Thursday, January 31, 2008


Wrestling, like most of the sports our high schoolers play, has a culture all its own.

In some towns, it's just another sport. In towns like Berlin, it falls someplace between politics and religion.

Former Berlin wrestling coach Jim Day, now the school's athletic director, is primarily responsible for establishing the foundation and building one of the more prestigious programs in Connecticut.

On Wednesday, the Redcoats hosted Bacon Academy in a clash between two of the top six teams in the state. The main event was the 171-pound battle between two undefeated gladiators headed for the limelight of the State Open stage -- Berlin's Jon Fiorillo and Sean Burgess from Bacon.

There aren't many seats in Berlin's auxiliary gym but most of them were filled by fans from both schools. Rhythmic chants for each wrestler filled the air as they sought to gain leverage for victory.

Day sat in the corner of the gym away from the grandstands, occasionally offering advice in that high-pitched voice of reason that Berlin wrestlers past and present have tuned in for generations. But Day now plays the program's grandfather to the role of "father" now ably played by new coach Dave Tremblay.

It was Senior Night. Emotion fueled the sixth-ranked Redcoats' charge as they jumped out to a big lead and dismantled Bacon, 39-25. Fiorillo (36-0) turned back Burgess (35-1) in the feature bout, but every Berlin wrestler to a man either posted a hard-earned win or did their best to keep the Bobcats' damage to a minimum.

As the state's fourth-ranked team, Bacon came in figuring this was a match it could win. Burgess, in the wake of his first loss of the year, offered the Bobcats' perspective.

"We know we can pretty much hang with anybody in the state, except maybe Danbury," he said. "We came out, wrestled kind of flat, and Berlin's a great team. We knew nothing was going to be given to us. They wrestled really well."

Tremblay experienced all the benefits of Day's philosophy as a state-class wrestler and a long-time assistant coach. He's proven to be an astute successor to his mentor's roost and knows how Senior Night can urge a grappler to put forth his best effort, even after a lackluster performance in Lowell, Mass., against New England's best on Saturday.

"Two things could have happened," he said. "After this weekend the way we lost, we could have come out here and taken the apple, felt sorry for ourselves. Or we could have done what we did, which was step it up a notch and wrestle well."

Tremblay wasn't expecting to beat either defending N.E. champion Lowell or perennial powerful Timberlane (N.H.), but the Redcoats were uncharacteristically passive in losing to the two out-of-state teams and second-ranked Ledyard by a point.

"Monday and Tuesday practice wasn't easy after this weekend," Tremblay continued. "I didn't expect to go up there and beat (Lowell and Timberlane) but I didn't expect us to lose the way we did. That was my issue.

"If we lose just because they're better, that's fine, but we got out-toughed in certain situations and they took six shots to our none. If we're gonna lose the match, we want to take a piece of them and let them know who they wrestled. We didn't do that on Saturday. ... We wrestled the singlet and not the wrestler."

Two things are certain after the Bacon win.

Primarily, Berlin's wrestlers got the message. Brothers Jack and Cameron Banks (152 and 160 respectively) were exceptional in gaining extra team points by posting major decisions over quality competition.

Ethan Berube's pin of Dan Thompson at 145 gave Berlin an early and vital leg up. Chris Solek's pin at 130 was after Berlin had clinched the match but shouldn't be overlooked.

J.R. Dynak (215) was losing to Matt Mercado when he took advantage of an opening and refused to let his foe escape when he had him on his back. Ryan Bisson's 3-0 win at 125 put Berlin over the top. Give Tremblay credit for choosing the top position for the second period because Bisson earned his points on a nearfall.

Then there are the Redcoats who lost but fought gallantly, mainly senior Jamie Luczynski who dropped a hard-fought 6-4 verdict at 189.

The other message that came out of a magnificent night of wrestling is that Day and his search committee made a great choice in finding a successor.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


My heart goes out to Farmington High girls basketball coach Russ Crist and his team, which has encountered more than its share of heartbreak.

Two years removed from their unbelievable run to within a point of the Class L state championship, the Indians are 3-10 after losing their fourth straight game Tuesday at Fitch-Groton.

Graduation socked the Indians by claiming Joelle Nawrocki (now getting minutes at Fairfield), Laura Burdick (scholarship to West Point where she's recuperating from injury) and Kristin Nissen. That is a natural progression, but misfortune has placed a series of speed bumps in Crist's driveway.

