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Centaurs finish season with 13 wins

The season came to an end for the Woodstock Academy girls basketball team this week.

But there were only smiles after the Centaurs left the court, falling just short, 51-38, to Masuk in a Class L first-round state tournament game.

The Centaurs had completed a season that saw them finish with a 13-10 record.

They downed Waterford and advanced to play in an Eastern Connecticut Conference quarterfinal game. They not only made the state tournament, they were able to host a contest.

That all coming after the team missed the state tournament a year ago.

It was a quick reload for the Centaurs.

“I’m happy,” Woodstock Academy coach Will Fleeton said. “From what I saw early, I thought we would be capable of having success in the win-loss column. I also thought the character of the kids meant we would have other successes as well, other than the win-loss record. I think it went the way I had hoped. I had a good group of new kids mix in with a solid group of returning kids. There was a lot of learning going on, but at the same time, we were competing and were able to pick up some wins along the way.”

The Centaurs went into the state tournament as the 15th-seed and hosted No. 18 Masuk Monday.

The Panthers quickly broke out on top thanks to the play of Bailey Bajda and Natalie Lieto.

Bajda had 10 of her 19 points in the first quarter to help Masuk surge to a 19-10 lead.

Lieto was a constant threat, grabbing rebounds, controlling the play and scoring 13 points for the Panthers.

The visitors from Monroe were able to build on that lead in the second quarter, extending it to as many as 14 before settling for a 12-point advantage, 32-20, at halftime.

“I don’t think we got off to a great start defensively, which is rare, but I did think we got off to a good offensive start and I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ myself. I think our defense got back to where it should be but the deficit might have been a bit too much,” Fleeton said

Still, Woodstock Academy did not go quietly.

Freshman Kaylee Saucier sparked a third-quarter rally, scoring eight of her 19 points in a 1 ½ - minute span in the third quarter to help the Centaurs pull within six, 38-32.

The Panthers (11-11) scored the final three points of the third quarter and first five of the fourth to hold off their hosts.

“That’s the nice thing of having an experienced group. I don’t think Masuk ever wavered, never feared that we got as close as six and just kept their nose to the grind like a veteran team would. I think Masuk was pretty good and played extremely hard. I think we showed that we had a lot of fight in us, too,” Fleeton said.

Sophomore Eva Monahan finished with 10 points for Woodstock Academy.

Fleeton said tough games against Masuk and New London, as well as some other good encounters late in the season including a home game against East Lyme, an overtime battle with Fitch, and a defensive battle with Killingly will only help next season.

“It has to make us better. I don’t think it hurt us,” Fleeton said with a smile.

Now, the team goes its separate ways for the spring season.

Most will return for the 2023-24 campaign.

Although the two seniors, Leila MacKinnon and Lennon Favreau, will be missed.

“Their leadership will be one of the hardest things to replace,” Fleeton admitted. “I don’t think we can duplicate their leadership overnight. It’s a long-term goal type thing because these two were so special in that way. It’s going to be the biggest missing piece.”

There will be some new challenges facing the Centaurs next season.

They will remain in Division I in the ECC but that division will grow as the New London Whalers will come up from Division II to join the Centaurs, Norwich Free Academy, Fitch and East Lyme.

The Whalers won the ECC tournament championship this season.

There will also be something new to adjust to.

The CIAC has adopted a 35-second shot clock which will be in place for a first time next season.

“I think it’s long overdue,” Fleeton said of the new wrinkle in the game. “I think it could help us because of the way we want to defend and I’ve always said, we would be twice the team with a shot clock. But now, with this group, this might be one of the more patient offensive groups that I’ve coached in my life. I’m hoping that doesn’t backfire on us. I love the patience this group shows, they are probably the best in that regard without turning the ball over that I have had, but how will that affect us with a shot clock?”

Fleeton said it will be an adjustment for everyone involved, including himself, since he has not coached with a shot clock since his prep school days.

But he can take some confidence in the fact that when the team played in the Cranston (R.I.) tournament, it has done well with the shot clock which Rhode Island teams utilize.

The Centaurs, a year ago at the Cranston tournament, didn’t have a shot clock violation and forced their opponents into a couple.

This year, the girls forced four shot clock violations and didn’t have any.

“I want to think we’re OK. We didn’t make any adjustments, that’s just what happened. But I do have a little concern because we are a patient group,” Fleeton said.

Now comes the offseason.

Or as Fleeton refers to it, the “improvement” season, since he wants to see his players continue to play.

“We have a ways to go with a lot to fill in so they have to stay active, continue to play and continue to play together. That’s the key for our improvement. I hope some of our multi-sport athletes find some time to invest in basketball,” Fleeton said.