Beat the Bears: My first state championship experience

Nine years ago I was a junior at East Hampton High School. The boys soccer team was preparing for its first state championship game since 1968 and the entire school was behind them.

The school gathered in the auditorium for a pep rally on the morning of Nov. 18 and the only part of it that I can remember is, “BEAT THE BEARS!”

East Hampton was the third seed in the Class S tournament and Granby Memorial, the Bears, were the fifth seed.

The tournament bracket that year looked quite strange, especially if you compare it to recent years. All twelve teams in the tournament received a first round bye and the top four seeds each had a double-bye.

Anyway, I rarely went to games after school. Don’t ask me why, it doesn’t make any sense to me now that sports is my life. I remember seeing the quarterfinal game at EHHS when Sports and Medical Sciences Academy came to East Hampton with the Bellringers coming away with a 2-0 victory — there was even some yelling and almost a fight after the game. I have no idea why, but I have learned to realize that high school students play with a lot of emotion and sometimes it boils over.

In the semi-finals, East Hampton played No. 2 Tourtellotte at Tunxis Mead in Farmington and came away with a 1-0 win. The Bellringers were now set to play in their fourth state finals game and had a great opportunity to win the first state championship in school history — it was supposed to happen.

The boys soccer team had some of the best athletes the school had seen in some time. Scott Wheeler was all-state in almost everything he did, Pat Hammond was one of the states top goaltenders and all of my friends were on the team.

Junior year is when everyone you know is finally getting their drivers licence. It’s also the time when you do a lot of stupid things, because you are free. You don’t have to ask your parents to drive you, they just want you home by a certain time.

This was the first time I really felt like I was on my own.

Friday night, what seemed like the entire school met in the parking lot and we decided who was going to drive. I ended up going with a friend who was still not cleared to drive with friends in the car, but it didn’t matter, we were going to the state championship.

The convoy of cars left East Hampton and made it’s way to Rocky Hill, much faster than it should have, but high school kids are invincible and it’s fun.

We got to the school, piled out of the cars and walked under the lights of the stadium. We filled the bleachers on the near side of the field and as the game game started we went crazy. A few members of the pep-band brought their instruments — this was the coolest thing. Teachers were walking and as weird as it is to see a teacher outside of school, the entire town was behind the team.

Then, in the 20th minute of the game, Granby scored.

It was one goal, but we were down.

Time began moving faster and faster. Granby was strong. East Hampton had a hard time even finding its way into the Bears territory. According to the Hartford Courant, the only game story I could find, the Bellringers were out-shot 19-2 and really had no chance the entire 80 minutes.

Granby Memorial had won its 11th state championship.

I didn’t know then, but the Bears are one of the most succesful boys soccer teams in Connecticut. They have now played in 18 state championship games and won 11 of them, but since that game in 2005 are 0-3.

This Friday will be the fifth state championship appearance for East Hampton.

There were no byes this year, the Bellringers have beaten No. 26 Housatonic, No. 10 Canton, No. 2 Griswold and No. 6 Haddam-Killingworth, three by shutout and one in penalty kicks.

I’m not saying this year’s team is better than the one in 2005, but like the saying goes, “they are hot at the right time.”

East Hampton has seen state champions recently, the baseball team won Class S in 2011 and the girls cross country team in 2008, but the small-ish town East of the river has just five state championships in its history.

In covering high school sports over the last year or so, I have come across some incredible student sections and although there is no “home-field advantage” in the finals, East Hampton can definitely bring it with them.

All that stands in the way of the sixth state championship in school history and first in soccer in the top-seeded Spartans of Somers. A team that has championship experience. They have played for a title five times since 2004 with their most recent coming in 2012 — their only loss. So you better believe those kids want to end their career with a championship.

All I ask of East Hampton is to “BEAT THE SPARTANS!”

Advertisements

How deep is the Shoreline Conference?

You may know by now how much I love the Shoreline Conference (especially volleyball), but I have been noticing during tournament time, how good they really are.

Let’s start with girls soccer since the finals are almost set.

