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Gilbert, Hicks looking for better days

POSTED February 16, 2014
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson



            WINSTED – Gerry Hicks could back off and just go away. After all, he’s been here before and tasted success. Why continue to bang you head against the wall in a situation where surviving takes precedence over thrive by a seemingly insurmountable margin?

            Maybe because Hicks wants what was and what could be instead of what is. Maybe because he wants days like Feb. 7.

            Amidst Mother Nature’s persistent pounding there was sunshine to be found in the Gilbert gym. For the first time in three years, the Yellowjackets’ girls basketball team won a game, defeating Wamogo, 64-55.

            “The kids were so excited,” said Hicks. “I told them not jump and cheer, win with class. I didn’t want to rub it in Wamogo’s face.  They were all smiles on the floor and all cheers inside (the locker room). One girl went to her little sister’s practice and said she couldn’t stop smiling.”

            There were days Gilbert would have taken a victory over a team having a difficult season in stride. But, those are yesterdays. These days it is all a big deal.

            Gilbert was 1-19 two years ago and 0-19 last season. The numbers have dwindled in the program to the point where JV games are a rarity, a few last season, a few this season. A year ago there weren’t enough bodies to play the last game of the season. Hicks started this season with 12 players and is down to eight now. Hence, the survival challenge.

            What happened to a proud program that at one time was up there with the BL’s best and along the way featured outstanding players with names like Jill Little, Colleen O’Connor, Lisa Mangione and Sue Emond?

            You can blame it partly on declining enrollment, partly on declining attitudes, partly on a cycle of ups and downs most smaller schools go through.

            “Our numbers had been dwindling and when I came in we had girls who decided not to play and when it started to hurt us we had a few girls who didn’t want to make the commitment. Some were injured, some for personal reasons,” said Hicks.

            "When we began to get into a losing situation in the 2000s, people said that they didn’t want to play on a losing team. That is something that is out there. We are trying to break that cycle of beliefs. There are good athletes in the school that if they played would help us. They don’t see it that way.”

            There are some who view the team as a social program and Hicks is trying to change that climate. He wants girls to help his team win not players who are there to be with their friends.

            Injuries have also played a major role, a now famous picture from last year that ran in the Waterbury Republican emphasizing the plight with four injured players shown on the bench.

            So there has been a downward spiral. The struggle with numbers often makes practice scrimmages a 4-on-4 affair unless Hicks and his assistant Kurt Root want to participate and make it a full regulation game. The shortage of bodies has impacted in other areas with players being thrust into positions they are not ready for.

            “It’s tough using young players,” said Hicks. “We have Grace Valickis who is a freshman that is not really ready for a varsity role but has done well particularly on defense where we put her on the other team’s toughest players. Ali Brochu is not really ready for a starting varsity position but is out there raising havoc.”

            There is no `big gun’ on the team and no double figure scorer. Gilbert has lost by some big margins and five times has scored below 20 points in a game.

            All-in-all, a precarious and frustrating situation. But Hicks sticks around because he believes in a better day.

This is his second go-around coaching the Yellowjackets. He coached the team from 1992-2002 and is in his third year for tour of duty No. 2.

            “I coming from a program that in the 80s and 90s was one of the dominant teams in the league and then not dominant but really competitive in the league,” said Hicks. “That’s like Thomaston is today. It is really frustrating now. I stick it out because I see some kids willing to work hard and I want the program to get back to where it was. I am hoping I can make a difference.”

            Hicks sees signs. On the middle school and grammar school level there are better numbers and some players who show potential. Corresponding with the school’s connection with China and the influx of Chinese students, the team is planning a trip to China in 2015.  There is a bit of a thaw in attitudes towards the program.

            Hicks sees the end of the beginning not the beginning of the end. Losing can breed its own unwanted consequences, but winning brings rewards too. That is why the victory over Wamogo was so important.

            Hicks told the seniors (Amanda Root, Aleigh Valickis) the win was for them.

            “They had never won and they were able to get that good feeling,” said Hicks. “We were more happy for them.”

            So Hicks and his small group go to practice every day with the knowledge that most games don’t hold a chance for a victory just for personal improvement. But today is more push for a better day.

            The deal is today for tomorrow. The Wamogo win was a taste of tomorrow. So Hicks and his team move on and up. Few wins these days, much hope for better days.  

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