The St. Joseph girls basketball team finished 8-8 in league play a year ago, but went 1-7 against teams that qualified for the FCIAC Tournament.
Now, with a 3-0 start, they are hoping to make the jump not just into the conference playoffs but as a contender for the title.
The first big chance to make a statement comes Saturday afternoon, when the Cadets host town rival Trumbull. Their last win over the Eagles came on Jan. 31, 2014.
“They’ve had our number for a few years now,” St. Joseph coach Chris Lindwall said. “We haven’t beaten those teams in a long time and rightfully so, they are better than we are. And they’ve been playing better than we are. Until we can beat one of the better teams in the league we’re just going to keep working hard and doing what we do. It’s a process.”
St. Joseph first has to play Darien tomorrow in a game postponed from today. Its average margin of victory so far is 32 points, but none of the wins has come against the league’s top teams.
Still, while Ridgefield, Trumbull, Staples, Ludlowe and Danbury have received the most preseason hype in a year the league is extremely deep, some veteran observers feel the Cadets can be more than just a sleeper.
“There’s a new focus in these very uncertain times to what we want to do,” Lindwall said. “We’ve got a long way to go. We can’t be in that conversation until we beat one of these guys. They’ve all got really good players back too.”
The Cadets have a balance of veterans and young players. Few teams have as much height.
They are led by juniors Kate Rudini and Dennaye Hinds. Rudini, who is 5-10, averaged 7 points and 4.5 assists a year ago but had a very strong offseason. In her first two games Rudini, who could be on the league’s most recruited players, finished with 30 points, 10 assists, 8 steals and 11 rebounds.
“She really worked on her shot,” Lindwall said. “She’s done a lot of work to get to this point, which will help her to get to the next level. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen for her because we need her to perform well to be successful. She’s taken it to the next level with her work. She had a good summer AAU-wise and this summer will be very important for her. We are sending film out now.”
The 5-11 Hinds missed all of last year with a torn ACL. She has given the Cadets a powerful presence in the paint.
“This kid has worked so hard coming back from the ACL, which is not an easy thing for a girl to do,” Lindwall said. “She really stayed with the regimen and she’s been in the weight room since last December.”
Kirsten Rodriguez has complemented Hinds inside and Lindwall can bring 6-1 Izzy Casucci off the bench.
Erica Stephens and Kayleigh Carson have looked good in the backcourt, and Lindwall has quality depth. Almost everyone will be back next year.
Lindwall said he is working on compensating for what he sees as his team’s biggest weakness.
“We are playing against teams more athletic than us,” he said. “Maybe not as tall, but they are getting around us so we still have some work to do.”
Saturday’s game has a number of storylines. There is the natural rivalry and the Cadets’ need for a strong showing. The game is an annual fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Instead of a packed Alumni Hall, the contest will take place at St. Joseph with just 11 fans — one parent for each Cadet player.
And for Lindwall, it is the last time he coaches against his daughter Julia, who is one of the Eagles’ key players. She had a big role in breaking open a close game last year with a couple of 3-point shots.
“Hardest game I coach by far,” Lindwall said. “You sit there and you want success for your daughter for obvious reasons. It’s going to be bittersweet either way.”