YEAR IN REVIEW: The Best of the Backyard, 2018 edition

YEAR IN REVIEW: The Best of the Backyard, 2018 edition



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MERIDEN — The holidays pass, the calendar turns and so it begins again.

Before we dive into 2019, permit us one last backward glance to the local sports year of 2018.

We had champions. We had contenders. We had milestone-makers and record-breakers.

Assembling a Top 10 list is no easy task, even when we keep it strictly local.

And that’s what we do here. Even as we tip the cap to our local pro and top Division I college athletes — New York Giants defensive lineman John Jenkins of Meriden, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Sal Romano of Southington and Meriden basketball players Mustapha Heron (St. John’s), Kiah Gillespie (Florida State) and Sadie Edwards (Southern Cal) — we focus solely on area athletes doing their thing on native soil, turf, ice or hardwood.

These are their pages. These are their stories. And these were the best of 2018.

Honorable Mention: Boys of Summer, Pt. 1

For the past three summers you could set your Little League clock by coach Brian Mitchell and his Wallingford All-Stars.

Starting in 2016 when they were 10, this group of boys won three straight District V championships, three straight Section II championships and advanced to three straight state finals.

In 2017, at age 11, they represented Connecticut in the New England Touranment and placed second.

As their Little League careers come to a close, we set our clocks for a few years out, when the Wallingford All-Stars start passing into the high school ranks and perhaps resurface on this list once again.

 

10. So grand, let’s have another

 

In late January, on consecutive nights, two of the area’s top girls basketball players reached the 1,000-point plateau for their career.

On Jan. 25, in Hartford, Maloney’s Melanie Polanco made the mark. On Jan. 26, on her home floor, Southington’s Janette Wadolowski did the same.

Polanco, now at Post University, finished as Maloney’s leading girls scorer of all-time with 1,137 points. Wadolowski, now at Tufts University, finished No. 2 on the Southington list at 1,229.

Wadolowski, for further reasons that will be disclosed later in this story, was named Female Athlete of the Year at the Record-Journal’s third annual “Best of the Bunch” brunch. Yet another 1,000-point scorer, Lyman Hall’s Kevin Ransom, was named Male Athlete of the Year.

9. Perfect, just perfect

Four area teams rolled to unbeaten regular seasons this fall: Cheshire and Southington volleyball, Cheshire field hockey and Wilcox Tech boys soccer. Incongruously, not a one went on to win a state championship.

Cheshire volleyball did defend its SCC conference crown with a dramatic rally in the championship game and veteran head coach Sue Bavone, along with earning career win No. 500, was named the SCC’s Coach of the Year.

Southington coach Rich Heitz passed the 400-win mark as his team advanced to the Class LL state semifinals. 

And coach Eileen Wilderman’s Cheshire field hockey squad, led by SCC Player of the Year Mikayla Crowley, posted its first undefeated season in 25 years and set a program record with 19 shutouts.

As for Wilcox Tech, coach Joe Testa’s Indians were spotless until played to a scoreless tie by Platt Tech in the regular-season finale. The Tribe went on to win a share of the CTC conference title and earn the No. 1 seed in the Class L tournament.

Wilcox lost in the second round, 2-1, to Maloney. The Wilcox goal, fittingly, was scored by Kelvin Cortez. A two-time All-State player, Cortez signed off as the most prolific scorer in Wilcox soccer history with 87 goals.

8. The tide stays high

Cheshire girls swimming and Sheehan diver Andrew Buehler stayed on top of their game. The Rams won a second straight Class L team championship. Buehler banked a third straight class diving championship.

The Rams also extended their mastery of dual-meet opponents (55 straight) and the SCC championship meet (24th title) with a new coach (Dave Modzelewski) taking up the reins.

Senior diver Sienna Breton set program records and won the SCC crown in her event. Junior Julia Stevens won the 200 and 500 freestyles at Class L. Sophomore Sophie Murphy did the same in the 50 and 100 freestyles, and then did it again at the State Open.

7. Get a grip 

Wrestling remained a pillar of the area sports scene in Meriden and Southington.

At Maloney, Demetre Carnot won a second straight Class L state title at 132 pounds and signed off with the most wins (154) in school history.

Platt’s 182-pounder, Ben Stratton, won his division in Class M and then put himself in rare company by also winning at the State Open. The R-J’s Wrestler of the Year is one of just three State Open champs in Platt history, following Luis Murillo and his son, Luis.

In Southington, 170-pounder Paul Calo managed to push the envelope by winning a second New England championship. No Blue Knights wrestler had done that before.

Calo, back for his senior season, still has unfinished business. He’s never won a state title. Follow that story line in 2019.

6. D.J. and the Tribe

The year that kept popping up during the boys basketball season was 1968. That was the last time Wilcox Tech had reached a state basketball semifinal and the year the Indians’ Rich Pasinski had gone off for a city-record 619 points.

In a nifty bit of symmetry, Wilcox basketball celebrated that golden anniversary in the Silver City by returning to the state semis, making the final four in Division IV in the reconfigured CIAC boys basketball tournament.

The Indians were led by DeJuan Ransom, who broke Pasinski’s record with 649 points.

Ransom headed into this, his senior season, within reach of Wilcox alum Roosevelt Shider’s city career scoring record of 1,849 points, yet another developing Top 10 story as 2019 dawns.

5. Fall’s footballfoursome

Prior to this season, the R-J never had more than two football teams in its coverage area make the state playoffs in the same year. Prior to this season, Platt and Maloney had met in 60 Stoddard Bowls, yet never in the postseason.

