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!”

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Fall season review

I’ve been writing a lot about the Shoreline Conference and how dominant they are during tournament season, so here is my quick recap of championship Saturday.

Morgan won the girls Class S volleyball championship for the 19th time in school history and first since 2005.

The Huskies thoroughly dominated the Shoreline Conference and state tournament sweeping 18 of 20 matches in the regular season and three of four in the state tournament, including the championship match against Lyman Memorial.

Cromwell won the boys Class S soccer championship for the sixth time and first since 2009.

The Panthers were a strong team all year and only got stronger through the state tournament. A 4-2 (OT) victory over top-seeded Old Saybrook on October 15 was a statement game for Cromwell. They ended up losing the eventually conference championship game to Old Saybrook, but defeated them again when it really mattered, 1-0 in the Class S semifinals. Cromwell dominated the championship game 3-0 over Bolton, finishing a great season and another state title for the Panthers.

Portland and Old Saybrook played to a 0-0 (OT) draw in the Class S girls soccer championship game; named co-state champions.

Portland was the team to beat coming into this season and proved it all year. They didn’t go undefeated or anything like that, but they played their brand of soccer in the tough Shoreline Conference. Old Saybrook finished the regular season in the middle of the pack, but their goal keeper, Mia Neas, one that everyone has been talking about, powered the Rams to a shared state title. The senior did not allow a goal in the state tourney.

I don’t like the fact that co-state champions can be named and I’m sure the players have mixed reactions on this, but why have penalty kicks decide the rest of the tournament games, but no the biggest one of the year? Maybe that’s why, because it’s such an important game. Professional soccer ends championship games with PK’s, I just don’t understand why title games in soccer are allowed to end in a tie.

Time to move indoors, it’s time for hoops!

SLC in Class S finals

Lets start in Class S girls soccer where two Shoreline Conference teams will play for the state championship.

#5 Portland vs. #11 Old Saybrook

Last year the Highlanders lost to Immaculate 5-0 in the championship game and are back for another shot, this time they are the favorites. Portland, coming into the season, was the team to beat, but the entire conference was much tougher and deeper than originally thought. Nine SLC teams qualified for the tournament, with five of them in the top 11, including both of these teams.

Portland has the senior class and leadership to bring home the title. They did not score as much as they thought they would, but they still have an offense that is able to explode. Marisa DiMare, the Portland keeper, came into this season already holding the school record for shutouts and added 11 more this year, excluding SLC tournament games.

Old Saybrook went 9-5-2 in the regular season with 3-0 and 1-0 losses to Portland. In the state tourney the Rams defeated the top team from the conference, Coginchaug in penalty kicks, 3-1 and then the No. 2 seed St. Bernard 3-0 in PK’s.

Throw the records and seeds out for this one. These teams know each other too well and anything can happen.

Boys Class S

A great run by the Cromwell Panthers has brought them back to the title game for the fourth time since 2006 (champions in 2009). They went 12-3-1 in the regular season, including a 4-2 OT victory over top seeded Old Saybrook at home on October 15. With 10 shutouts, junior Ryan Murphy is tough to score on and the defense doesn’t give many opportunities.

Bolton has a powerful offense that could break the Cromwell defense down. They have scored 61 goals in 19 games (3.21/game) and never had a 1-0 win. They scored at least two goals in all 15 wins this year. I don’t know much about this team, but there results say a lot, it will be a tough match-up for Cromwell.

One common opponent they have is Valley Regional. Bolton beat them 2-1 in the semifinals and Cromwell played them twice, once winning 3-1 early in the season and then again in the SLC tournament, losing 4-3. Cromwell and Bolton are former COC (Charter Oak Conference) foes who will fight for the state championship.

AND VOLLEYBALL

I was hoping for another all-SLC final to back up my previous post, but one team will do.

Morgan has dominated the conference for years and finally beat Coventry to get back to the state championship game for the first time since 2010 and their 19th time overall. If you follow Connecticut volleyball, you know Morgan and coach Joe Grippo. They are undefeated this year and lost only five sets all season (three in SLC play, two to Coginchaug). Coventry was supposed to be the Huskies biggest test of the year and they breezed right through to the finals (25-18, 25-17, 25-19). Morgan may not play the prettiest type of volleyball you have ever seen, but they win and they don’t make mistakes.

Lyman Memorial had to beat two SLC teams to get to the finals (Coginchaug and East Hampton) and they did so handily. Now their biggest test of the year will come in the championship game. The Bulldogs may have played a tougher, larger school schedule and could be ready for Morgan.

SLC aside, both teams played Fitch this year. Morgan beat them 3-2 in their second game of the year and Lyman beat them 3-1 later on in the regular season. If this is any clue to how the title game will go, it should be a classic.

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?

End of My Beginning: Manchester CC is cutting their athletic programs

Manchester Community College is cutting their athletic programs.

One night during the fall of my third semester at Manchester Community College I was sick of going to class and coming home without meeting anyone new; I knew I had to do something. I sent an email to Cynthia Washburn, the director of athletics at the school asking if there was anything I could do to help out. She directed me to Paul Ofria, the Sports Information Director and the rest is history.

