A surprise? Vikings proving they are for real

We’ve discussed all the surprising upsets this season, and the parity that should make the FCIAC Tournament next month one of the most wide open ever.

Perhaps overlooked, or not fully appreciated, is the most stunning big story to date: The Westhill boys basketball heads into tonight’s intra-city battle with Stamford as the lone remaining unbeaten team in conference play.

People keep waiting for the Vikings to slip up — I admit to being partially guilty of this, though I’m on the record as saying this has been the most fun Westhill team to watch in a while — but it hasn’t happened.

One person who has maintained a steadfast confidence in the Vikings is their coach, Howard White.

“I knew of their capability,” White said in a telephone interview on Sunday night. “Some of the kids that were role players demonstrated what they could do last year for the junior varsity team. Each one has bought into my system.”

With players like Tony Dobbinson and Chris Walters graduated, White was aware he was not going to have that go-to, consistent 20-point scorer this year. So he molded his strategy to fit a roster of unselfish and unheralded players.

Westhill's Guyveson Cassamajor last week in a win against Warde.

“We had to change,” White said. “I felt we had to change due to the fact we didn’t have that one player we could depend on. So we had to rely on our defense to create offense.”

The Vikings’ trapping defense has been one of the most effective in the league, leading to turnovers that have ignited a strong transition offense. Only one team — Bassick — has managed to score more than 57 points against the Vikings. The Lions did so twice as the teams split a pair of meetings, accounting for Westhill’s lone loss.

Westhill, 11-1 over all, has allowed 43 or fewer points six times.

“In my 10 years here this is the best defensive team I have had,” White said. “It was very hard at first to get the kids to buy in from a defensive standpoint. But they feed off of their energy.”

That frenetic pace has led both to easy layups and trouble with turnovers. Westhill often uses a three-guard attack, with senior Terrell Middleton and a pair of sophomores, Jeremiah Livingston and C.J. Donaldson, a transfer from Kolbe Cathedral. Ballhandling has been part of the maturation process.

The Vikings, to their credit, have been able to overcome their mistakes. They committed 32 turnovers against Bridgeport Central and still won by eight points.

The guards have blended well with the frontcourt of twins Yveson Cassmajor and Guyveson Cassmajor and Ariel DeLaCruz, plus a productive bench.

Livingston, who seems destined to be one of the FCIAC’s top players for a long time, leads the team with a 16-point average, while Yveson Cassmajor is averaging 11 points.

The team’s play has been a bright spot for White, who attended the first few games but handed the coaching duties to assistant Roberto Nieves while he dealt with the return of prostate cancer and having his gallbladder removed, before returning full time.

“I’m doing pretty good,” White said. “I have my moments. I’ve had my good days and I’ve had my bad days. It has been hard but I have received a lot of support from my family, friends and the team.”

So are the Vikings for real? White said yes, with a caveat.

“There’s no way we can win a championship still turning the ball over 20 times,” he said. “No way. But if we improve on that? Absolutely.”

The Vikings have a murderous road into the postseason: they finish the season at home against Trinity Catholic and St. Joseph, then on the road at Ridgefield. Many consider that trio the best three teams in the league right now. Westhill has defeated the Crusaders the last two seasons.

“We did that same schedule last year,” White said. “That’s the way the schedule came out. There’s not much you can do about it.”

The Starting 5

1. ST. JOSEPH (12-1): Force me to place a bet now and I would make the Cadets an ever-so-slight favorite to win the FCIAC title. EVER-SO-SLIGHT.

2. TRINITY CATHOLIC (11-1): Big home test Tuesday night against Ridgefield.

3. WESTHILL (11-1): Can’t wait to see how the Vikings will stack up against the elite teams at the end of the season. For now they have to focus on not looking ahead.

4. RIDGEFIELD: (10-2): Will the Tigers’ stock fall with a loss to the Crusaders?

5. BRIDGEPORT CENTRAL (8-3): You can make a case for four teams in this spot. I’m going with the one of the four that I think is the best if all their players play their best.