YEAR IN REVIEW: Amid championships, triumph and sorrow, one singular day transcended all

YEAR IN REVIEW: Amid championships, triumph and sorrow, one singular day transcended all



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MERIDEN — The end of a year. The end of a decade.

It could be said that the best both had to offer, on the sporting front, came at the very close.

Because what can top what transpired at Trumbull High School on December 14, 2019? Sheehan won its first state football championship in 34 years and, hours later, on the seventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Newtown won its championship on the final play of the game.

Care to add anything to the script?

Here’s something: Sheehan’s football championship, the last of 30 state titles won between 2010-2019 by teams in the Record-Journal coverage area, brought symmetry into play. The decade opened with Sheehan defeating Bloomfield 72-61 in the 2010 Class M boys basketball final. It closed with Sheehan defeating Bloomfield 64-33 in the 2019 Class S football final.

Turns out those bookend years were our most successful of the decade. Each produced five state champions.

Smack dab in the middle was an epic 2015, when Southington beat Cheshire in walk-off fashion in the Class LL softball final and Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year Gabby Vazquez lead Platt to the Class L girls volleyball crown.

For good measure, Sheehan baseball won Class M and was voted No. 1 in the 2015 state poll.

So was Southington football in 2014 and Cheshire baseball in 2018.

Dynasties came and went (Southington gymnastics 2013-15). Dynasties returned (Cheshire girls swimming 2017-2019).

Elite area athletes turned in accomplished college careers. (Exhibit A: Meriden basketball player Damika Martinez, all-time leading scorer at Iona and in the MAAC.)

Elite area athletes were drafted and enjoyed extended pro careers. (Exhibits A & B: Southington pitcher Sal Romano with the Cincinnati Reds and Meriden lineman John Jenkins in the NFL.)

Some legendary coaches capped their careers and exited the stage. Some passed away.

Local kids opened the decade winning youth championships. They closed it winning high school championships. 

It was a rich decade, never lacking for a good tale. This past year was a microcosm of the whole. These were the 10 best.​​​​​​

10. So close, so far

We mentioned those 30 state champions. We also had 24 other teams reach state finals this decade only to fall short.

Is there any steeper divide between joy and heartbreak than Championship Saturday?

Or Sunday: It was on Sunday, March 17 that Sheehan lost 60-51 to Cromwell in the Class M girls basketball final at Mohegan Sun Arena.

It was the first of three losses for area teams in 2019 finals. Southington suffered the other two — baseball to Staples, girls soccer to Glastonbury.

We mention these not to rub salt, but to acknowledge the sheer accomplishment of getting to the state championship stage. The Southington baseball team repeatedly rode walk-off magic to get there. The Southington girls soccer team rode a 17-0-2 juggernaut of a season.

As for Sheehan girls basketball, that brings us to …

9. G.O.A.T., His & Hers

2019 was the senior send-off for two area basketball players who graduated as the all-time leading scorers at their school, Olivia Robles of Sheehan and Dejuan Ransom of Wilcox Tech.

As deep a force as Sheehan girls basketball was in reaching the Class M state final, Robles was unquestionably the leader. She scored 36 points in the semifinals to get the Titans to Mohegan Sun, had 471 for her All-State senior season and finished with 1,297.

No Lady Titan ever scored more.

As for Ransom, he went where no previous Meriden city player or state tech-school player had gone before — over 2,000. Ransom’s 2,154 career points rank No. 1 all-time in Meriden. So do his single-season 678 tallied in 2018-19.

8. Sign here, and here

Given the area’s rich baseball tradition, we always keep our eyes peeled when the MLB Draft rolls around, and we’re seldom disappointed.

Nor, this year, was Wallingford’s Zach Hart. The right-handed pitcher had just finished up his college career at Franklin Pierce when the Cleveland Indians called in the 10th round of the 2019 Draft.

Hart reported to Cleveland’s rookie team in the Arizona League and went 2-1 in 13 appearances.

Hart was one of the aces on Sheehan’s 2015 state title team. Another key player from that squad, shortstop Sal Gozzo, went undrafted out of Tulane, but later signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. Gozzo played his rookie season in Florida in the Gulf Coast League.

At the tail end of summer came another good story, this in football. Tuzar Skipper, a Norwich Free Academy graduate who had spent a considerable portion of his youth living in Meriden, was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent out of Toledo University.

What followed was a case of All’s Well That Ends Well. Coming out of training camp, Skipper made the Steelers’ 53-man roster as an outside linebacker. Then, the day before the season opener, he was waived.

The Giants stepped in and signed Skipper to their 53-man roster. He played six games with them. Then he was waived.

The Steelers swooped back in on Nov. 19 and resigned Skipper to their practice squad. He was later promoted to the 53-man roster, but did not play.

Finally, this past Monday, Skipper’s future came into better focus. The Steelers signed him to a two-year contract.

Meanwhile, Meriden native and Maloney grad John Jenkins logged his seventh season in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, appearing in all 16 games at defensive tackle and making 34 tackles.

7. Transitions

2019 saw a number of veteran coaches step down and hand the reins to the next generation.

