COLUMN: CIAC basketball “Final Four”

I thought I had a good idea going into championship weekend at Mohegan Sun, but now that I saw a majority of the teams play it doesn’t look so good.

I had always thought that a Connecticut high school basketball “Final Four” would be a cool idea.

I want to see who the real number one team in the state is by playing a game. The four teams that win a championship would them play each other to determine the true “state champion.”

It would be an interesting idea, but doesn’t make any sense.

I watched the Class M and LL boys championship games on Saturday at Mohegan Sun and wow! there is a huge difference. I thought Weaver was a top team in the state coming in, but they got handled pretty easily by East Catholic. Then I stayed for the nightcap to see what all the hype was about and the game lived up to its billing.

Either of those two teams, Fairfield Prep or Bridgeport Central would dominate any other team in the state, it wouldn’t even be fun to watch.

The top of the smaller three classes are pretty similar, with probably M and L being the closest in talent level, but LL is far and away the best in the state.

My idea would have had maybe the LL winner play the M winner and then S and L play and then the winners play in the finals, but we already know Central would destroy East Catholic and then most likely Windsor. They are loaded with talent.

I never really understood why the CIAC divided schools up by size, but now I do. If you have a large pool of kids to choose from, you will have a better chance of having better players.

Although it is all about money so, whataya say CIAC? Can we make this happen?

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COLUMN: DCT Sports top 3 games of 2014

As some of you may know, I started writing for GameTimeCT during the second week of February. Because of this, I can’t write a “top basketball games of the year, because I started late. So here are my top three basketball games I saw in 2014.

#3: February 10 – South Windsor vs. East Catholic

The first game I covered as a member of GameTimeCT was the girls South Windsor at East Catholic in Manchester. It took me all day to figure out which game I was going to cover, but when I finally noticed that South Windsor was undefeated at the time and they were playing an East Catholic team that had won four in a row and played the Bobcats closely in the first game they played.

The No. 3 team in the GameTimeCT/Register rankings that week, came out strong, but the Eagles stayed close enough to make a move in the second half. In the fourth quarter, East Catholic was down 47-45 before scoring six straight to take the lead for the final time, handing the Bobcats their first loss of the season.

South Windsor went on to play in the Class LL state championship game, losing to Lauralton Hall.

#2: February 11 – New Britain vs. Newington

This is the second game I covered, but that’s not the reason I chose it.

I didn’t know much about the rivalries in the CCC, but I figured this would be a good one. I walked into the gym at Newington High School and could feel a buzz. It wasn’t the buzz of that in Mohegan Sun this past weekend, but it was there.

The stands filled with student section from both towns and the trash-talking started.

New Britain was the eighth ranked team in the GameTimeCT/Register poll and sat atop the CCC standings. Newington jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, led by freshman guard Jared Simmons, one of the best freshman I saw play this year. He attacked the Golden Hurricanes inside and out. Four 3-pointers were made in the first quarter, the second best first quarter scoring performance I saw this year.

It would have been a great game if Newington ran away with this won, but the more impressive part was New Britain coming back and taking control.

The big three of Annuel Saint Juste, Curtis Hyman and Craven Johnson got the Golden Hurricanes back on the board and Hyman capped off the night with a huge dunk to seal the deal. The first of many I saw this winter.

New Britain won the CCC regular season title, but faltered in the tournament, losing to Weaver in the second round and then to Greenwich in the Class LL quarterfinals. Newington beat Hall in the state tournament qualifying round, but then had to play Fairfield Prep. We all know how that turned out.

#1: February 28 – Weaver vs. Middletown (CCC tournament)

This was the first time I saw Weaver play this season. I was asked to cover the game for the Middletown Press and happily obliged, not know what I was getting myself into. It was a good thing.

The 8/9 match-up in the CCC tournament would spark the Beavers into a rhythm that would take them to Mohegan Sun in the end.

Middletown took an early lead, but after a technical foul issued to Makai Hunter, Weaver made four free throws and the tides turned. The Beavers employed their full-court press forcing 14 steals, the only player they couldn’t stop was Brandon Simmons who scored 38 points, the highest point total I saw all season.

