“We almost didn’t have a basketball team this season,” said girls’ varsity coach Steve Buonfiglio. “It adds to the app. We’re lucky to have the community pulling for us. And it kind of makes us want to work even harder. If we’re dedicating this season to anybody, it’s the people in the community who’ve supported us.”
For the boys’ team, last season’s divisional title was a pleasant surprise; not because the team lacked the talent to make it happen, but because for every gutsy win during the regular season, there was an equally puzzling loss to serve as a counterbalance. Like the girls’ team, the boys aren’t satisfied with last season’s successes: They want more.
“This season, we’re hoping to build on what we were able to accomplish, and that was win our division,” said head coach Mike Tiano. “It’s going to be a tough test for our group to see if we can repeat as division champions, as all of the teams have improved from last year.
Rondout, Red Hook and FDR are the other three teams the Sawyers face off against in divisional play, and it’s Red Hook that traditionally presents the toughest opposition.
“Last year they made it to the state final four, and they have the potential to do the same this year,” said Tiano. The two teams face off for the first time this season on Tuesday, December 14, with Saugerties hitting the road.
“That game sticks out to most of my players,” said Tiano. “This will be our biggest test prior to Christmas break, and I’m looking forward to that game to see how far our program has come.”
Tiano said he also hopes the team will overcome a two-year losing streak at the Shane Geisler Tournament, an event the Sawyers will host for the sixth time in honor of the late former JV coach. The tournament begins Thursday, December 2, with the championship and consolation games played two days later.
The Sawyers are senior-heavy this season, with eight of their 13 roster players in their final year of high school basketball. Two juniors and three sophomores round out the team.
On Friday, November 19, Saugerties will host John A. Coleman Catholic in their first scrimmage of the year.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how our team plays against another school,” Tiano said. “This past week, we’ve had some really competitive practices, and many of the guys look like they’re in mid-season form already.”
Jon Hindes, a senior forward and center, is playing in his second season on the varsity squad. He’s a three-sport athlete during the school year, playing football in the fall and baseball in the spring. But unlike other sports, basketball offers the easiest opportunities to keep in shape. All anyone needs is a ball and an open hoop.
“I spend a good amount of time playing basketball in the offseason, mainly just pickup games, though,” Hindes said. “I’m glad to see most of my teammates keeping up on their basketball skills over the offseason by either playing AAU or in a fall league.”
Lucas Veltrie, a senior guard, also kept in shooting shape by making sure he played as often as possible during the offseason.
“In the offseason I try to play 3 to 4 times a week whether it’s shooting around outside or in the local Saugerties leagues,” he said.
Senior Nick Gruccio, who plays both guard positions and small forward, is coming off the football season and heading straight into basketball. Like his teammates, he’s always got hoops on his mind.
“I spend a lot of time playing during the offseason,” he said. “Whenever I can find time to play, I play. I’ll make time if I have to. In the offseason pickup games and organized are about the same. If people are playing some pickup games then I’ll go play, but I also play AAU and fall ball for the school.”
This dedication is maybe at least partially why Tiano sees some of his players in mid-season form despite the season still being two weeks and a turkey dinner away from kicking off.
“I like how our team is looking this year,” said Veltrie. “We have more size and are still a very quick team, so we’ll be able to beat teams in the fast-break and in the half court. I see the team doing even better than last year.”
Gruccio said the team will be successful if it sticks to the fundamentals and plays to its strengths.
“This year we just need to prove ourselves in the basic basketball know-hows,” he said. “We need to work on our plays and just get them down to a point where every player on the floor can run any position. I see our team going as far as we push ourselves. We know we can win our division again, it’s just a matter of how much we want it.”
According to Hindes, the team wants it an awful lot.
“The Sawyers this year are coming in hot,” he said. “Section IV, be prepared. We’re a different team this year.”
Despite playing in other sports, Hindes said he always looks forward to basketball season.
