SOUTHINGTON – When seniors Chad Oliver and Zak Dibell first entered high school, they experienced anything but success.
As freshmen, the Bristol Panthers’ junior varsity team didn’t win a single game. Three years later on the varsity squad, they went to the opposite end of the win-loss spectrum.
Following Tuesday night’s 86-52 win over the Southington Wildcats, the Bristol Panthers clinched the program’s first-ever perfect regular season and Trumbull County’s first-ever 22-0 team.
“Seventh grade was not that great – we didn’t win that many,” Oliver said. “Eighth grade we went maybe .500, and we didn’t win a game ninth-grade year. Definitely it feels really great to come out senior year and go out (with a perfect season).”
Because of the team’s lack of success in recent years, the Panthers didn’t expect too much going into the season.
In 2011-2012, Bristol went 12-9 and 8-5 in the Northeastern Athletic Conference, and even the players were just expecting to match that mark or improve it a bit.
“We just wanted a winning record… to win as many as we could,” Dibell said.
Even Panther coach Craig Giesy didn’t foresee this kind of success.
After every game last season, fans and coaches from opponents gushed to Giesy about the work ethic of his players on the floor. From these comments, Giesy said that if the players would put in the work over the summer, his team could be good.
That’s exactly what he got. At least 6-7 varsity players showed up at every open gym, he said.
“After the summer, I said that there’s a chance that this team could do some good things,” Bristol coach Craig Giesy said. “Now, I’m not going to sit here and say I thought we’d be perfect this season – I don’t think any coach ever goes into the season thinking it’s going to be a perfect season.
“This year, things fell into place. When we played bad, we found ways to win in the end, and that was the difference.”
As the season wore on and the Panthers continued to hold a zero in the loss column, it became more and more evident that an unblemished regular season was a possibility.
Giesy said that once his team recorded its 15th win, he started to consider that his team could go 22-0.
“We really didn’t feel any pressure,” Giesy said. “If we had a loss in the season, our season doesn’t end. If we lose during the regular season, we still have a chance to get (our goals), and our first goal is the district title.”
Despite the team’s lack of pressure from within itself, Bristol faced pressure from the outside.
Bigger crowds filled the gymnasiums during the second half of the season, whether it would be home or away. The Panthers also received attention from media, including a spot on the MyValley Sports Game of the Week on Feb. 8 for its game at Maplewood.
Both Giesy and Oliver said this attention will help the team come tournament time, as they haven’t dealt with that kind of scrutiny before. The Panthers’ potential opponents in the district tournament, McDonald and Windham, have.
“At the tournaments, the media is going to be there,” Oliver said. “We have younger guys on the team, and for them to already experience that in the regular season, I think it will help us a lot.”
The question going forward now pertains to whether or not this Bristol team can matchup to the two previous teams that made runs to the State Final Four – in 1994 and 2002.
Giesy was a junior when he and his teammates went to state in 2002 with a different system. While the Panthers pressed at times during that year, they worried more about putting up as many shots as possible as quickly as possible. His team didn’t employ a full-court man-to-man press like this year’s team.
The 2002 and 1994 teams also didn’t record a perfect regular season, with the 2002 version going 25-2. Still, Giesy was hesitant to compare those teams to the 2012-2013 Panthers, but if they can replicate their regular season success in the postseason, he might put this year’s team up there with the other two.
“Those teams won big games in tournaments,” Giesy said. “Tournaments are: You work hard, you play hard and smart and you get lucky. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll find out how this team matches up.”