, he can score and block different shots,” Yerkes said. “In addition to those things, he was a great leader. He brought a great attitude. He never gave up. Down the stretch, things got tough for us, and he was there every single time.”
Fellow senior captain Sitro led the Shoreline Conference in both points and rebounds by averaging 23.8 and 17.5 per game, respectively, this season. Sitro, who is 6 feet, 2 inches, was North Branford’s go-to scorer, and his shooting ability made him a threat both inside the paint and on the perimeter.
Sitro earned a spot on the All-Shoreline Conference First Team and was also named North Branford’s Most Valuable Player. Coach Yerkes knows that the T-Birds are going to miss Sitro’s contributions next year.
“We aren’t going to have a guy like Mike who we can throw the ball to and say, ‘Go score,’” said Yerkes.
After not playing any varsity minutes in his junior season, Josh Brigido became a pivotal member of this year’s team as a senior. Brigido primarily functioned as the Thunderbirds’ 3-point specialist.
“When he had the ball, you couldn’t leave him. He was a catch-and-shoot lefty,” Yerkes said of Brigido. “He was another character guy, unselfish. There would be times early in the season where I would sit him for long stretches, and he handled it great. He was wonderful to have on the team.”
While North Branford made some nice strides this season, the team did see some struggles down the stretch. The T-Birds had to deal with a few injures and were forced to go much deeper into their bench than expected. Coach Yerkes was proud of his players for staying the course.
“In life and in sports, momentum is a real thing. Sometimes, when it rains, it pours,” Yerkes said. “Because we were so thin, guys were worn down. These kids never complained, never missed a practice. The losing momentum hurt us a little bit, and the fatigue hurt us a little bit.”
Senior JJ Gargano was slated to play major minutes this year, but missed the entire campaign after suffering an injury during the football season. Despite being sidelined, Gargano still attended practices and games, while serving as a vocal leader for the T-Birds.
Fellow senior Ronnie Longo made some key contributions to the team. Longo played a big role in North Branford’s two victories against Westbrook and hit a huge 3-pointer when the Thunderbirds earned their biggest win of the year—a 62-56 victory at Cromwell on Jan. 16.
Although they were led by their seniors, the T-Birds saw a few underclassmen get into the mix through the course of the season. One of those players was sophomore Blake Pearson, who started the last eight games of the year. Pearson was named one of captains for next season, along with Trevor Holzer, who will be a senior.
“It was fun to watch Blake Pearson get better. By the end of the season, he was one of our leaders on the team,” said Yerkes. “His decision making and understanding of the game are very good. He knows who he is and what he can and can’t do. He had a great attitude in practice and would use it as a vehicle to get better and not just go through the motions.”
Coach Yerkes appreciates the impact that his seniors made on the program during the past few years. With such an important class of athletes graduating, Yerkes is looking for North Branford to develop more depth on the court in its effort to reach the postseason next year.
“We have some big shoes to fill. We’re going to need someone to score the basketball, we are going to have to have better balance with our scoring—maybe some off the break, maybe some off our defense,” Yerkes said. “We are going to try and play 8, 9, 10 guys. We are going to have to manufacture points and be creative to score the basketball.”
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