Mackenzie Nelson remembers her first game with the Greenwich girls basketball team in December. Nelson was a freshman starter and scored 15 points in a 76-20 over Wright Tech.
The numbers are not part of Nelson’s recollection, but the vibe on the court is.
“From the first jump ball I knew,” Nelson said. “I passed to people and it was just flowing. The offense was flowing and the defense was flowing and I was scoring and getting assists and we were high-fiving each other. We were going to prove that Greenwich was on the map, that we weren’t going to be another team that was overlooked.”
The Cardinals might not have been flying high on the radar in the preseason, but they went on to make an imprint over the next three months. They finished with the fifth-best record in the FCIAC and advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament, pushing top-seeded Staples to the brink.
Greenwich ended up with an 18-7 record that comes with an asterisk: it had advanced to the Class LL semifinals and a postseason rematch with Staples when the CIAC last week canceled the remainder of the season.
“Disappointment is an understatement,” said Cardinals coach Chrys Hernandez. “We had worked our butts off all season to get where we were. In the FCIAC playoffs, no discredit to Staples but we wanted a rematch from that game because we felt we could have had a much different outcome. To not have that opportunity was nothing short of devastating. The ‘What Ifs.’ “
Greenwich’s success was led by Nelson, preternaturally talented and poised, who had the best debut by a 9th-grader since Trinity Catholic’s Da’Shena Stevens 15 years ago.
“She might be the best player I’ve had the luxury of coaching at Greenwich High School,” said Hernandez, who has been at the school for nine years. “She is a strong competitor, has a high basketball IQ. She always is looking to get better and put in that extra work. And she always excels in everything she does. She’s a special kid. A lot of people want the success but not everyone is willing to work for it.”
Nelson for her part fit like a puzzle piece to a team with an interesting dynamic. The Cardinals had five seniors, with two starting alongside a sophomore, Nelson and a second freshman, Ava Sollenne. On some teams there would have been class wars. Greenwich made it a strength.
“It was a great combination,” Nelson said. “It was just great to see how the girls from the past worked really well and me and Ava worked just as well with them. We were easily connected with them on and off the court. It just clicked right away. It was a great dynamic.”
Nelson really exploded on the scene in her third game, when she finished with 29 points and 14 steals in a five-point win over Fairfield Ludlowe. The Cardinals finished on a 14-0 run.
Nelson averaged just over 20 points, 4 assists, 3 steals and 3 rebounds a game.
“She’s a great teammate,” Hernandez said. “She’s very unselfish and she’s constantly trying to get people involved, sometimes too much so. We want her to get a little more selfish. But she makes everyone around her better just by the nature of who she is.”
Nelson made a seamless transition from being a youth star in town to the high school team.
“I knew that if I played my game I’d be fine,” Nelson said. “Of course during tryouts I was nervous. I didn’t know any of the girls. I would definitely say I was nervous, how we were going to work together as a team. It all just came together. Going to the high school from AAU is so different. We watch film, we are preparing for the next team. AAU was nothing like that.”
Nelson got most of the attention but the Cardinals reached the Class LL Final Four because of the contributions of many, including seniors Julia Conforti and Ciara Munnelly, sophomores Kristin Riggs and Kayla Anderson, and Sollenne. Hernandez regularly used eight to 10 players.
Nelson, like her teammates and all players whose teams were still alive when the season ended, was disappointed at losing the chance to compete for a title. That just makes her look even more forward to next year.
“It is going to stink to lose five seniors but I have all the confidence in the JV players that are going to come up and some new players from the middle schools, and who knows who will come from other schools,” Nelson said. “But I have all the faith we will have another outstanding season.”