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: 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.

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.

Aside

Championship Weekend

I have done so much and so little since the last time I sat down to write, so let me fill you in…

Last Thursday I spent a few hours in the Middletown Press office putting together the “Tale of the Tape” for the state basketball championship games. The Press had three teams that we cover playing for a state title last weekend, Cromwell girls, Valley Regional boys and Mercy. Each team had their own story heading into championship weekend at Mohegan Sun, but one turned out to be one of the best stories in the history of Connecticut basketball.

The “Tale of the Tape” piece I did was some research on each team and their opponent. I may be a little slow with research, but it was a fun piece. Although it took a while, it was enjoyable, because that is something people who read the newspaper are more likely to look at rather than read the entire game preview.

The first story was the Cromwell girls basketball team. They went through the entire regular season without losing a game, they won the Shoreline Conference tournament and waltzed their way through the Class M state tournament on their way to Mohegan Sun where they met Notre Dame-Fairfield.

The second game of the night was Valley Regional-Deep River vs. Weston. Both of those teams had some pretty great stories heading into the finals. Valley Regional was the #5 seed in Class M. Two years ago, Valley won the Class S championship with Jon Luster and Co. this was the best four-year run in the school’s history regardless of a championship in 2013.

Weston was the #23 seed in the tournament and upset #10 University, #2 Kaynor Tech and #6 Enfield on their way to the finals. They had some setbacks early in the season including some injuries and their coach being forced to resign and then get reinstated later in the season. If Weston had won, it probably would had been the best story of the weekend, until Maria Wesleyj of Mercy stepped on the court.

The Mercy basketball team is arguably the best girls basketball team in the state. They had lost two games all season, both to Career Magnet, one of which being in the Southern Connecticut Conference title game at Quinnipiac University. I may have written about that a few weeks ago, but I can’t remember. Anyway, the Tigers had been to the state tournament finals three years in a row and lost all three games by a COMBINED 7 points. This year marked the fourth straight finals appearance  which is an amazing accomplishment alone, but for the five seniors on the team, they weren’t about to let the elusive title slip away again.

I covered one and a half Mercy basketball games this season, the first one I went to was the first night of my internship, I went with Cathy and met Jimmy Zanor there, because Weselyj was set to score her 1,000th career point. She did so just as we entered the gym. The second game I covered was on my own. Mercy destroyed Hillhouse that night, but the point of me covering the game was to improve. I talked to coach Tim Kohs and two players, Weselyj and fellow senior Jordyn Nappi (Weselyj is friends with my girlfiend’s sister and to this day she knows me as the awkward guy who interviewed her). That story was one of my favorite game stories I have written thus far.

Let me make this quick…

Cromwell defeated Notre Dame-Fairfield 42-28, although they did trail by 3 at the half for only the 2nd time all season. They finished the season 28-0, the first undefeated team since 2007. This was Cromwell’s first girls basketball state championship.

Valley Regional defeated Weston 52-45. Weston played the Warriors very tough and were even still within 3 points with under 2 minutes to play. This is Valley Regional’s 2nd state title in three years.

Now for the game of the weekend. I was not there due to a prior commitment, but trolled Twitter during the game. I actually lost track of time and checked my go-to social media site for game updates. At the half, Mercy trailed by 3. I was a little surprised, because earlier in the season Mercy defeated the same opponent, Laurelton Hall 66-47. I was with my girlfriend at the time and I told her that the game would probably come down to a last second shot by Mercy (I swear I said this, you can ask her if you want).

We went out to dinner and engulfed in conversation in Northampton, I completely forgot about the game until after it was over and we were about to leave the restaurant.

The game was tied at 51 when Laurelton Hall, the sister school of Mercy, took a 2-point lead on a layup with 3.8 seconds left. The story was writing itself, Mercy had made the finals four straight years and had lost by a total of nine points. That just couldn’t happen.

Sheena Landy stood under the basket prepared for the biggest inbounds pass of her life. She heaved the ball 3/4 the length of the court…Cassie Santoro caught the pass between three Laurelton Hall defenders…dished to the streaking Weselyj in front of the Mercy bench…Wesleyj launched a three-pointer as the over 9,000 people in attendance held their collective breath…SWISH.

Weselyj won the game as the final horn sounded. She just hit one of the biggest shots in the history of Connecticut high school basketball history. After losing the three previous years, it only makes sense that Wesleyj was the one to hit the shot heard ’round the state Saturday night. Described as one of the purest shooters in the state according to a Hartford Courant preseason “Top-25 Players to Watch,” it was her shot that brought the Class LL championship back to Mercy High School.

My girlfriend asked me if I was disappointed I wasn’t at the game and the real answer is yes, but if I was there, it wouldn’t have happened, that’s just the way things work. I went Friday night, because I wanted to see Cromwell finish an undefeated season and I wanted to see Luster play. I got what I wanted. You can’t predict anything like that and that is the beauty of sports.