Before the year started, I went to Portland High School to do season previews for both the boys and girls soccer teams. The boys were coming off a winless season and the girls, a trip to the Class S finals. Coach Sandy Booth told me the girls had two goals this season, “get back to the SLC tournament and make the state tournament.” They have now done both.

Portland defeated Coventry 2-1 Monday night to secure their second straight state finals appearance. They lost to perennial power Immaculate of Danbury last year 5-0 (Immaculate moved to Class L this year). The Highlanders were expected to contend for a state title this year, but coming into the tournament as the #5 seed was a little low. Yes, anywhere in the top-10 is a contender, but coming off the season they had before, without losing much, Portland had high expectations.

They received a first round bye and then defeated #21 Wheeler (5-0), #4 Bolton (1-0) and #16 Coventry (2-1) to advanced to the Class S finals.

But this isn’t about Portland girls soccer, it’s about the Shoreline Conference.

On the other side of the bracket, #2 St. Bernard will play #11 Old Saybrook on Tuesday for a spot in the final vs. Portland. So how strong is the SLC? Eight of the teams finished the regular season with a record above .500 and nine made the state tournament. 38% of the Class S tournament was made up of the Shoreline Conference. #20 Morgan was the lowest seed, but the next lowest was #13 East Hampton, who finished the regular season with a 8-5-2 record; including a win against #3 Coginchaug early in the season.

Old Saybrook went 9-5-2 in the regular season in the SLC with keys wins over Old Lyme and East Hampton.

Basically in Shoreline Conference girls soccer, they beat up on themselves all fall and when they got to the tournament, they are taking it out on everyone else. We could have an all SLC girls soccer final and if that happens, I won’t be surprised.

Boys soccer is just as strong.

Last week I was at a Class S second round game between conference opponents, Cromwell and Haddam-Killingworth. The Panthers defeated the Cougars 2-1 in OT and moved on to play…surprise, another SLC opponent in East Hampton. As a matter of fact, after Cromwell plays Old Lyme in the semifinals on Wednesday, there will have been four all-SLC matchups in the Class S tournament with the possibility of one in the finals.

Much like on the girls side, more than half of the conference made the boys tournament (30% of the field represented by the SLC). #18 Lyman Memorial was the lowest seed for the conference with a 7-8-1 record. Old Saybrook gained the top seed after thouroughly dominating the regular season (14-1-1). Their only loss came to Cromwell in OT and they tied Westbrook, which was the biggest shock of the year. Westbrook only won once all season.

Three of the four teams playing in the Class S semifinals are from the Shoreline Conference, so it’s very likely that we could have another all-SLC final, although this #2 Bolton team is not going to be easy for the #3 Valley Regional Warriors. Bolton outscored their opponents 52-23 on the season and 7-2 in the state tournament. Valley Regional also has an explosive offense, but it will be tough.

On the other side, Cromwell is playing Old Lyme. The two met in the last game of the regular season with Old Lyme winning 2-1 in OT. The Panthers are playing some great soccer right now and have the opportunity, if Valley Regional wins, to not play a single team outside of conference in the state tournament.

Now to where I call my high school sports expertise, at least in the fall: volleyball.

Once again, the Shoreline Conference is dominating.

Morgan and Haddam-Killingworth entered the tournament as the top two seeds and only Morgan is still standing, but it took another SLC power to take out H-K…East Hampton.

The teams met twice during the regular season (H-K won both meetings) and twice in postseason (East Hampton won both meetings). As you can tell, there is too much parody in the conference, minus Morgan. The top of SLC volleyball was very good and the bottom was not. I wouldn’t say it’s the deepest conference, but very well might be the most competitive in the state. Morgan has won 22 straight title, but that’s besides the point, the rest of the league is catching up.

H-K has a very good team overall. They have some of the best attackers in the conference and maybe the state and play with great ball movement. East Hampton hasn’t even had a volleyball program for that long, but ever since John Post came in, they have been winners. In 2011 they made the state semifinals and are back two years later. Plus, the Bellringers are playing their best volleyball of the season right now and have a great chance to make the finals if they can beat Lyman Memorial.

