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BEST OF THE BUNCH: Three rings, no circus; Team of the Year finalists were all business winning state championships

BEST OF THE BUNCH: Three rings, no circus; Team of the Year finalists were all business winning state championships

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MERIDEN — Three teams. Three state champions. Three finalists for Record-Journal Team of the Year.

It’s that cut and dry. For all the fine teams we covered in 2019-20, three rose above the rest by grabbing the ultimate ring.

As good as the Southington girls soccer team was in reaching the Class LL state final, as good as the Sheehan girls indoor track team was in winning the SCC conference championship, neither was a state champion.

As promising as chances looked for Sheehan girls basketball and Sheehan ice hockey, their state tournaments, sadly, were cut short.

And as absolutely stacked as some teams looked heading into spring — a tip of the cap to you, Southington baseball — their season, sadly, never got off the ground.

So that leaves the three. The state championship three: Cheshire girls swimming, Sheehan football and Southington gymnastics.

There was no Cinderella in that group. Each team was deep. Each team was talented. Each team had high expectations.

Yet not one was a lock to go all the way.

For Cheshire swimming and Sheehan football, reclassification made the road a whole lot rougher.

The Rams may have been Class L swim champs in 2017 and again in 2018, but in 2019 they were up in Class LL. That was the domain of Greenwich, which had won the class for nine years running.

The Titans may have gone to the football playoffs in 2017 and again in 2018, but in 2019 they were sent in two directions, neither of them favorable: up to Tier 2 in the Southern Connecticut Conference and down to Class S in the CIAC divisions.

Both brackets were more competitive than Sheehan’s previous homes in SCC Tier III and Class M. In a nutshell, it was going to be harder for the Titans to make the state playoffs and, once they got there, harder for them to win it all.

The equation was different for Southington gymnastics. For all of the program’s success from 2005-2016, a span that saw eight state class championships, the 2019 team did not have the immediate pedigree of Cheshire swimming and Sheehan football. The Blue Knights had endured losing seasons in 2017 and 2018.

The 2019 Knights had to learn how to win.

They also had to get to know each other. Joining a core of third-year juniors were eight incoming freshmen and two Level-8 imports from club gymnastics. 

A whole new team dynamic was at play. It proved to be unbeatable. Southington swept the regular season and, along the way, accrued the state’s highest scoring average.

Coach Cassidy Chamberland’s Blue Knights made it stand up in the postseason. They captured the Class L title on Feb. 29 at Jonathan Law in Milford behind all-around champ Kelly Perrotti, then unseated Woodstock Academy at the State Open the following Saturday in New Milford.

The three facets of Southington’s new look contributed to victory at the Open: the returning junior veterans (Natalie Reeves, Kailyn Leifert and Liz Beaulieu), the Level-8 arrivals (Perrotti and Kat Drechsler) and a freshman (Taylor Kelly).

Cheshire’s run to the Class LL and State Open swim titles was fueled by the same breadth of talent: a senior class that never lost a dual meet in its career, a core junior class that featured a reigning state champion and a crew of varsity-ready underclassmen.

Coach Dave Modzelewski’s Rams first ran their dual-meet winning streak to 67 in the regular season. Then they raised their eighth straight conference flag at the SCC Championships.

The scene shifted to states. The Greenwich Cardinals loomed. How could that Red Sea of nine straight Class LL titles and four straight State Open banners possibly be parted?

With another wave of red. The Rams first out-swam Greenwich in the Class LL qualifying meet, and while that competition was for seeding purposes only, the results sent a clear message. Cheshire could win.

And, just like the Southington gymnasts, the Rams delivered with the bright lights shining. They out-pointed Greenwich 655-586 in the Class LL meet at Wesleyan on Nov. 19 and, five days later, did it again, 428-420, in the State Open at Yale.

In both meets, senior Julia Stevens won the 200 and 500 freestyles. In both meets, junior Sophie Murphy won the 50 and 100 freestyles, repeating the feats of her sophomore season.

The duo also combined with junior Nora Bergstrom and freshman Avery Potyrala on the 400 freestyle relay that took gold in Class LL and silver at the State Open. 

Seniors Sara Chen and Jililan Stevens, along with Bergstrom and fellow junior Emma Glover, added All-State performances, and it added up to Cheshire’s 29th state class championship and 14th State Open title.

One of those Cheshire swim championships came in 1985. That also happened to be the year Sheehan won the Class S-1 championship in football.

Unlike Cheshire swimming, no other titles followed for Sheehan football. Always a solid program, the Titans were nonetheless, as a small school in the SCC, a longshot merely to get to the football playoffs, which were limited to two teams per class until 1995 and then to just four until 2010.

Between that 1985 championship and the 2016 season, Sheehan football saw the playoffs just once: 1995, Class S, a 16-6 loss to Ansonia.

The landscape changed in 2017. Coach John Ferrazzi’s team made the Class M field that year and returned in 2018, this time winning a quarterfinal game.

2019 loomed brightest of all. It was the senior year for a deep class highly touted since winning the Shoreline Conference youth football championship as eighth graders.

Terrence Bogan was returning as the state’s rushing champ. Jordan Davis was fully healthy after his horrific car accident. Key players were back up front — T.J. DiPasquale, Mickey Deming, Braedon McCarthy.

All the stars were coming into alignment. Then came the double-whammy of the move to SCC Tier II and Class S.

While the first half of the schedule posed no obstacle, fears about the promotion to Tier II seemed to be coming to fruition when the Titans, hobbled by injuries to Bogan and then quarterback Kyle Simmons, dropped back-to-back games in November to North Haven and Cheshire.

With no further margin for error, Sheehan rebounded the next week against Hamden, surging in the second half to a 52-40 victory that secured a Class S berth.

That win over Hamden proved to be a precursor to the 64-33 victory in the state championship game against Bloomfield. Down 14-0 early and locked in a 28-27 game at halftime, the Titans outscored the Warhawks 36-6 in the second half.

In the end, the Titans simply had that extra gear. And, in the end, being pushed onto tougher playing fields primed a team of promise to Connecticut football’s promised land.

The Record-Journal “Best of the Bunch” awards video airs this Thursday, June 18 on Facebook at 6:30 p.m. and will be on myrecordjournal.com after that. The R-J is giving away an iPad Mini to one person who watches the event live on Facebook. Enter at myrecordjournal.com/ipad. Up next: Coach of the Year.

Local school, election and coronavirus news is more crucial now than ever. Help our newsroom deliver the coverage you deserve. Support Local news.

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