Tuesday, December 18, 2007

WRESTLING THRIVES AT FARMINGTON

The Fall All-Herald section is out today and I think I can speak for the entire sports department at our paper when I say I'm damned proud of it. We all worked very hard and we're so pleased to honor some terrific student athletes.

We also included a King and Queen of the autumn season -- Newington football star Nathan Pagan and Plainville multi-sport dynamo Desiree Pina. In addition, we voted Southington girls soccer coach Sal Penta as Coach of the Fall. While there were many good choices, Coach Penta was an excellent one with what he and the Blue Knights accomplished in the face of adversity.

I have an early nominee for Coach of the Winter. We don't even know how his team is going to fare but it matters not because what Farmington wrestling coach Eric Misko has done spans the last few years. After seeing his Indians perform at their own invitational last Saturday, I'm sure they will be fine.

Misko, the athletic trainer at FHS, has put wrestling on the map in town by methodically building a program with some good old-fashioned elbow grease.

Farmington isn't like Southington, Berlin or Bristol when it comes to wrestling. There is no elaborate feeder system in place. As coaches came and went, the Indians had state-class wrestlers like Pawel Szajda now and then but almost always had holes in their lineup. Forfeits generally would pile up and Farmington was unable to compete for Northwest Conference superiority.

But Misko sold his sport to the kids persistently without being overbearing. Gradually, athletes came forward, enough to fill the 14 weight classes and win an NWC title. He systematically upgraded the schedule so that coaches of the traditionally elite programs could no longer charge the Indians weren't wrestling good competition.

Last year, Farmington went 29-2 and flirted with a top 10 ranking in the Norwich Bulletin's coaches poll. The Indians have lost some solid competitors to graduation (Mike Brignano, Jim Coyle and George Robinson primarily) but have a nucleus that will again challenge for a league title.

Some of the names that will headline articles in The Herald this winter are Luke Walsh, Evan Baily and Malcolm Yancey, who climbed to the top of the podium at the Indian Classic on Saturday. Others, like Eric Orrell, will undoubtedly emerge under Misko's sound tutelage.

The evidence that wrestling has graduated from winter pastime to a well-organized program lies in the list of wrestlers who come back. Chris Thomas is one of Misko's hard-working assistant coaches. Coyle, fifth in Class L at 189 last year, was among the dedicated workers at the Classic. Craig Suhre and Matt Jurkiewicz ably administered the tournament under the direction of Misko's colleague Kelly Stokoe, and they did it without the benefit of the software that crashed the night before.

Another assistant who has helped bring credibility to the program is Mike Daniels, a product of the fertile Bristol wrestling scene.

Yes, wrestling is alive and well at Farmington, and it's only going to get better.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

GLOWIAK'S HAPPY AND THE 'CANES LOOK GOOD

New Britain High boys basketball coach Stan Glowiak could have easily hung up his clipboard prior to this season.

His oldest son Brian is captain of the University of Hartford team and having quite an impact. Stan could have hitched his wagon to the Hawks. His younger son Steven, a sophomore at Berlin, will be starting at guard. Stan could have planned his winter around the Hartford and Berlin schedules, but he chose to lend his years of expertise in basketball and leadership to a new group of Hurricanes.

We all know what kind of talent Stan has coached in his years on the New Britain bench. He built a powerhouse that featured Tebucky Jones and Malcolm Yelling. Tebucky's brother Shon and later Roosevelt Lee were two of the most talented basketball players the city has ever seen.

He had a superb Division I (Siena) player in Austin Andrews, 6-7 Eastern European import Darius Lugauskas and 6-8 Jon Plefka who went on to play for Bobby Knight at Texas Tech. He had his son Brian, who holds all New Britain's three-point shooting records, and perhaps the program's finest point guard in Alexis Hernandez. More recently, he harnessed the talents of Windsor transfer Anthony Madden and power forward Daryl Velez.

But when Stan surveyed the talent that he had coming in this season, he saw a group of players willing to put aside their individualism to forge a team. There are no superstars. There is no true center; he lacks height. Yet Stan has bounce in his step, perhaps as much as he's had going into any one of his most productive seasons.

Wednesday's opener against Bristol Central was ample evidence why Stan is still relishing his role. Never before in my 12-plus years of my covering the team have I seen so many capable players doing so many of the right things from the very start of the season.

Point guards Phil Smith and Robert Bryant seem perfectly willing to eschew three-point shots to deliver timely passes. Both are quick and aggressive on defense, and make good decisions when they penetrate the lane.

Stan says that Darius Watson, a 6-4 sophomore who exhibited exceptional post moves as a freshman in varsity waters last year, will be playing some guard and forward as well as center. Central was even more height-challenged than New Britain so Watson was asked to reprise last year's role. The result was 23 points and nine rebounds.