At the top of the heartbreak chart is Sara Sylvester, a highly regarded shooting guard who missed all of last season with post-concussion syndrome. She played in the first two games this season, and led the team in scoring in the opener against East Catholic with 12 points. In the very next game, she suffered a torn knee ligament and will miss her junior year.

As if the troops weren't depleted enough, a stomach bug ran through the team recently and put two starters and a top reserve -- center Chelsey Marsh, guard Ali Palmisano and "sixth girl" Michelle Truncali -- on the "physically unable to perform" list.

"We went to Fitch with eight girls; two of them never even dressed varsity before," said Crist, who has endured basketball's extremes in less than three years on the Farmington bench. "When it rains it pours."

Better days are coming for the Indians, and rallying for a tournament berth would surely help. They'll need to win five of seven. ...

Here's a question for the CCC to bandy about. Why would you schedule your girls and boys basketball games on the same night? Shouldn't you allow supporters of your schools' hoop teams to attend both boys and girls games by scheduling them on different nights?

The Northwest Conference has the right idea by staggering the schedule. Why should the student body, cheerleaders, parents, administrators and teachers have to choose between supporting the boys or the girls?

Last Friday for instance, Southington and New Britain teams were playing against each other at the same time -- the girls at Southington and the boys at New Britain. With attendance at games so much lower than it should be, why make it even more difficult? What about the parents who may have a sophomore on one team and a senior on the other? Shouldn't these kids get the chance to hear the cheers with all the great things their doing on the hardwood?

And here's another reason for scheduling reform, albeit a somewhat selfish one.

After tonight, The Herald will have covered the Plainville girls in six straight games. Parents and fans from other towns must wonder how that can happen when we have nine high schools with multiple sports in each town.

Credit athletic director John Zadnik and coach Lisa Mandeville with having the foresight to put together a unique schedule.

The Blue Devils played at Rocky Hill on Jan. 5, a Saturday night when our coverage options are few. They played Berlin on the following Friday, which is a game we like to cover because we have lots of readers in both towns.

On the following Friday, I watched as Plainville avenged an early season loss at Northwest Catholic. Then on Monday, my colleague Ryan Pipke was at Ivan Wood Gym for the St. Paul game.

Now it's Thursday and I'm heading for Middletown at Plainville in a few hours. Why? Because Plainville staggered its schedule this week, didn't play on the hoop-heavy nights of Tuesday and Friday, and played on nights when our options were limited. It's okay with me. I can't get enough of those foot-long dogs the PHS athletic backers grill up over there.

So if any of you athletic directors and coaches are interested in seeing more games covered by The Herald, schedule some more games on Monday, Thursday and Saturday next year. We want to be there for as many kids as possible but Ryan and I can only be in one place at a time on Tuesdays and Fridays.


Thursday's New Britain Herald ran a story by Fran Morales about a scholarship started in the name of the late New Britain High security guard Robert Post.

I want to check in as being a devotee of Mr. Post, who died of a heart attack during the holidays. Having covered hundreds of games at Chick Shea Gym, I had seen Mr. Post for years as I walked in and out of the gymnasium area. He never said much but always acknowledged me when I greeted him.

But I knew the kids loved him and the teachers, coaches and administrators appreciated him and his meticulous work very much.

I also remember covering his son Robert in football and baseball when he played at Newington High a decade or so ago. My heart goes out to Robert Jr. and all his father's family and friends.

The last time I saw Mr. Post was at a much different venue, and it surely suggested the dedication he had to not only athletes but students following other pursuits.

If you check my list of posts, you will see the article about the New Britain Madrigal Feast. To summarize, the event touched me deeply and opened my eyes to a whole separate world in our high schools aside from sports. The youngsters, the teachers, the administrators and everybody who had anything to do with staging that uplifting event deserve appreciation for the tireless effort and incredible ingenuity that went into it.

My wife and I were waiting for the arrival of her parents in the foyer of the church. I was watching the people arrive, wondering if I'd see anybody I knew. I wondered just how much the athletic domain at NBHS crossed over with the arts. Other than some school administrators, Mr. Post was the only person I saw whom I knew.

Happy to see somebody familiar, I flashed a smile and offered a warm greeting to Mr. Post, knowing full well that he generally said little if anything. But he flashed a broad smile back and wished me happy holidays. I think he was surprised and touched that this sports devotee would have something to do with the arts.

