The bridge wasn't burned. The door never closed.
Kaela Hilaire emerged as an eighth-grade basketball phenom for Floral Park in 2011 . . . then promptly took her talents to Long Island Lutheran. The split was amicable, though, Floral Park coach Michael Spina said. In fact, Hilaire kept in touch and said she constantly checked the Knights' box scores, keeping abreast of their progress.
After all, home (and the home team) is where the heart was.
Then, last summer, when Hilaire's family decided the former All-Long Islander would return to Floral Park for her sophomore year:
"We couldn't believe it!" teammate Lorraine Hickman said. "Everyone was so happy and excited because we all know what Kaela can do."
Like score 33 points and dish five assists in leading the Knights to a decisive season-opening victory, simultaneously announcing them as a legitimate elite.
"That first game was a lot of fun," said Hilaire, a dynamic point guard averaging 20.5 points and 6.3 assists. "They took me back with open arms and we rebuilt the chemistry really quickly. That game showed it, and I showed I was back."
She didn't return as a savior, but as "a very good part of a good team," Spina said. Floral Park not only held its own last season, but reached the Nassau Class A final.
The Knights, sans their superstar, had several players blossom. Hickman, a 6-1 forward, and Brittany Ingram flourished in the paint. Jeanna Orfanos honed her point guard skills, and Valerie Fox and Erica Bowe showcased their shooting abilities.
In a way, it was addition by subtraction, but Hilaire's reinfusion now makes the Knights exponentially better.
"Everyone had to work harder with Kaela gone," said Hickman, who averages 13 points and 12.5 rebounds. "But we proved to ourselves and everyone that we're talented."
Lutheran, a powerhouse, went on to win another Federation championship last season, but Hilaire struggled to get untracked in a new role. "I didn't feel comfortable," she said. With Boogie Brozoski, the reigning L.I. Player of the Year, at point guard, Hilaire changed positions. "I thought I could adjust, but it didn't work out."
Hilaire, however, said her focus and work ethic did improve while at LuHi. And those attributes helped ingratiate her with her new-old teammates.
"What makes it easier is that Kaela is a great passer," Spina said. "She scores a lot, but she can turn heads with some passes, and that makes people enjoy playing with her."
Her skills, added to this group, has the Knights feeling "unstoppable," and Hilaire insisted they're capable of winning the program's first L.I. title since 2009.
"It's one step at a time," she said, "but I really think we can go to the top."
Now, that would be a welcome home party.