Young Hornets See Great Growth on the Court
Senior captain Gabby Lucertini helped lead a young Branford girls’ basketball team throughout the 2021 winter season. Head Coach Rob Manghnani feels that the Hornets’ up-and-coming athletes learned a lot from the experience of the past few weeks. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Freshman Lauren Thompson (right) garnered All-SCC East Division accolades on behalf of Branford girls’ hoops this year. Francesca Valletta (left) served as one of the Hornets’ senior captains. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
The Branford girls’ basketball team came into the 2021 campaign featuring eight freshmen on a roster of 11 of players. While his club may have been young and inexperienced, Head Coach Rob Manghnani was pleased to see the Hornets jell together and build a foundation for future success.
A couple of months ago, Coach Manghnani and his athletes were unsure if they would be able to hit the court at all this winter. When the CIAC announced that basketball was going to be played, there was immediate enthusiasm in Branford’s locker room.
“Everybody was extremely excited. We knew that if we got any type of season, regardless of what the restrictions were, we were going to be happy to play,” said Manghnani. “The kids worked as hard as they could in the offseason. They were ready. The moment it happened, we were extremely overjoyed.”
The Hornets began their season on Feb. 10 and wound up playing 11 games. Branford finished the year with an overall record of 2-9, recording a 51-40 victory versus Guilford and a 43-37 win against Career. While his team wanted to finish with a better record, Coach Manghnani said that he saw a great deal of growth from the Hornets throughout the year.
“We had a lot of inexperience going into the season. I was excited to see how we progressed from the beginning of the season until the end,” said Manghnani. “Obviously, there were some hiccups, but I was very happy with their growth in becoming complete basketball players.”
Following the regular season, Branford played Guilford in the first round of the SCC Division II Tournament and took a 40-28 loss. Despite the defeat, Manghnani felt it was a valuable experience for his younger athletes to see what it’s like to compete in the playoffs. “They learned that you can’t take any team for granted. Guilford did an unbelievable job against us. It was great experience for them,” Manghnani said. “Once the postseason begins, it’s a whole different ballgame that you’re in. You have to go to a different level physically and mentally. This will only help the cause for future years.”
Branford was led by senior captain guards Gabby Lucertini and Francesca Valletta throughout the season. Coach Manghnani said that Lucertini and Valletta proved a solid combination and did a great job of keeping the team together through unusual circumstances.
“Both Franny and Gabby were able to balance each other out and balance the team out,” said Manghnani. “Gabby was someone who was a little more detail oriented and made sure that the players knew the plays. Franny would put her arm around anyone and made sure they stayed positive. They really brought up our young players. They were really good role models.”
With Lucertini and Valletta graduating, Branford is slated to return nine players to the team next year. This includes freshman guard Lauren Thompson, who enjoyed a great debut season that saw her earn All-SCC East Division honors for the Hornets. Coach Manghnani said that Thompson was a highly touted athlete entering the program and exceeded expectations by quickly demonstrating that she’s a reliable player.
Sophomore guard Lauren Kendrick, freshman forward Reanna Sachs, and freshman center Madigan Lawler were also members of Branford’s rotation. Manghnani said that all three players stepped up and that he’s expecting each of them to take on bigger roles going forward.
The other athletes on Branford’s roster were freshmen Kaylee Tracy, Raiyn Fries, Lyra Clifford, Stella DiMassa, and Ally Colburn. With most of the team coming back, Manghnani is hoping that the Hornets can move up in the SCC ranks next year and knows that offseason effort will prove pivotal in that mission.
“I think it could only catapult you from this year into next year. You’re not just going to be able to pick up a basketball next year and think you’ll be a good team. A lot of the hard work starts now in the offseason,” Manghnani said. “With a young team, you can mold them to how you want them to play. It’s positive to have a young team and they could grow together. We’re cautiously optimistic.”
This year marked the third season for Manghnani as Branford’s head coach. Penny Blauvelt and Jay Karlins were the Hornets’ assistant coaches. During the middle of the season, Manghnani was home with a new baby boy, and Karlins served as the head coach in his absence. Meanwhile, Blauvelt made the trek from Wethersfield every day to be with the team.
Manghnani credits both Blauvelt and Karlins for helping the Hornets make progress this year.
In the end, Coach Manghnani was impressed with Branford’s ability to battle through obstacles and stay the course during the season. As he looks ahead to next year, Manghnani wants to see the Hornets’ returning athletes put what they learned to good use as they continue growing the program.
“With all the adversity, we were able to overcome a lot of the things that were thrown our way. Not only were we able to get through a season, we were able to improve together,” said Manghnani. “Those different obstacles showed us who can handle different things. If we can handle that, we can handle anything that comes in the future.”