“Basketball has always been fun for me, and the players and coaches on the team are like my family to me,” he said. “I have never once dreaded going to basketball practice. Playing for Saugerties means the world to me. I couldn’t have picked a better coach to play for or a better group of guys to play with.”
Veltrie said the team is looking just as forward to playing for the Sawyer faithful.
“I have great pride playing for Saugerties,” he said. “I love the fans. We always get great support at our home and away games. I think our team can do great things this year and I can’t wait for the start of the season.”
Buonfiglio is heading into his second year as the Lady Sawyers’ head coach. Last year, he turned around a program that had suffered years at or near the bottom of the league, including one season without a single victory. Buonfiglio’s team went 7-10 overall last year, their final loss coming in the first round of the Section IV playoffs.
“My goal last year was to get to the postseason,” Buonfiglio said. “Now the goal is to get back there and improve.”
It won’t be easy, though. Or rather, it’ll be different. This year’s girls’ team returns a single starter – Emily Rowan, senior co-captain and emotional core. Rowan’s listed position is guard, but she’s as comfortable getting knocked around in the paint as she is sprinting on the break.
“She’s been a pillar of strength for keeping people organized, getting them to open gyms, that sort of thing,” Buonfiglio said. “She’s that kid who can’t wait to get in the gym and play. We’re going to be depending upon her on and off the court.”
Though most of the starting five was lost to graduation, the team will also be without the talents of Kaysi Hill, the talented scorer who opted to focus on track and field year round. But Buonfiglio likes what he sees in his team this year, including four former JV players who’ve made the jump to the varsity squad this year. The roster is 11 players deep, and in addition to size and skill on the front line, they’ve also got more speed than in years past.
“We’re much different than even I thought we were going to be,” said Buonfiglio. “The roster is definitely more athletic than it was a year ago, and I think we’re a little quicker this year overall.”
According to Buonfiglio, speed can be both a blessing and a curse.
“We’re trying to focus on extending our defense and pushing the ball up the court,” he said. “Some of that leads to turnovers, so you have to take the good, the bad and the ugly.”
The team is also young, with just three seniors, including Rowan and co-captain Rebecca Curley. There are also five juniors and three sophomores in the mix.
“So far, they’re working hard, and the practices right now are at a much higher level than it was a year ago,” Buonfiglio said. “I say, “Let’s do this drill,” and most of them know what I’m looking for. For me, I feel like every day in practice is a little easier.”
This weekend, the team will get a chance to see how they do against some of their regional rivals when they host four other teams in a refereed scrimmage.
“We’re going to get an early look at a lot of teams,” said Buonfiglio, adding that he’s more interested in how his own squad does than he is in scouting anyone else. After all, the season is played one game at a time.
“Divisional games, those are probably the most important games,” he said. “Wallkill lost a couple of people to grad, but they’re still a good team. But we’re not focusing on any particular teams right now.”
Rebecca Curley said that the team is still finding its rhythm, going through the annual readjustment process inherent in high school sports where teams are rarely the same from one year to the next.
“All of us have never played together on the same team,” she said. “Fortunately, we’re all friends on and off the court, and therefore we have really good chemistry when playing.”
Chemistry is either there or it isn’t, and even a season of fighting in the trenches can only improve on it if there’s something there to begin with.
“We’re an optimistic team and we’re working hard to go farther than we did last year,” said Curley, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. “This year the team has a different level of dedication. Over the summer, we were unsure if Saugerties was even going to have sports. Since the community worked so hard to give us the opportunity of sports back, we’re working hard to show how appreciative we are of that.”
Rowan said she believes that dedication will also wind up with the team impvoring upon its success last year.
“I was so excited for this season to start,” she said. “I’m looking forward to how far we can go because if we go hard, I believe we have the potential to go far.” While the boys’ season officially kicks off with the Shane Geisler Tournament, the girls play a series of scrimmages before hosting Valley Central in non-league action on Thursday, December 9 to open their campaign.