While much has been made of the Westhill boys basketball team’s first trip to the state championship, Saturday night against Fairfield Prep, one of the least-talked about members will sit on the bench calmly during warmups.
For Howard White, the Vikings’ coach, title games are a familiar scene. It is just that until the team’s FCIAC championship two weeks ago, there hadn’t been any in a while.
Fourteen years, to be exact.
White has trophies as a player, including two at Bridgeport Central after winning the now defunct MBIAC, and most notably as a member of Sacred Heart University’s Division II national championship team in 1986. As an interim coach in 2001, White led Bullard-Havens to a vocational league title.
White would like nothing more than to help his current players accomplish a first in Westhill history.
“The Sacred Heart championship is kind of like what my kids are forming today,” White said. “The unique family atmosphere. We were a family, we were close. We did everything together. We practiced together, we played hard together, we ate together. These kids are doing the same thing. They formed a unity. They were friends before basketball and grew up playing together.”
Led by the guards Jeremiah Livingston and CJ Donaldson, and forward Tyrell Alexander, the Vikings are 25-1. Their lone loss was over the holidays to Weston, when they were admittedly flat, a defeat they said helped them grow and mature.
“When we first came into the season, I didn’t go in with the expectation of being undefeated,” White said. “I went in with high expectations. I knew what I had with Jeremiah and CJ. They weren’t prepared for Tyrell. I knew the player Tyrell was. I knew what he was capable of doing, and if he did that we’d be tough.”
White said his players remind him greatly of his teammates at Sacred Heart, with a commodity that accounts for a 12-1 mark in games decided by six or fewer points.
“We all had the same thing, the eye of the tiger,” White said. “Even when I played we played with that look. These kids grew from sophomores to juniors, and now that they are seniors to have the opportunity to showcase their talent. To win the FCIAC is not an easy task, and to play the last three games in states was not easy as well either. However, due to the fact we’re used to coming from behind during the season, it has made it a lot easier. The kids have never panicked.”
Though White has never discussed it outright, one gets the sense he feels his ability on the sideline has gone unappreciated, and this run has served as validation.
“I have been here 12 years, and in the 12 years there was the good and the bad, and for those who stuck behind me and believed in me, it was the chance to get the monkey off my back,” White said. “I’m not worried about my capability as a coach. I know my capability and the kids have all bought into it. They do what they need to do and take care of business.”
The Vikings’ opponent Saturday will be in search of validation. Last year the Jesuits were stunned in the final, blowing an 18-point lead to Bridgeport Central and losing, 76-73. They are 0-3 in the championship the last four years.
“We need to buckle down and close out on their shooters and get back on defense,” White said. “Prep likes to run and they can score. The biggest thing is my kids can’t get stage fright. You play before 1,500 in the FCIAC final and the other night in the semifinal. Now they can possibly play in front of 10,000.”
While the Westhill players will be going through their thoughts prior to Saturday’s game, White said he will probably afford himself a brief chance for reflection.
“To be able to compete for this championship is a blessing,” White said. “I know how it feels to win a national championship. I want my kids to have that feeling. I’ve never forgotten that. To be the first team in school history to get to the final is important to me.”
— Graphic designed by Cooper Boardman