North Stonington — Nearly every player on the Wheeler boys’ basketball team isn’t legally allowed to drive yet.
Wheeler is comprised of a bunch of young Lions this season. Everyone available to play Monday night’s game against Norwich Tech was either a sophomore or freshman.
Wheeler’s youngsters has it off to one of the program’s best starts in a few seasons, though. The Lions led the Warriors almost the entire game and won their fifth straight, 57-48.
“We’re still kids,” sophomore Deondre Bransford said. “We expected at least five, six wins and then next year was going to be our year. We didn’t expect to win five-or-six in a row right now.”
Wheeler is 7-3, one game away from qualifying for the state tournament. The Lions are also unbeaten in the Eastern Connecticut Conference’s Division IV.
They have one senior (Tyler Burdick), who is injured. Sophomores Kyle Kessler, Keith Zardies and with Bransford started last year during Wheeler’s 1-7 season but depth is always an issue at the school. It has just 99 boys, ranking 177th out of 181 CIAC schools.
“We play AAU together in the spring and summertime,” Bransford said. “We just know how to play together, and we love playing together. We know how to play with a team spirit.”
Norwich Tech head coach Muhammed Hasan said about Wheeler, “They outplayed us as far as intensity for the majority of the game. I give them a lot of credit. They have a lot of young guys who are just hungry. They play fearless.”
Bransford had 15 points and 10 rebounds for Wheeler while freshman Zane Brewer had 16 points and seven rebounds.
Zardies had 11 points, six rebounds and five steals for the Lions and Kessler had seven points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals. Fellow sophomores Wyatt Elliott (10 rebounds) and Jayson Krysiewicz (seven rebounds) contributed to the win.
Junior Joshua Hanks had 19 points and seven rebounds for the Warriors (2-3) and classmate Bradley Saint-Louis added 14 points and seven rebounds. Senior Camren Topkin also had four steals.
Norwich Tech has played so few games due to COVID-19.
“We haven’t had a complete roster so it’s tough to gauge (the team),” Hasan said. “I think we’ll gel, honestly. I’m pretty optimistic about that once we get together as a team.”
“We had a lot of turnovers (tonight), and then our transition defense was rough.”
Brewer scored seven in the first quarter, including a 3-pointer that put the Lions ahead to stay, 5-3, with 6 minutes, 40 seconds left in the period.
Wheeler went on a 16-4 run during the second quarter. Bransford scored five straight during that run while Brewer added six points, including a jumper that put the Lions ahead, 33-15, with 1 minute left.
Wheeler lead by eight-or-more points the rest of the game.
“These kids are tough,” Lions head coach Neal Cobleigh said. “They’ve had some success in their youth leagues. Trying to make them understand that the varsity is a whole different level has been tough, but we’ve been getting there. Every day we’re taking a step forward.
“I feel like I’m back in my old days coaching JV because their sophs and freshmen and they bring everything that that brings.”
They’re also building the foundation for a successful future.
“I don’t think they’ve even touched the surface of what they’re going to be able to do,” Cobleigh said. “We’re looking forward to that.”