Quashon Moore (6 steals) was at the heart of a defense that bounced back from a lackluster first half to chill the Central offense in the second half. Raheem McKinley played a lot taller than his 6-2 frame because he was willing to play the role that Stan designated for him. The 17 points he scored should convince him that the coach knows his stuff.

Shooting guard Justin Mercak needs to refine his jumper. The rotation was off on his first few shots but he had the backspin going early in the fourth quarter when he knocked down two treys that virtually ended Central's hope of making new coach Tim Barrette's debut a success.

The match-ups indicated that this wasn't a great spot for shooting junior guard Robert McKinnon, but McKinnon made the most of his playing time. He drained a three-pointer and played intelligently.

Mike Szuba, a 6-3 senior, provided some front-court strength off the bench. Evens St. Juste also came off the pines and played well, as did first-year senior Josh Hudson, who will be playing college football next fall.

Robert Mayer, formerly the head man at Plainville and an assistant on successful teams at St. Thomas Aquinas and Berlin, is a welcome addition to an outstanding coaching staff.

Does it sound like a winning combination? Absolutely. Nobody is picking the 'Canes to be playing on championship Saturday in March, but as Stan says, by tournament time they may surprise some people.

Stan has said over and over how much he likes this group, and if they continue to follow his guidance, we all know that chemistry and unity can propel a team beyond expectations. This New Britain team is going to be fun to watch.

Friday, December 7, 2007

NBHS MADRIGAL PERFORMANCE EXCEPTIONAL

As I grow older and, I hope, smarter, I find the urge to wander from the world of sports for relaxation and entertainment more and more.

So on Friday night, my wife and I decided to take in a performance by the New Britain High School madrigal singers at a church hall on the city's west side.

Please bear with me because I may not get the wording perfect but here it goes.

Those who administer the high school's sensational music programs arranged a sumptuous dinner that was integrated into an enjoyable musical and dramatic performance that took a lot of work to arrange. With members of the high school band playing in the background, the madrigal singers performed a holiday-oriented skit punctuated by Christmas carols and medieval music.

Now most of New Britain knows that I have been publicizing the names of the high school's great athletes in The Herald for about 13 years. I have watched them grow from boys and girls into productive men and women.

But Friday's event displayed that there are far more great things going on at NBHS in addition to Paul Morrell's hard-working football team, the incredible basketball programs built by Beryl Piper and Stan Glowiak, Michelle Abraham's successful volleyball program, etc.

I don't know the names of the music program's movers and shakers. I don't know the names of the brilliant youngsters who dedicate themselves to the arts, but I just had to relate the wonderful work they're doing.

The church hall was adorned with a medieval backdrop and a holiday touch. The musicians and singers dressed in medieval garb. The sellout crowd was fixated on their marvelous efforts. The catering was exquisite. The waitresses were dressed in peasant garb.

For three hours, we were swept away to a world that left the problems of modern life outside. The harmonies and the acting were magnificent and if anybody went home hungry, it was their own fault.

We see high school kids on the police blotter. The bad news that all too often comes out of NBHS and high schools everywhere is well-documented. Administrators draw criticism when test scores are low. But trust me when I say that there are great things happening on Mill Street, and they're not always touchdowns, 3-point field goals and home runs.

I'm constantly urging sports fans to get out and support the high school athletes. There many more programs at the school that deserve support, too.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

GIRLS STEP OUT IN FASHION

The girls basketball season is two days old and the quality of play gets better and better.

You have to feel sorry for new New Britain head coach Karen Byrne. She steps into the unfillable shoes of Beryl Piper, meets one of the better teams in the region in Windsor and has to do battle without the availability of one bona fide frontcourt player.

Cassie Bell, as remarkable a person as she is a multifaceted athlete, will be back soon. So will 2006 Class LL tournament star Tyler Kimball, although groin injuries can linger. When they return, New Britain will be as formidable as expected.

Watch out for Wethersfield and Berlin.

Both have their entire squads back from last year when they came of age in the season's waning days. Both have good size. Both have quality depth. Both will have to learn to deal with superior speed if they are to go deep in the tournament.

Coaches Russ Crist of Farmington and Lisa Mandeville of Plainville will have to replace great players. At least Mandeville has Desiree Pina, who gets my vote as the finest female athlete I've had the pleasure to watch in 15 years of high school coverage. Farmington's fortunes will rely on the development of sophomore Emily Kitching, the assertiveness of center Chelsey Marsh, and the emergence of support for that pair and Tessa Ramsay.

Rocky Hill's Pete Egan has a superior front court but will need his ballhandlers to handle the pressure that he'll no doubt face.

However things develop, local folks should go out to their schools of choice and support these fine young athletes.