Sadly, I didn't get to see him again.

Mr. Post's presence is greatly missed around Chick Shea Gym, and I'm sure in many other venues associated with NBHS. I didn't know him well, but the support he provided the students was very clear. I hope the group that has established the scholarship enjoys great success in placing Robert Post's name in perpetuity. How appropriate that even in death, Mr. Post will still be helping the youngsters he loved.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Just when you think you've seen everything ...

The Plainville High girls basketball team had a chance to avenge its lone setback of the season Friday night.

Northwest Catholic, coached by New Britain's Karl Herbert, is a deep and talented group that will be heard from come tournament time. After beating Plainville in overtime, 60-53, at home on Dec. 7 -- the second game of the season -- Northwest lost its only game, a 61-56 verdict to once-beaten Bulkeley.

Plainville, as is generally the case, isn't blessed with much depth. While the talent may be a bit thin, I prevail on the wisdom of the Blue Devils' longtime manager "Matty Matt" Gingras as to what makes the team special.

Matty Matt says with a child-like sing-song lilt in his voice, "We got Desiree and you don't."

If anybody needs an introduction, Matty Matt is referring to Desiree Pina, Plainville's senior guard who packs more pound-for-pound talent onto her ultra-athletic 5-foot-5 frame than any player I've ever seen.

Northwest ran defender after defender at Pina to no avail. They consistently bounced her off the Ivan Wood Gymnasium hardwood. Sometimes she seemed to have tears in her eyes as she peeled herself off the floor. Once, she laid there a little longer and I'm not sure I've never prayed so hard for somebody to get up.

Pina scored 26 points and gathered in 12 rebounds as the Blue Devils gradually built a double-digit lead and held on for a 45-37 win over the Indians. Her teammates kept the ball in her hands as much as possible.

Defense was the focal point for coach Lisa Mandeville's club. Defensive savvy enabled Plainville to defuse Northwest's propensity for creating easy buckets off steals.

"They score a ton of points in transition," Mandeville said. "They like to run. They got (60) shots off (to Plainville's 35) and that wasn't by accident."

Defensive savvy. That's what Mandeville, her husband Lou, Jen (Gombotz) Micowski and Steve Compson stress. In Pina they have a no-doubt All-Stater. In sophomore Alyssa Martino, they have a smart, underrated star-in-waiting. In Val Caron, Alex Petit and Sarah Dinda, they have an unselfish trio that recognizes and appreciates who butters their toast.

"We sent two kids back when we were shooting," Lisa said in regard to slowing Northwest's transition tidal wave. "Sometimes it looks like our kids are shooting the ball and not going in for offensive rebounds. They absolutely were not. We have three people rebounding but we're small. You need to be able to get up the floor and defend, and I don't think we gave up many chippies."

Martino, a long-distance left-handed shooter, scored 19 points. She is particularly accurate on the inbounds play from underneath where she pops straight out, Pina lofts the ball to her and she has space to square up and let fly.

Dinda, Caron and Petit combined for zero points. That does not diminish their worth.

"They're not the ones who are always high-scorers and stuff but they do the most work on our offense," Pina said. "They're always setting screens, working hard boxing out, posting up so hard.

"Sarah Dinda is unbelievable. She works her butt off down there. She just deserves so much credit."

Said Herbert: "You don't see those girls doing anything that they're not capable of doing. They're not going out there taking three-point shots, they're not trying to take the game over. They realize that (Pina) is probably the best player in our league and what they do is play within themselves and within a scheme.

"They didn't score but they were major contributors."

The Devils kept their offensive mistakes to a minimum, especially in the face of the defensive pressure that Northwest exerts.

"That's what we work on in practice. We make sure we're strong with the ball," Pina said.

Herbert said that if somebody told him before the game that two Plainville players would score all the team's points, it would have been to Northwest's great advantage. Herbert citing the defense is sweet music to Mandeville's ears.

"They played zone and limited our looks from the outside," he said. "They knew who are shooters were and expanded the zone to cover our shooters when we had them in the game. they made it difficult to get free shots off. We got shots but they were always contested."

Tributes all around to the Devils. They don't have the height to force the ball into the low post. They don't have the across-the-board athleticism like Northwest that enables them to press from end to end, from jump ball to game-ending buzzer. They don't have an array of downtown bombers like East Catholic who can tickle the twine regularly.