I started out slow in the athletics office, first I was just a ball boy during men’s and women’s soccer games. I would have an extra ball and had to throw it in play when the game ball left the field to keep the game going. Sounds pretty simple, but you have to pay attention and be quick to not disrupt the game flow. Yeah, still pretty easy. By the end of the season and the next year, I held down the end of the field not near the baseball field (I still don’t know which direction it was).

That first soccer season I was at every home game, both men and women and did not see a single MCC Cougars loss. I have never been a soccer fan, but that season and those teams got me so emotionally invested, I was as nervous as the players when the district finals hosted by MCC came down to penalty kicks. Kevin Battista buried the winning goal to give the Cougars the victory and a trip to Texas for the national championships.

The women’s team did not make it as far, but I believe still made the regional finals as one of the best women’s soccer teams the program had ever seen.

One of the key players to that team was Julia Connor. She was fun to watch on the field and great to work with in the SID office. She had been working with Paul for at least that whole season, still not sure how much longer than me, but the three of us became quite the team.

Once baseball season began, the favorite sport of the entire sports information department; and we are all Red Sox fans. The season before, the spring of 2008, the baseball team qualified for their first NJCAA Division III World Series in Tyler, Texas. The spring of 2009, Chris Strahowski and the Cougars fielded an even better team, qualifying for their 2nd straight national tournament. A.J. Lowers, a catcher from Newington was a freshman on that team and I believe either led the team in batting average or was top three, but either way, I could tell the kid was a player.

A couple other players on that team that I enjoyed watching were pitcher Steve Simon, who led the nation in ERA his sophomore year, Juan Bisono, a middle infielder and father, just living out a dream, playing college baseball and finishing his education, Vin Sommo, a DH who swung out of his shoes on every pitch, Tyler Wenz, who, um, I don’t really know what he did besides give us the best game program title of my two years, “Wenz-Day,” his last start of his career and Kevin Wodatch, a pitcher/infielder/outfielder/shark look-a-like…I loved those guys, even though I never really became friends with any of them.

Baseball at Manchester Community College is where I refined my score-keeping skills, even if I still forget to record RBI’s. It’s where I realized my love for baseball outside of playing myself or watching the pros. It’s where I wrote my first press release and realized I wanted to be a sports journalist.

Paul Ofria is a journalist by trade, among other things, but working with him for almost two years, I realized I wanted to be a baseball writer. Being a sports information director at a small community college may not be the most glamorous job, but we had fun. Almost everyday when I was not in class I would go to the office to either hang out or do some work. Rosa, the secretary, would great me with her Chilean accent everyday and was always happy to see me.

Whether it was working with Julia “The Boss” Connor or Paul, I wouldn’t have traded those two years for anything. Paul taught me a whole bunch of stuff that I would never had learned in a journalism class. He told me stories that not many people knew about him. I say to this day that the reason I am becoming a sports journalist is because of him.

Even after I transferred to Central Connecticut State University after spending three years at a two-year school, I came back to visit and work and hang out in the athletics office whenever I had free time and Rosa was always there. I have gone back and been a ball boy behind the goal for soccer games, I have gone back and kept score for baseball games and even just stood on the sidelines in the Great Path Academy gym for women’s basketball. MCC athletics will always be a home for me, but not physically any longer.

The athletics program was cut by president Gina Glickman this past week due to budget cuts. The school will save over $300,000 a year and in times where the economy is not great, I can understand why they are doing it, but it’s not right.

A majority of the athletes who have competed for the MCC blue and white were at the school because they didn’t have the grades to attend a four-year school, didn’t know what they wanted to do and used the school as a stepping stone or were international students needing somewhere to start along with a number of other reasons. I was one of those students who had no idea what he wanted to major in and decided to go to a community college to save money while trying to figure it all out. MCC helped me figure it out.

My dad wanted me to go to CCSU right out of high school and I very well could have, but decided not to. He brings it up once in a while and it bothers me, but I would not be where I am today if I didn’t attend MCC. This is what he had to say when I posted the Hartford Courant article on my Facebook page yesterday…

“Tax payers can’t afford to keep giving away money but when the decision makers are in cushy overpaid jobs they are going to protect themselves and use the kids as pawns to try to squeeze more money out. Time for MCC students to transfer to Gateway and put Glickman out of business.”

He is one of the smartest people I know and even though he didn’t want me to attend the school, he knows what it means to me and what it has meant to the student athletes who have attended the school.

The last few months since I got an internship at the Middletown Press, I have wanted to go back to MCC and step into the athletic office once again and just talk and work like old times with Paul Ofria, but that can’t happen. Not only him, but the coaches and athletic trainer are all losing their part-time jobs. I can’t imagine walking into that room now and not seeing Paul getting ready for a game that day.

This is a tough time for everyone who has ever been associated with Manchester Community College athletics. We all wish we could do something about this decision, but at this time I don’t think anything can be done. When the baseball program was cut in 2011, Strahowski tried to fund raise enough to have another season, but fell short. I don’t think there is anyway fund-raising enough for four sports will happen.

I really don’t know what else to say besides I am thankful for MCC athletics for everything the program did for me and I am not even an athlete.