BRIDGEPORT — Barry McLeod was in his element Wednesday night, rising from his seat along the Bridgeport Central bench to implore his players to finish what they started.
Central’s lead over Darien had dwindled to 10 points in the final minute of the third quarter, causing some angst in the Hilltoppers’ hearts. But a strong finish alleviated those concerns and gave the Hilltoppers an 80-59 victory, their fourth in six tries this season.
“We’ve got a legitimate team,” said McLeod, whose team will face Fairfield Ludlowe Monday to tip off the fourth-annual Martin Luther King Classic at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. “We can rotate a couple guards. We’re not as deep up front as we’d like to be, but I’m sure a lot of people can say that. We’ve got a few more cards to play than in the past.”
What McLeod has is a team that stands a chance. That’s not something the longtime coach was able to say the past two years.
Slowly, the Hilltoppers have begun to rediscover their mojo. The return of four starters — junior Rajeeve Walker and seniors Fab Agramonte, Ra’Quan Rilley and DJ Fulton, who is averaging a team-high 17 points per game — has them feeling re-energized.
Bridgeport Central’s record
over the last 5 seasons
2014-15: 11-10 (Lost in Class LL 1st round)
2013-14: 27-1 (Class LL, FCIAC champions)
2012-13: 21-5 (Lost in Class LL quarterfinals, FCIAC champions)
“We’ve got more experience,” Walker said. “We’ve got more driven guys.”
Just weeks before the start of the 2015-16 season, nearly the Hilltoppers’ entire starting lineup bolted for Capital Prep Harbor School in Bridgeport, forcing McLeod to tackle a varsity schedule with a junior-varsity roster. The Hilltoppers lost all 20 games they played, 17 by double digits. The program was in shambles only two years after winning its third state championship under McLeod and fifth overall.
“It was us and Hillhouse as the two best public schools for an 11-year period there,” McLeod said. “To dismantle us like that was the only way that we had a year like that. To just steal our players like that, there was nothing we could do.
“We had these kids, they were only 14 years old playing varsity games. They weren’t ready.”
The Hilltoppers were only slightly better last season, finishing 3-17. Being the perfectionist he is, McLeod didn’t find the losses — nine of which were by seven points or fewer — any easier to swallow.
“That was tough,” he said. “The year before it was not that tough at all because I knew going in we didn’t really have a chance.”
“We,” Walker added, “were the laughingstock.”
McLeod contemplated retiring from coaching after last season, his 25th at the helm, however, he couldn’t bring himself to leave the program at its lowest point. What kind of message, he wondered, would it send to his players? What lesson would they learn if a person whom they looked up to chose to quit when the going got tough?Read Full Article
“I’m supposed to be a teacher first,” said McLeod, who retired last June from a 34-year career as a physical education teacher in the Bridgeport school system. “What am I teaching them? You only coach when you go to Mohegan Sun? Boy, that’d be a blast. We’d like for that to be the case, but it’s not.”
The Hilltoppers, as Walker put it, are trying to get back to their “old Central ways,” albeit in a very new FCIAC. St. Joseph is 0-7. Westhill is 1-7. Norwalk and Trinity Catholic are both a pedestrian 4-3. City rivals Bassick and Harding are both indepedents. Only one team is ranked in the state poll (No. 6 Danbury).
It’s not the talent-laden FCIAC McLeod is used to seeing. And he fears the talent will decline even further if the exodus of star players leaving for prep schools continues.
“Our league is what it is right now because these schools come in and they recruit these kids,” he said. “They take the best kids every year. Everyone says, ‘Oh, what happened to the FCIAC?’ Well, you’ve got Greens Farms, you’ve got King in Stamford — they’re recruiting them.”
The Hilltoppers are trying to not let it bother them.
“We’re trying to put Central back on top,” Walker said.