Weaver went on to win the CCC tournament title over Maloney and advance through the Class M state tournament with ease before falling to CCC North foe East Catholic at Mohegan Sun.

 

Honorable Mention: March 19 – Weaver vs. Lewis Mills (Class M semi-finals)

This may not have been the most exciting game or competitive, but the shear dominance is what impressed me the most.

Weaver had been the team throughout the tournament that no one wanted to play. Joe Morelli said this early on and the Beavers proved it to be true, winning their state tournament games by an average of 36 points.

In the first quarter, against the top-seeded team in the Class M tournament, No. 12 Weaver dropped 31 points, including seven threes on their way to the 89-33 semi-finals win.

Like I said, this wasn’t the best game to watch, but it was the most dominant. Three players for the Beavers scored at least 19 points, with KeAndre Fair leading the way with 20. Senior Josh Jones hit three 3s in the first quarter.

Although Weaver ended up losing the Class M title game in convincing fashion to fellow CCC member East Catholic

COLUMN: Good and bad of championship weekend

The CIAC state basketball championships at Mohegan Sun is always one of the most exciting weekends of the year for Connecticut high school sports and this past weekend was no different.

I got to the arena around 9:30 a.m. and for some reason I was surprised at the amount of people sitting in front of slot machines that early. As I was told later by Jimmy Zanor and Tom Yantz, there is no time in the casino.

I received my press credentials and found a seat court-side for the start of the day.

First up was the girls Class L finals, Capital Prep vs. Weaver. I had been following Weaver for a little while this year which made it more fun to watch this game with coaches and players I had gotten to know.

In the first half it had looked like the Beavers were going to knock off the No. 1 team in the state, but they had been at the top for a reason. They shook off the rust and ran away with the title.

The second game was the one I got to cover.

Honestly, this was the game I was most excited to cover, two CCC teams, including the No. 12 Weaver Beavers who had faltered early, but since Reggie Hatchett took over as coach midway through the season, lost just two games, including winning the CCC tournament and making other teams in Class M look silly on their way to the finals.

Well, they were the ones looking silly in the second half of the championship game. Weaver played like a 12 seed (which means nothing), but didn’t really have it together. They fell behind and didn’t know how to come back, losing their second straight finals game.

I made my way backstage to find the coaches and get some quotes before settled down in the media room to write. This was the real deal, real journalists from all over the state churning out stories and photos. I caught the end of the Thomaston/St. Paul girls Class S game on television. That looked like a great one.

Once I was done with my story and eating lunch with two people I look up to in the business (Yantz and Zanor) I made my way back to the court to watch some more basketball…and tweet until my fingers hurt.

The common theme of the day was the “underdog” getting an early lead and then the “favorite” coming back in the second half to win the title. That happened again with the girls Class LL game between Lauralton Hall and South Windsor. I saw the Bobcats played a few times this year, actually they played in the first game I covered for GameTimeCT this season. They are good, but the Lauralton Hall/Mercy rivalry I had heard about since last year’s championship game must have really prepared them for this game, coming back to take the LL crown.

The nightcap was the game of the ages.

I stayed, because I had heard so much about this undefeated Fairfield Prep team and their huge center, Providence bound Paschal Chukwu. I hadn’t looked around, but at one point before the game started I sat back and gazed through the arena. Wow! The place was packed.

The game tipped off and already had the feel of a heavyweight bout. Those kids were moving so fast and playing like their life depended on it. Threes were raining and Chukwu was defending the basket, scoring and dunking like no one else was in the gym. This was the game to see.

Late in the second quarter I turned to my new “friend”/co-worker Pete Paguaga of the Register Citizen and told him, “I just realized that I hadn’t looked at the scoreboard all game.”

Prep was up by double-digits, but I thought it was a one-possession game. It was that exciting and that fast-paced.

Once my computer connected to the WiFi again, I started tweeting again, just like everyone on press row, this was a good one…you had to be there.

You know the details now, Bridgeport Central came back from being down 19 to beat the “best team in the state” for the Class LL title. What happened immediately after the buzzer sounded was a different story and I had a first-hand look of the situation.

I’m lucky I wasn’t injured like a Central cheerleader was.

