Senior Leagues Give High School Students Competitive Basketball-Playing Opportunities
This is the last in a series of articles highlighting 50 years of the Newtown Youth Basketball Association. The Bee previously published two features detailing the history of the program and a sidebar about the league’s presidents.
By Andy Hutchison
Although the Newtown Youth Basketball Association (NYBA) helps prepare up and coming players for the high school programs, it continues at the high school level with the Senior Leagues for girls and boys each winter, concluding with championship and all-star games in March.
Unlike the other NYBA programs (grades K-8), this league only has games — there are no practices — and no parental involvement when it comes to coaching the teams. What makes it especially unique is that teams are coached by players, giving students responsibility, as well as leadership — and, of course, coaching — experience.
Every team consists of ten players, with representation from each high school grade, and with a senior captain drafting players to form the team like a general manager. The captain coordinates all player communication like a public relations representative, and makes the lineup for each game as a player-coach, all with intention of leading his team to victory, according to Cornelius Dunn who served as the Senior League director for three years and also held the position of player agent for five years. Dunn’s roles include assisting with the start of the season for the in-house programs, running player evaluations, overseeing player drafts, and running preseason clinics.
Dunn shows exceptional dedication and commitment. He continues to volunteer with the NYBA despite now working out of state.
“My chemistry job relocated to Boston in 2018, so I couldn’t commit to running the senior league due to the required time commitment, and ended up taking a year off from NYBA. This 2019-2020 hoop season I returned as a fifth grade boys’ travel coach, as I was able to set my practices for Friday evening to compensate, and we already have a weekend game schedule, so no excuse to not volunteer again,” said Dunn, who followed in the footsteps of past directors including Jack Shpunt, Keith Kling, and Tim Doyle.
“There is so much to coordinate with all the boys teams in the senior league, and with games practically every night and at multiple gyms in parallel throughout the winter, that other dad volunteers are required to make this league a success, including Ted Hannan, Ken Roche, Andy Stubbs, Bob Elston, Mark Chernoff, to name a few,” Dunn said.
The Senior League seasons start in early December, after players are first selected to the high school teams at Newtown High or from a neighboring school such as Immaculate of Danbury. The regular season is 15 games for each boys’ team, played at Newtown Youth Academy or Newtown High School, and according to high school rules, including 3-pointers, and players fouling out. The one rule exception is no free player substitution; all players are required to have equal playing time throughout the game, which is monitored by the paid high school student scorekeepers.
Two adults qualified as referees are paid to officiate the often-heated boys games, Dunn said. The overall team record determines the seeding for the March Madness single elimination playoff format in order to determine the champion, which is played on the Newtown High School court. The end of the season also involves an all-star game determined by players through online voting, and also a senior-only game as a capstone for their involvement in NYBA throughout the years.
Ted Hannan is the current Senior League director and notes that the players — about 250 of them this season — go into the slate with lots of enthusiasm.
“The 25 captains always start with big anticipation and draft strategies to win it all,” Hannan said.
“By the championship game, we’ll have played 219 games this year, thanks to Kathleen Mulligan and John O’Leary scheduling courts, referees, and scorekeepers, and Ryan Regan who ensured we had enough basketballs, shirts, trophies, and ice packs,” Hannan said as the playoffs unfolded this season. “I was lucky to have Ken Roche and Andy Stubbs help me with game-site management to make sure everything runs smoothly.”
“Some kids simply choose Senior League because they just love the game, some because they just want to have fun with friends, and some because the high school team path didn’t work out. In the end, our league has stayed pretty competitive. We always have a good amount of parity,” Hannan said.
A boys’ summer Senior League was organized by the graduating seniors during the summer of 2017. A Memorial Sloan Kettering Fundraiser was organized in 2018 and raised $2,428, led by Harry Eppers and other senior captains from the boys’ and girls’ Senior Leagues; NYBA increased the donated amount to $3,000.
The Senior League featured a high of 30 total teams in the 2018-19 season for the boys’ league, involving a total of 225 regular season and 29 playoff games to coordinate, Dunn noted.
Dunn points out that the Senior League games draw big crowds. In past years there has been an unsanctioned game between the senior league all-stars and NHS varsity team (after their season is complete) for in-school bragging rights.
The NYBA also has a girls’ Senior League for high school students. The girls play games in the regular season, once a week, and have a championship game.
“The focus is to keep girls interested in the sport and hopefully to have them continue playing after they graduate. The girls have built great relationships through their teams as the league is small. The league similarly hosts a Senior Night game, and typically a non-senior player designs a t-shirt with all senior names and all the players purchase one to wear at the game,” Dunn said.
Laura Terry has served as League Director for the girls for the past four years and is passing the baton to Leigh Libero to take over.
“I am thankful that NYBA offers a league for high school students to continue playing basketball. The girls’ league helps build camaraderie between students and leadership skills for senior captains all while having fun playing basketball. My hope is that the girls continue to enjoy the sport of basketball beyond high school. It has been a pleasure working with the girls’ senior league the past four years,” Terry said.
“Just like in the NCCA tournament, the kids are crushed when they are finally eliminated,” said Hannan, adding that many of the playoff games are decided on last-second shots or in overtime. “We’ve had great crowds this week at NYA, so the community really seems to enjoy the games as much as the kids do.
After the championship game, the season isn’t quite done. An All-Star game, led by the league’s top two MVP vote-getters Jack Zingaro and Jared Dunn, took place after the final tourney game. The seniors also coordinate games with players from Senior Leagues in nearby towns.
“Because our rec league is filled with a lot of talented athletes, there are always more talented players than spots available on those teams. But it is a way to get some extra games in and have some more fun,” Hannan said.
The league has a social media team, run by one of the team captains, Robbie Hetzer, with help from Charlie Eppers to communicate updates on the 25 team rankings, post fun Twitter polls like Rookie of the Year, or Most Improved Player, and to provide playoff updates. “The kids are very creative,” Hannan said.
This past season, the program had its second annual March Madness bracket reveal and All-Star selection lunch meeting this year at Cover Two Sports Cafe, one last chance for the senior captains to hang out together and prepare for the post season before 24 games in seven days to determine the champion, Hannan said.
“In the end, we just try to give the kids the space to run their teams, follow some simple rules and hopefully have a lot of fun,” Hannan added.