Overcoming adversity is very often a key component of any successful team.
The 2018-19 Darien High boys basketball team was certainly proof of that.
The Blue Wave faced its share of adversity this winter, starting with the graduation of seven players from last year’s state-tournament team. Now fast forward to early this season and before even the first jump ball was tossed, Darien was besieged with injuries and played with a shorthanded roster for more than half the season. Even all three senior captains were sidelined at one time or another.
Not surprisingly, the Blue Wave struggled early and a five-game losing streak in January left them with a 4-9 record and in danger of missing the postseason for the first time in four seasons.
But through it all, head coach Charoy Bentley and his team never lost focus and a thrilling 74-71 double-overtime win on the road against Fairfield-Ludlowe on Jan. 31 provided just the spark the Blue Wave needed.
That was the start of a five-game winning streak, including a 66-62 win over Harding—Bentley’s alma mater—which gave Darien its state-tournament clinching eighth victory. The Wave would end the regular season with six wins in its last seven games to finish 10-10.
Darien would lose its opening-round game in the CIAC Division II state tourney to finish 10-11 overall. But just getting back to the postseason, especially with all the hurdles thrown in front of them along the way, made this another successful season in Bentley’s eyes.
“Yea, it was successful,” the fifth-year head coach, who has led DHS to three straight state-tournament appearances, said. “We had a lot of ups and downs and injuries played a big part. But we found a way around it and got eight wins to get to the postseason.
“We had multiple guys out for almost a month, for five or six games,” he added. “A lot of teams have a tendency to break down when that happens. But the captains we have are like coaches out there and they were always in everybody’s ear and making sure they kept a positive mindset. They wanted to go back to the state tournament and they stayed on top of it.”
Darien’s intestinal fortitude was really tested when senior tri-captains Will Rolapp, Ryan Darby and Henry Williams went down with injuries.
“All of them were hurt at one time or another,” Bentley pointed out. “Will missed the first four games and when he came back Ryan and Henry both got hurt in the same game.”
But the Wave weathered the storm and the double OT win against Ludlowe seemed to turn the tide. Rolapp almost singlehandedly saw to that as the talented point guard scored a career-high 44 points, one shy of the school record set by Larry Hart 47 years ago during the 1971-72 season.
“Will is a great player,” Bentley said of Rolapp. “Once he gets going he’s hard to stop. Almost every shot he put up that night went in. It got to the point where I stopped calling plays and just let him loose.”
The Blue Wave was still buzzing from the excitement of that game when five days later they posted an impressive 54-45 win over rival New Canaan. It was one of only four regular-season losses by the 16-4 Rams, who made the FCIAC playoffs and played in the Division IV state semifinals Tuesday night.
“It was a big win,” Bentley said. “It was a rivalry game, so it’s always going to be good game. We were happy to come out on top, but we took it as any other game that we needed to win because we wanted to make states.”
And Darien was well on their way after those two emotional wins. Of course, finally putting a healthy team on the court was another key factor.
“Getting everybody healthy and getting back in a rhythm was a big part of it,” Bentley agreed. “Making sure everybody had a positive mindset when we were down some players was also key. Even players who were injured and couldn’t play were at practice and on the bench making sure we kept a positive environment.
“Game by game, practice by practice, we continued to work on the things we needed to work on. We stuck to it and it paid off.”
There was another reason making it back to the state tournament was special for Bentley.
“Me and my assistant coach, Marc Fields, coached some of the seniors on this team back when they played on a fifth and sixth grade travel team,” Bentley explained. “We watched them grow all these years. Making states was emotional for us and a good feeling.”