After the arena cleared out, a few people were hanging out behind the basket where this took place. EMT’s and a stretcher were brought in to tend to a cheerleader who had an apparent concussion and was not responding normally. This is what no one is talking about. Yes, the Hilltoppers may have pulled off the biggest upset in Connecticut basketball history and have every right to celebrate, but there’s a cost. There’s a reason why Mohegan Sun and the CIAC made it clear the no one would be allowed on the court to celebrate, injuries can occur. This time the players went into the crowd, trampled people, broke equipment and injured a classmate.

When did this become a respectable way to celebrate? Enjoy the time with you teammates, accept your trophy and medals like adults and then have a celebration, parade or whatever you want when you get home. Don’t jump into the crowd with no regard for the people who are there and come away injuring people. Multiple bodies were laying on the ground for an extended period of time while players jumped into the arms of classmates, taking their shirts off and celebrating. It got out of control and the security didn’t know how to handle it so they let it go.

When the mob cleared, I retrieved my backpack with broken headphones inside. A Mohegan Sun security person told me I should bill it to the school, which I wish I could, but when the Central administrator talked to me, he said it was a liability I agreed to working there and they weren’t going to do anything about it. Fine, I will get my headphones replaced either way, but when your school brings its own security, because you expect something to happen and it does and it can’t be controlled, something is wrong.

Thank god it’s baseball and spring sports season.

Lay off the referees

I’ve been covering high school sports for a while now, but more recently with GameTimeCT.com and have noticed one glaring problem with the whole thing.

The gyms are becoming more and more full, especially during tournament time, which means they are louder and louder. The students are coming out in droves to cheer on their friends and classmates, dressing all the same and making clever signs and parents are coming to the biggest games of the season.

These are the most pressure packed, stressful games these kids have ever played in, but you know who else feels the stress and pressure? The officials.

These people are not professionals. Sure they have been around the game for a while, taken the classes and passed the exams to be a certified referee, but they are not professionals. They have day jobs just like you and I. They get paid a small amount per game to do something they enjoy, be a part of the game of basketball.

That is why these people don’t deserve to be ridiculed and insulted non-stop for 32 minutes a night.

Parents are the worst offenders.

The student sections can be loud and they can come up with cheers for their team or against the opponent, but they don’t trash the referees like the parents do. I can’t even count the amount of times a parent has yelled at a game official over the last few weeks while they can’t say anything back. They are doing their job.

How would you like it if you were sitting at your desk and someone stood their watching you the entire day and insulted everything you did wrong? Every time you made a mistake, when you didn’t do something fast enough? That’s what the parents are putting these referees through on a nightly basis.

If they made every call that they should, the games would last four hours and every single point would be scored at the free throw line. The players wouldn’t break a sweat.

The best is when I hear, “That’s a foul!” on one end of the court and then “Let them play!” when the call doesn’t go your kids way. Then the player goes up for a shot under the basket, is blocked and is called for a foul, the parent yells, “Awful call!” But when their child is blocked cleanly, it has to be a foul on them, because their kid can do know wrong.

You have to lay off these officials a little bit. Of course they are going to make mistakes, maybe more than you would like, but you have to remember, this isn’t the NBA, this isn’t the Final Four where the best referees in the country are working. These are men and women who enjoy the game of basketball as much as you and I and want to be a part of the game for as long as they can.

Here’s an idea for the parents who think they can make a better call from the bleachers than on the court, “Parent Referee Night.” Why don’t we have a night where a couple of parents officiate the game to the best of their ability and see what it’s like. Be right in the middle of the fast-paced game of basketball trying to decide between a blocking foul and a charge while hundreds of people are yelling and screaming. Try to decide if the block was clean or if the shooter got hit on the wrist. Deciding not to make a call, because it would slow down the game too much or it wasn’t obvious. These are all things that an official goes through numerous times each game, while getting taunted.

The coaches are to blame too. I was covering a game recently where the coach said it was the worst set of officials he had ever seen. Yes, they may have missed a call, I will admit that, but again, this isn’t the NBA Finals, this is the CIAC State Tournament. Yes it’s a big deal to players and coaches, but the officials also take it seriously, so lets let them do their job and enjoy the game of basketball that these kids love to play.