Like I’ve said before, Coginchaug may be the most talented team in the conference. They have all the pieces and have shown signs of greatness, with set victories over Morgan on two occasions. Hale-Ray and Valley Regional aren’t in the same conversation as the top four, but are still good teams and didn’t qualify and win matches in the tournament for no reason. It just goes to show how deep the Shoreline Conference is.

In three separate tournaments, the SLC has had seven teams make the semifinals out of a possible 12. If you don’t think the Shoreline Conference is the deepest in the state or at least Class S, than who is?

Preview: Class S volleyball quarterfinals

I was right!

All six Shoreline Conference volleyball teams won their second round games on Wednesday proving once again that the SLC is the deepest volleyball conference in the state.

Today, those six teams take the court again, four of them playing one another.

First up, Morgan vs. Valley Regional: Morgan lost two sets to conference opponents this year and it was not Valley Regional. This one is easy. No SLC team has been able to solve the Huskies and the Warriors won’t this time either. Morgan wins 3-0.

Hale-Ray vs. Coventry: Granby snapped Coventry’s 76 match winning streak in the first game of the season, but the Patriots are still one of the elite teams in the state. Hale-Ray beat who they were supposed to beat in the Shoreline Conference and even had a 3-0 victory over Valley Regional midway through the season, but they are not a top team. The Noises are lucky to have gotten a good draw and made it this far. Coventry will send Hale-Ray home 3-0.

East Hampton vs. Haddam-Killingworth: A rematch of the SLC semifinals where the Bellringers won 3-1 after dropping the first set 25-10. I was at this game and all I can say is, it was the most exciting high school volleyball match I have seen. Tonight is sure to be another thriller. John Post has the postseason coaching experience, but so does Rich Langer (over 500 career wins). This one is old school vs. new school. H-K has the passing and attackers, East Hampton needs to do everything right in order to take this one. The Bellringers don’t have as much of an attack, they will have to play great defense and not make mistakes. I can’t predict this one, but I do believe it will go five sets.

Coginchaug vs. Lyman Memorial: This will also be a great match if the best Coginchaug team shows up. The Blue Devils were arguably the most talented team in the SLC, they just need to put it all together. Caryn Sibiskie is one of the top blockers in the state and Sydney Trusty might be one of the top servers and attackers, but Lyman Memorial will be tough. The Bulldogs played a tough schedule, including some larger schools. This is a tough task for Coginchaug, but the good news is, they haven’t seen them yet this year. As much as I want Coginchaug to move on, I think they lose 3-1.

My semifinals: Morgan will play Coventry in the state tournament for the first time since 2009 when the Patriots defeated the Huskies 3-0 in the finals. If this happens, Coventry will beat Morgan 3-2 and advance to their 10th straight Class S state final.

Lyman Memorial will play East Hampton or H-K: I still can’t pick a winner between the Bellringers and Cougars. If EH wins, they will lose to Lyman Memorial. If H-K wins, they will beat Lyman Memorial and play for the state championship.

I know it’s confusing, but after tonight, the semifinals will be set.

Shoreline Conference in Class S tourney

All four Shoreline Conference teams won their opening round games in the Class S state tournament on Monday. Sox of the eight games to be played on Wednesday will contain a SLC team.

