Senior swingman Raheem Solomon leads Sacred Heart into a quarterfinal clash tonight.

          Story By John Torsiello and Photographs by Clay Johnson

   Waterbury’s Sacred Heart High School has a boys basketball team that has developed its own unique brand. polished and dependable, one that has attracted national and even international attention. That’s what winning four straight state titles, producing a slew of college players, and taking on some of the top teams in the nation will bring you.

   The Hearts wear their maroon and gold colored brand proudly as they go after a fifth consecutive CIAC title and ninth overall in this year’s Division I tournament. The fourth seeds opened up with a hard-fought win over Hillhouse on Friday, and were set to take on fifth-seeded Wilbur Cross tonight at Wilby High School in a quarterfinal contest (Sacred Heart cruised to a 67-50 victory). If they win, the Hearts play the winner of the top-ranked East Catholic versus Windsor Locks quarterfinal.

   “We have a brand, that’s what we have now,” said assistant coach Darryl Parker, who starred at Sacred Heart from 1977 to 1981 and went on to earn a place in the Assumption College Hall of Fame after a stellar career at that school. “Kids want to be here and they buy into the tradition that has been established. I personally take great pride, as I know all alumni do, of what our program has been able to accomplish. We are relevant and it certainly is an advantage to us when we play. Other teams know who Sacred Heart is and what we have done.”

Senior Isaiah Gaiter is a slick-shooting All-State guard.

   What the Sacred Heart basketball team has been through its history is a winner, indeed, a champion. The Hearts won 28 games without a loss last season and beat Notre Dame of Fairfield by 18 points to win the state Class L crown. In addition to their run of four straight, the Hearts, who have also dominated the Naugatuck Valley League in recent years, won state titles in 1949 1984, 1997 and 2009. Sacred Heart has posted a sterling 130-7 record during the last five years, several of the losses coming to powerful out-of-the-state teams, laden with players destined for the Division I college ranks or even directly into pro careers.

   The man who has been at the helm for five of the Hearts’ state titles is head coach Jon Carroll, whose teams have won over 220 games in 13 years. The 42-year-old “Waterbury guy” attended St. Margaret McTernan’s and then played baseball and basketball at Tufts University. He attributed his program’s success to great payers, hard work, a solid coaching staff, and the ability of his team to challenge itself and rise to the occasion year in and year out.

Jon Carroll is the head coach of the Sacred Heart High School boys basketball team.

   Sacred Heart steps out of its comfort zone to test itself against the super powers of high school basketball. This year, the Hearts played Long Island Lutheran and Gonzaga College High School on the road, top 20 nationally-ranked teams. The Waterbury school lost both of those games, but the experience paid dividends, says Carroll.

   “We were competitive in both of those games and the kids had great learning experience. We have some kids on the team who are also football and baseball players and for them to be in that spotlight and play the best teams in the country is exciting. It only makes us better when we play teams in our league and from around the state.”

   Of course, Sacred Heart is blessed with superb players and has been for years. The 2014-15 team has sent nine players on to college ball, most notably Mustafa Heron, who has emerged as a star for nationally-ranked Auburn in his sophomore season.

Mustafa Heron is widely expected to move his game into the NBA next year.

   Last year’s team lost a number of top players to graduation and two transferred after their sophomore seasons, so Carroll didn’t quite know what to expect from his new unit. But he did have two All-Staters, seniors Isaiah Gaiter, a slick-shooting guard, and senior Raheem Solomon, a talented swingman. Those two carry the bulk of the scoring and are complimented by a capable crew that includes a 6-11 freshman by the name of Connor Tierney, who hails from England.

6-11 freshman Connor Tierney from England.

    “We get 50 points combined from Isaiah (24.3) and Raheem (25) and the other kids add their contributions,” Carroll said. The superstar pair also average around 12 rebounds and seven assists a game between them. “We have had some seniors come in and help and Connor has added about eight points and eight rebounds a game. He could do more and he has the potential to be a real star, but we don’t need him to do everything this year.”

   Solomon, the brother of Mustafa Heron, says it’s all  about teamwork and leadership.
“I take my role as a senior leader very seriously. Isaiah and myself look after our teammates and we all pick up for one another, both on offense and defense. I really like that leadership role. Another thing is that Coach Carroll listens to the players’ input. Maybe we can see something that he doesn’t see during the game. He may not always act on it, but he always listens.”

   “I like to empower my kids on the floor,” Carroll said, “I never take a shot or make a pass. They do. We work long and hard in practice and during the games they know what to do.”

The Hearts fans are expectd to pack Wilby High School tonight when their team takes on fifth-seeded Wilbur Cross. Pictured here is Andre Anderson ready to make a move towards the hoop.

  Carroll said the kids make a choice to come to Sacred Heart and they buy into the program. “They are all good students and members of the community. They like being a winner and a champion and that is a big draw for us. Sacred Heart overall is a great school to be a student at.”

   For both Solomon and Parker, there is extra motivation to win a fifth straight state title.
“I missed the state tournament because I got hurt in the league championship game,” Solomon said. As for Parker, who still plays recteational ball, “We believe we were one of the best teams, if not the best team in the state the last few years. But people say we didn’t play in the toughest division in the state tournament. Well, we are in Division I this year and we have a chance to prove everybody wrong.”

   While Solomon, Gaiter (both of whom are being looked at seriously by mid-majors as recruits) and Tierney have provided much of the punch this year, Sacred Heart has also gotten solid support from senior Fran Barton (3 points, 2.5 rebounds), senior guard Andre Anderson (3.5 points, 3.2 assists), seniors Zach (3.3 points, 4.3 rebounds) and Noah Francisco (3.3 points, 2.6 rebounds), senior forward Mie Napolitano (1.5 points, 1.9 rebounds), and freshman guard Caleb Sampson (1.7 points, 1.1 rebounds).

Zachary Francisco plays tenacious team defense for Sacred Heart.

   Jay Seay, like Parker, has been with Carroll as an assistant since the start of the head coach’s tenure. Seay, who played at Wilby High school and played college ball at Eastern Connecticut State University and the former Mattatuck Community College, does much of the pre-game scouting for the Hearts. He believes the tightness of the Sacred Heart family, both today’s student-athletes, coaches and fans and those who came before, is one a steeling bond of the program.

   “When I was young I always had someone there for me and that’s what I and others try to do now,” says Seay, as he unloads tangerines for his players to enjoy during a recent practice. “I didn’t attend Sacred Heart, but it has been thrilling for me to be a part of all the great things that have taken place. You have to remember we lost some good players and two transfers and we have kept right on going.”

Sacred Heart is gunning for its 5th staright CIAC Championship this season.

   Sacred Heart players, coaching staff, fans and alumni hope the team keeps on going to the final buzzer of the Division I championship game, something that will only solidify the Hearts’ brand name.