Basketball season is upon us

My first year covering high school football was a little rough. I may some mistakes with names, I still don’t have a good statistics system and I especially have trouble writing on deadline from a McDonald’s halfway across the state. That being said, it was a good experience.

Basketball season is upon us and although my favorite sport, baseball, doesn’t play until the spring, I am excited for basketball games.

Last year while I was working with Joe Pelletier at the Middletown Press for my internship, I covered a number of girls basketball games including Maria Wesleyj’s 1,000th career point night at Mercy, some Middletown High games, the Shoreline Conference semifinals at Coginchaug with Jimmy Zanor and the state finals at Mohegan Sun (Friday night). I missed the “shot heard ’round Connecticut” when Wesleyj hit the buzzer beater to win the Class LL championship for Mercy. Those were a great experiences and this winter I know I am ready to write some great boy’s and girl’s basketball stories for both the Middletown Press and Game Time CT.

I don’t know how much I will be writing, because I will also be at ESPN some nights during the week, but I will do my best to cover games for both of these outlets and collect scores from around the Middlesex County area and Shoreline Conference to increase my exposure.

In the Shoreline Conference, I look for Cromwell to repeat for the lone reason that they won last year and have the conference player of the year coming back, Janelle Harrison. The senior will be heading to the University of Hartford next year, but will carry the Panthers first this year. They will not go undefeated like they did last year, but are surely the team to beat.

I hope I can write enough and be called on enough to get back to Mohegan Sun in March for the state finals, that will be a solid season and over just in time for baseball season to get started.

Back on deadline

A couple of weeks ago, before the fall high school sports season began, Jimmy Zanor of the Middletown Press called me and asked if I was ready to write for the paper again. Of course I was and couldn’t wait to get started.
The first assignment he gave me was a season preview for Portland boys soccer. I thought, “no problem, I’ve done these before,” but it wasn’t that easy. I mean, yeah, it was short, but after looking at last season’s record (not a single win) I knew it was going to be tougher than expected.
When I got to the field for practice the coach joked with me saying, “must be a slow news day if you’re coming here.” Yeah, I don’t really know why Jimmy wanted me to do that story, but I did it anyway and it came out well for being my first story in a few months.
After the weekend he asked me to profile the girls team from Portland, which would be a little easier since they had a lot to talk about. Last year they played in the class S state finals, so saying they would like to finish the job this year in about 500 words was easy.
After submitting these stories to Jimmy to edit and seeing them on the website, it felt good to be back. He had made some edits, but I’m always learning and seeing the changes that make my stories sound better make me want to be better.
The first game story I did this season was Coginchaug vs. Haddam-Killingworth volleyball. Last fall I became a big volleyball fan after watching Central Connecticut State and lots of Shoreline Conference contests, so this game would be fun. It was a great match with H-K winning in five sets.
I drove home and wrote my game story in about an hour or so and got it in well before deadline, but the pressure of getting a story done in time was fun…again. It feels good to be back on deadline.

Did Time Off Hurt Xavier?

When it was still bitter cold back in March, I watched a city scrimmage between Middletown and Xavier. The Blue Dragons were in rebuilding mode and the Falcons looking to make a run at the state championship.
The black and silver (white?) definitely looked like they had the team to do it and in the regular season they proved it, going 19-1, with only a loss to Shelton on Tax Day. They had been #1 in the New Haven Register poll for most of the season until yesterday.

Maybe the rest hurt the top seed. Xavier beat Hand, 14-5 on May 21 and then the rest of the SCC tournament was cancelled due to weather. Xavier recieved a bye through the first round of the Class LL state tournament and was set to play the winner of West Haven and Staples on May 30. Nine days was the longest the team went between games all season. I’m sure Richard Magner had the team ready to play, but there is nothing like game atmosphere.

Yesterday at Palmer Field in Middletown, Staples defeated the Falcons 5-4 in eight innings in one of the largest upsets in this year’s state tourney.

I will admit, I don’t know much about Staples, but I do know that Xavier was the clear favorite.

Tough finish to a great season, one of the best in over 30 years.

*I will be keeping an eye on the rest of the state tournaments and will continue to give my thoughts the rest of the way.