So, for us, the 2018 football season saw the completion of not one, but two Hail Mary passes. Southington, Sheehan, Platt and Maloney gave us four playoff qualifiers, while Platt and Maloney gave the city its first all-Meriden playoff game.

Platt won the 61st Stoddard Bowl in an upset, 36-20. Maloney got revenge in the Class L semifinals, 16-6.

A loss to reigning champ Daniel Hand was waiting for the Spartans in the Class L final. Prior to that, however, Elliot Good broke Maloney’s single-season passing records and Victor Marquez became the school’s all-time leading receiver.

Sheehan, in winning its first playoff game in 33 years to reach the Class M semis, was led by junior runner back Terrence Bogan. The state’s leading rusher with 2,481 yards, Bogan was named SCC Tier 3 Player of the Year and is a finalist for the Walter Camp Connecticut Player of the Year.

4. All it takes is 3

The R-J has had its share of state champions, but not one as unusual as the 2018 Southington girls track and field team.

In fact, you can take the “track” out of the equation. The Lady Knights claimed the State Open team crown on a rainy June afternoon at New Britain’s Veterans Stadium with just three girls competing in field events.

It helped, of course, to have two state champions, including a double-winner. That was thrower Amanda Howe, who claimed the shot put and discus to earn Southington 20 points.

Megan Biscoglio added another 10 points by tying a State Open record in winning the pole vault at 12 feet, 6 inches.

What put Southington over the top, 35-32 ahead of runner-up Bloomfield, was the fourth-place finish in the javelin from Janette Wadolowski, who was in her first year of track.

Howe is now throwing at the University of Iowa. Biscoglio is vaulting at UConn. Wadolowski is back playing her regular game, basketball, at Tufts.

The local track scene bid farewell to three other state pole vault champs: Southington’s Zach Burleigh (SCSU), Sheehan’s Stephanie Phoenix (Franklin Pierce) and Maloney’s Hannah Cloutier (Wagner).

Sheehan’s Terrence Bogan has a Class M championship to defend in the 100 meters.

3. Boys of Summer,Pt. 2

The Southington American Legion baseball team is a perennial state contender, but hadn’t been a state champ for 25 years until the summer of 2018. In its eighth season under head coach Marc Verderame, Post 72 finally went back over the top.

Playing for the first time in Zone 3 with the other area teams, Southington finished second in the regular season to Cheshire, then turned tables in a dramatic super regionals series that was decided by a 13-inning game won by Jeremy Mercier’s grand slam.

Post 72 went on to sweep Ellington in the state finals and advance to the semifinals of the New England Regional in Worcester, Mass.

There was an additional sub-plot to this story. Both the super regionals and state finals were played in Meriden at Ceppa Field, where an old diamond regained some lost shine.

In all, a nice summer of American Legion revival on the local front.

2. Boys of Spring

Before Southington’s Legion ascension in the summer, the 2018 Connecticut baseball stage belonged to Cheshire.

The Rams, led by R-J Baseball Player of the Year Ben DeLaubell, captured the Class LL championship and the state’s overall No. 1 ranking. Like Southington Legion, the championship was Cheshire’s first in 25 years.

While a 1-0 victory over Ridgefield in the finals capped it, the entire tournament run was terrific. The Rams unseated defending champ Staples in the quarterfinals and then outlasted Fairfield Prep in 10 innings in the semifinals.

The championship victory was No. 250 in the head coaching career of Cheshire’s Bill Mrowka. It also proved to be his last. Shortly after the season, Mrowka retired after 31 years in the Cheshire program, the last 21 as head man.

2018 also proved to be the last turn around the diamond for another area skipper. Maloney’s Howie Hewitt stepped down after 23 seasons with a career mark of 286-228.

1. Enter, Cinderella 

We arrive at our No. 1 sports story of 2018.

Oddly, it’s not one of a state champion nor even a state contender. At least not heading into the state tournament, when this team was a fair-to-middling No. 17 seed in Class L at 7-4-5.

But then this team came alive and embarked on a postseason journey that was sheer drama at every stage and, in the end, historic despite falling short of the ultimate prize.

And yet if the true prize of scholastic sports is to stoke the pride of a school and bring together a community, then the 2018 Maloney boys soccer team was indeed the stuff of champions.

Coach Dave Parness’ Spartans sure did come close to the real thing in becoming the first Meriden soccer team to reach a state final. They opened with a first-round win over Bristol Eastern in a game decided by penalty kicks, with sophomore goaltender Devin Juan coming up big in net and senior Josue Urena delivering the winning strike.

It was a harbinger. All five of Maloney’s postseason games would be settled by one goal, be it late in regulation or well past overtime in PKs. Juan was an unflinching rock each night out and Urena an unfailing actor in the middle of all the late heroics.

Urena scored the deciding goal in the 2-1 second round win over No. 1 Wilcox Tech, set up the game-winner in the 2-1 quarterfinal win over No. 8 Branford and buried the deciding penalty kick in the scoreless semifinal against No. 4 Avon.

That Avon game went to 15 rounds of PKs on a frigid Nov. 14 night in Windsor. The next day, it snowed.

That snow pushed Championship Saturday to Championship Sunday and was still on the ground when the Spartans took the field at Middletown High to face two-time reigning champ and heavily favored Daniel Hand. A fitting backdrop for a fairy tale finish.

It was scoreless through one half, with the Spartans more than holding their own. Hand gained the upper hand in the second half, scored the game’s lone goal with 13 minutes to play, then held off the Spartans down the stretch.

Darkness had fallen by then. The Spartans marched off a well-lit field to friends and fans waiting by the gate, and to history recorded here.


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