This was particularly true in baseball, where Mike Lussier replaced Bill Mrowka in Cheshire, Billy Rich replaced Chuck Burghardt at Lyman Hall and Ricky Marrero replaced Howie Hewitt at Maloney.

And, at Sheehan, Matt Altieri retired after a checkered 30-year career in which he won 362 games and four state championships. He was replaced by assistant and one-time player Dom Lombardozzi.

Of all the coaching moves, the most intriguing saw Hewitt also step down as boys basketball coach at Maloney after 33 seasons and take up residence at Southington High — as the girls coach. He and the Lady Knights are off to a 4-1 start.

6. Passings

We lost some iconic figures in 2019: Connecticut High School Coaches Association executive director and former Southington baseball coach John Fontana, wrestling official and Washington Middle School principal Ray Southland and college basketball coach Cathy Inglese, a native of Wallingford.

They varied in age and health, but all left us with shocking suddeness — Fontana in October at age 84 after suffering a severe stroke at Giants Stadium and Inglese in July at age 60 after suffering a traumatic head injury in a fall at Hofstra University, where she’d recently signed on as an assistant coach. 

Southland, 58, also passed in July. He had undergone a heart proceedure several months earlier, but was recuperating well when he suffered a massive heart attack.

5. Diamond days

Southington softball added to its legacy by defeating Norwich Free Academy 7-6 in the Class LL state final behind Record-Journal co-Players of the Year Chrissy Marotto and Abby Lamson.

It was the 18th state crown for a program that has been led by Joe Piazza, John Bores and now Davina Hernandez.

Of all area teams, Southington softball appeared in the most state finals during the past decade — six, winning four and losing two.

All but one of those six games was decided by a single run, including Rachel Dube’s walk-off home run in the 15th inning against Amity in 2014 and Bella Russo’s walk-off run on a sacrifice fly against Cheshire in 2015. If we compile a Top 10 list for the decade, you can bet both will be on it.

4. Personal bests

Along with the five team state championships claimed in 2019, we had a dozen individual athletes win state titles in track, swimming and wrestling.

Track was the motherlode, particularly in the javelin, where Sheehan’s Jordan Davis (Class M), Platt’s Julio Hernandez (Class L) and Maloney’s Mychael Gallaher (girls Class L) all won state class crowns in the event.

Davis, who didn’t start throwing javelin until this spring, went on to win at the State Open.

His Sheehan mate, Terrence Bogan, starred in the sprints. In between winning state rushing titles in football, Bogan captured the 100 meters in Class M and at the New England Championships.

Southington continued its recent excellence in track. Casey Selinske was Class LL pole vault champ. Trinity Cardillo won outdoor discuss and indoor shot put.

Southington also continued its traditional excellence in wrestling, winning two Class LL titles — Jacob Cardozo at 145 pounds, Billy Carr at 170.

Then there was Cheshire swimming. Joe Cannata won the Class L championship in the 200 individual medley during the boys season before the girls went over the top in the fall in Class LL and at the State Open behind Sophie Murphy and Julia Stevens.

Which brings us to …

3. Ramland by water

Cheshire’s 2019 championships in girls swimming hardly came out of the blue. After all, it’s a program that, between class meets and the State Open, has won 43 times.

However, to rise this year, the Rams had to move up a class and topple a dynasty. Swimming in Class LL, Cheshire beat Greenwich, which had won the division nine years in a row.

Then Cheshire duplicated the feat at the State Open, where Greenwich had reigned four years running.

The Rams were led by Sophie Murphy and Julia Stevens. Murphy, still only a junior, was class and Open champ in the 50 and 100 freestyles for a second straight year. Stevens, a senior going on to swim at Lehigh University, won the 200 and 500 freestyles in Class LL and repeated the feat at the Open.

2. Wallingford on Ice

It was an unprecedented night. March 14, 2019: Sheehan vs. Lyman Hall/Haddam-Killingworth/Coginchaug for the state Division III ice hockey championship.

For all the success and history of the Wallingford Hawks youth program, neither Wallingford high school had ever won a state hockey title. For that matter, neither had ever played for one, let alone against each other.

The lines started forming early outside Yale’s Ingalls Rink. By opening face-off, the building with the humpbacked roof was filled — one half in Sheehan burgundy and white, the other half in Lyman Hall orange and blue. 

On the ice, Sheehan carried the early play. Co-op goalie Andrew Sacco held the fort and the Trojans wound up skating to a 6-2 victory behind two goals apiece from Kyle Roberts, Matt Pettit and Aidan Weir.

1. December 14

It was awfully hard not to go with that all-Wallingford hockey championship as the top local sports story of 2019. Two public schools from the same town almost never go head to head in a state final.

That Thursday evening in March at Ingalls, however, ended with two of our teams on opposite sides of that championship divide between joy and heartbreak.

So we go with that Saturday afternoon in December at Trumbull, when Sheehan football rose to the top for the first time since 1985 and Newtown football players, some of whom had been students in Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, lifted a community up on their shoulders and gave a country riven by presidential impeachment common cause for celebration.

Wounds perhaps never fully heal and closure perhaps can never truly be attained. December 14, 2019 went a long way in the quest for both. It was comforting way to end one decade and a promising way to start another.

 

 


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