Morgan, the top seed and only undefeated in Class S will take on the Warhawks of Bloomfield at 6 p.m. Although Bloomfield (12-8) played in the larger and arguably best volleyball conference in the state, the CCC, Morgan is just too dominant to fall this early in the tournament. The Huskies played one match this year vs. a school outside of Class S, Fitch, and still won 3-2. Morgan will cruise into the quarterfinals.
I believe No. 24 Valley Regional will “upset” No. 8 Capital Prep. I don’t think it is a true upset, because of where the Warriors are coming from. Again, out of the tough SLC, Valley went 10-10 and beating Hale-Ray and Coginchaug in the last two matches of the season. Valley Regional is peaking at the right time and will handle the Trailblazers, although it may not be a sweep. The CSC is full of tech schools who beat up on each other, so this may be an interesting match, but I still believe Valley moves on.
Another possible seed upset comes in the No. 5 Wilcox Tech vs. No. 21 Hale-Ray match. The Noises have one key win this season, a 3-0 victory over Valley Regional, which goes to show that anything can happen in the middle of the SLC. Wilcox is another one of those Tech schools that plays a fairly easy schedule, finishes with a great record, thus receiving a high seed. I have not seen any of them play, but I believe Hale-Ray is a very good team and will prevail.
Haddam-Killingworth is probably the most complete team in Class S. They have three to four very strong attackers and pass the ball very well. Although they lost to East Hampton in the SLC semifinals last week, the Cougars are still very deserving of a top spot in this tournament. I honestly don’t know anything about Griswold, but I do know a lot about H-K and they have the talent and coaching to possibly make a run at the finals.
East Hampton vs. Northwest Catholic is an interesting one. The Bellringers are ranked 7th out of the SLC and the Indians are the 23 seed coming out of the CCC. Both teams play in very tough volleyball conferences. John Post will have East Hampton ready to play, but if they underestimate NW Catholic, this could be an upset.
The bottom of the bracket contains Wolcott Tech vs. Coginchaug. Having seen the Blue Devils play a few times this year, I know they are possibly the most talented team in the Shoreline Conference. They are also the only team in conference to win a set over Morgan (they did it twice). I don’t see Coginchaug having any problem with Wolcott Tech, another “upset,” but not really.
I believe all SLC schools will win their 2nd round matches, which would set up two all SLC quarterfinal games. This would be big for the small school conference and exciting for the Middletown Press.

East Hampton vs. Haddam-Killingworth volleyball preview

East Hampton and Haddam-Killingworth have been two of the best teams in the Shoreline Conference for a few years, just behind Morgan, who no one can seem to beat. Well, they face off tonight for a chance to play for a conference championship.

Twice this year the Cougars and Bellringers met and both times H-K won 3-1.

The game is in Higganum and for the third time this year, I will be there. The Haddam-Killingworth Fieldhouse has the ability to get loud and I expect the student section to make some noise. It will be tough for an East Hampton team, who has been battling injury all year to win.

H-K has two of the best outside hitters in the conference and will be tough to stop. Both teams are well coached and wouldn’t be surprised if this one goes five sets, but I think the Cougars are too strong.

Great Time of the Year

It’s finally that time of the year. The days are growing longer, the flowers are starting to bloom, you can go outside with just a sweatshirt on…it’s baseball season.

I have been waiting for this time for too long. The winter is nice, but I only got to go skiing once this year and spent another two days digging out after some of the largest storms I have seen in 23 years. I couldn’t be happier to have baseball back.

The beginning of March is when the college season started. Both of the Central Connecticut fields were plowed in time to have the home opener and even though it was still freezing cold, I was there supporting the men and women of the CCSU baseball and softball teams.

As most of you know, I have been covering the softball team for the last two years and it has been a blast. This year might be the best yet, not only because I have a great relationship with the coach and the players, but this is the best team CCSU softball has ever seen.

The baseball team is just as good. They seem to finally have both the pitching and hitting to get them back to the Northeast Conference championship game, it would be the first time since 2010.

But what I am really going to be paying attention to this year? High school baseball. I told you about my Middletown High and Xavier story the other day, but that’s not all. There are some great baseball players in the state of Connecticut that I hope to see; even the small Shoreline Conference has something good going. Marvin Gorgas from East Hampton can bring it from anywhere on the field. Low 90’s fastball, hits for power and can play the field as well. The Cromwell pitching staff could be one of the best in the state and they hope to return to the Class S championship game. Even Haddam-Killingworth should be good. The Class M runner-up from last year may have lost a couple starters, but my friend Kellie’s brother Brian Moskey is only a sophomore and should turn some heads this year with both his bat and right arm.

I have never been so excited for high school baseball in my life. I can’t wait to follow the stories and cover some games, it’s a great time of year…and of course I will be at my fair share of minor league games as well.