Published December 12. 2012 4:00AM
Ledyard coach Dave Cornish couldn't wait for the first day of high school boys' basketball practice.
Who can blame him?
You'd be excited, too, if your team returned all five starters from a team that went 21-7, played in the Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament final and reached the Class M state tournament semifinals.
"I'm very excited," Cornish said. "It's been so long since March. I told the guys that we've been waiting for this and they started clapping. ... From day one, they were itching to go."
Ledyard, the clear favorite in the Medium Division, is one of the best teams in the entire ECC. A loaded Norwich Free Academy and a revamped New London, which will battle for the Large Division title, are two others worth watching as the boys' basketball begins tonight.
The Colonels have a wealth of talent starting with All-Area selections Darnay Gray and Thomas Whipple, the team's top returning scorer. Senior center Chris Gill is limited right now while recovering from a knee injury.
Cornish plans on playing an attacking, uptempo brand of basketball, using his depth to wear down opponents. Last season's success helped them develop a winning attitude.
The Colonels already are way ahead of schedule compared to the start of last season, according to Cornish. Their stiffest competition in the Medium Division will come from Stonington and Windham. Now it's a matter of learning to deal with the pressure of expectations.
"I told the kids that we just want to keep getting better," Cornish said. "We're not going to listen to what other people say. We're a family. We want to keep it in house. ... Hopefully, we'll play well."
Cornish, a former longtime New London assistant, attempted to take the frontrunner's pressure off of his team.
"Looking at their roster and their height and the guards that they have, Norwich would be the top team and we would be a very close second," Cornish said. "New London is going to be very good still."
No team suffered more heavy graduation losses than New London. Guard Kris Dunn, a McDonald's All-American and Gatorade state player of the year, graduated, as did four other key contributors from a team which reached the Class LL semifinals.
"We lost an outstanding group and one of the best classes of kids to ever pass through New London High School in terms of basketball," New London coach Craig Parker said.
The Whalers still have one of the premier players in the ECC in senior Keith Porter, an All-Area pick who averaged 20 points and eight rebounds last season. Parker is attempting to mix in several newcomers with his returnees.
"We're coming along," Parker said. "My team is like a puzzle this year. I'm trying to put the pieces together, because we lost a lot of guys and have some transfers."
New London's major roadblock in the Large Division will be NFA.
The Wildcats, who return four starters, are extremely deep, experienced and talented. They are strong inside with senior forwards Ryan Lusk and Denzel Lancaster and quick outside with senior K.J. Robinson and junior Marcus Outlow.
Outlow is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered in NFA's Class LL state championship football game.
"We have a chance to be good," NFA coach Neal Curland said. "We have a lot of athletes. If we can put together the pieces and have everybody play selfless and hard, we'll be competitive. We have a little bit of everything."
With NFA and Ledyard improved, those two programs are the biggest threats to end New London's ECC tournament title streak of five in a row.
Ledyard will have to wait until the ECC tournament for its shot at both NFA and New London, which aren't on the Colonels' schedule.