When the Pierson/Bridgehampton girls basketball team hosts Eastport-South Manor in a non-league game this Thursday, December 2, at 6:15 p.m., it will mark the first time in roughly 670 days — a year and 10 months — since a Sag Harbor basketball team graced its own court.
The Pierson boys basketball team was the last to play on Pierson’s hardwood, defeating Greenport, 67-41, on February 3, 2020. The girls played the school’s last official game, on March 9, 2020, a loss to East Rockaway in the Long Island Championship.
The Sag Harbor School District decided to not allow any high-risk sports, which includes basketball and wrestling, during the last school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It forced many student-athletes to watch from the sidelines, as Sag Harbor was the only district in Suffolk County to make that decision. Those same players circulated a petition seeking to overturn that decision. It had well over 500 names, but to no avail.
But all of that is now in the rearview mirror, as both Pierson boys and girls basketball teams get set for the 2021-22 winter season. And, after nearly two years from being away, both squads look different and have varying outlooks.
Boys Are Expecting A Successful Season
Despite not playing in nearly two years, the Whalers return with eight seniors, many of whom who have been on varsity for quite some time now, and they expect that veteran presence to be a large part of the team’s success this season.
Headlining that list of returning seniors are forward/wing Wilson Bennett, guard Cecil Munshin, forward/center Charlie Culver and guard Leo Butler. Boys head coach Will Fujita, who will be assisted by Kevin O’Halloran, said it’s exciting to be back on the court, and what he’s looking for out of his players early on is consistency.
“Definitely happy to be back. It’s good to start the year knowing we’ve been working toward something,” he said. “I’m happy with the level of effort put forth by everyone in the program — there’s been good communication.
“But the winter season, it can be grueling, and we don’t know how COVID is going to play into it and how it’s going to affect the team, so we need to stay consistent in the things we do, especially this year. It’s not like we’re able to get outside, where you don’t have to wear masks, so we’ll be in a little bit of different situation. It’s just about trying to do the right things every day.”
When the district made the decision not to have any winter sports last year, Fujita thought of creating a travel team right away to keep his players, and even some from outside of the district, on the court. That certainly helped, he said, in keeping good team chemistry, which it will need in a tough League VII this season.
The league will consist of all small schools in the county, and Pierson will play all Class B schools (Babylon, Center Moriches, Hampton Bays, Mattituck, Southampton) once, and Class C (Greenport, Port Jefferson, Southold) and D schools (Bridgehampton, Ross, Shelter Island, Smithtown Christian) twice.
Of course, when it comes to the playoffs, Pierson will only have to worry about Greenport, Port Jeff or Southold.
The boys open the season at home this Monday, December 6, at 6:15 p.m. against Greenport.
“I think that if we do the things we need to do, we’ll be competitive across the board,” Fujita said. “We didn’t have a season last year, so it’s going to be a little different, and we may be at a disadvantage to start. But we have a pretty good idea of what some of these teams have, being that we played a lot of those schools in non-league games before. It’s not like they’re foreign.”
Girls Start The Rebuild Process
It may be less surprising that after not playing for nearly two years, a program has to break everything down and start from scratch — and that’s where the girls find themselves this season, according to head coach John “Woody” Kneeland.
The girls have had their fair share of success over the years, making long postseason runs well after the regular schedule has ended. But after graduating 10 players after the 2018-19 season, then graduating another handful of players after the 2019-20 season, including a strong player in Chastin Giles, the rebuild was sort of always approaching.
Kneeland did say that he thought the team he had returning for the 2020-21 season, which was canceled, could have reached the state Final Four even after graduating Giles — but no one will ever know just how good that team could have been.
As of the first week of practice, the girls do not have anyone returning from the last time they played, meaning each girl will be making her varsity debut when they face ESM this Thursday night.
Kneeland said Pierson junior Riley Roesel and Bridgehampton junior Leslie Samuels will find themselves in the starting lineup. Micky Wilson is the team’s lone senior but played junior varsity as a sophomore.
The team will also include junior Isabel Doyle, sophomores Lyra Aubrey, Eva McKelvey, Lily Perello, Ava Garabedian and Bridgehampton sophomore Lexie Davis, and freshmen Cali Wilson, Ani Bedini and Harper Craig.
“It’s definitely going to be a huge learning curve for all of them. It’s a complete overhaul and rebuild of the program,” Kneeland said. “I think we’ll be a team that will struggle this year — but all of the girls are quick learners, which is great, and I’m excited to coach them.
“And I think we’re going to go from a rough year to possibly be a playoff team next year. I truly think the rebuild is going to be that fast, just because of what we have coming up.”
The Whalers are one of only two Class C teams this season, along with Port Jefferson, who will play within League VII with Class A school and neighbor East Hampton, Class B schools Babylon, Center Moriches, Hampton Bays, Mattituck, Southampton and Southold/Greenport, and Class D schools Shelter Island and Smithtown Christian.
“The kids are energetic and are coming to practice. They’re working hard. They want it,” Kneeland explained. “I think we’ve been a little spoiled the last few years since Kevin [Barron] and I took over. Pierson has had a lot of success. We’re going to take a step back, and then it’s going to build back.
“Even I’ve got to learn to be patient and realize that the kids just don’t have the experience that we’ve had.”