If you want to know what they DO have, see Matty Matt.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Placing a forefinger on the pulse of sports in the greater New Britain area ...
High school football in central Connecticut was well-represented in the NFL playoffs.
One-time Bloomfield High All-Stater Dwight Freeney plays for the Indianapolis Colts, although he was placed on injured reserve Nov. 14 with a left foot injury. Freeney, 27, who played his college ball at Syracuse, is in his sixth season.
Freeney and his parents, Hugh and Joy, are good friends with Newington High girls basketball coach Al Ford, who coached Dwight in baseball at Bloomfield.
Freeney’s high school teammate Andrew Pinnock is a 5-10, 250-pound fullback for the San Diego Chargers, making me wonder who their high school coach and former New Britain mentor Jack Cochran was rooting for Sunday. Pinnock, 27, played collegiately at South Carolina.
Former Plainville High star Niko Koutouvides, a 6-2, 238-pound linebacker, is in his fourth year with the Seattle Seahawks. Koutouvides, 26, was a star at Purdue after prepping at Milford Academy.
Koutouvides’ parents Stelios and Niki own The Stonewell Restaurant on Route 6 in Farmington, where Niko bussed tables as a high school lad.
Ex-NBHS back Justise Hairston is on the Colts’ practice squad, and if Tebucky Jones hadn’t torn a pectoral muscle in 2005, he may have been with the Patriots.
Not bad for a state with a dismal football reputation, and an area that many pundits feel lags behind New Haven and Fairfield counties in the state. ...
The area isn’t exactly attracting the pollsters’ interest in boys hoop this winter either.
From what I’ve seen, Windsor and Northwest Catholic are the region’s two best teams. I haven’t had the chance to see East Catholic yet, but Luke Reilly’s club has won six straight since losing to undefeated New London at the Doc Hurley Tournament on December 22.
Windsor is a well-balanced, defense-first juggernaut led by 6-6 Adrian Satchell. The Warriors had close calls against E.O. Smith (57-53) and Bristol Central (75-71), but bludgeoned their other eight foes.
Northwest Catholic snapped Farmington’s 23-game home winning streak Thursday to raise its record to 7-1. Coach John Mirabelli’s West Hartford squad, with St. Joseph’s-bound guard Chris Prescott scoring about 30 points per game, lost at East Catholic in overtime, 58-53 on Jan. 5.
East is 7-1 after surviving a one-point battle at St. Paul Thursday.
Most of the state’s sports writers, however, don’t believe that any of the local teams are in the class of New Haven powers Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse, FCIAC monster Trinity Catholic and the upper echelon of the Naugatuck Valley League. ...
Girls basketball pollsters generally are of the mind that New Britain belongs behind Holy Cross and Mercy. I beg to differ.
New Britain’s loss came in the first game when Tyler Kimball (groin) and Cassie Bell (car accident) were unavailable and coach Karen Byrne had to turn to a trio of untested underclassmen to do battle with Windsor’s widebodies.
Nobody has come remotely close to the Hurricanes since.
Holy Cross competes in the NVL, which offers little opposition. The ’Canes have beaten Mercy in the tournament the last two years and the teams aren’t remarkably different than they were in March.
If anybody can beat the ’Canes, I’d venture to say it’s Bulkeley, and the Bulldogs fell double-digits short when they gave it their first shot.
Two straight Class LL championships, a surefire Division I player in Symone Roberts, an vastly underrated center in Tyler Kimball and hustling Sarah Sideranko haven’t been enough to persuade the voters who’s best. I guess it’s going to take a third straight title. ...
The biggest enigma on the girls’ side is Berlin.
On paper, the Redcoats have great balance. Katelyn Zarotney, Kaitlyn Bovee and Sarah Byrnes have good size and genuine frontcourt skill. Meagan Guy, Kristin Legenza and Alexys Vazquez are good backcourt players.
But Berlin has lost five straight since beating one of the FCIAC’s best teams – St. Joseph – in the first round of the Wethersfield Christmas Tournament. Can the Redcoats recover and play to their potential by tournament time? We’ll see. ...
Plainville is the polar opposite of Berlin. The Devils have one of the state’s finest female athletes ever in Desiree Pina, but one player does not a team make. Alyssa Martino has emerged as a true star while Alex Petit, Val Caron and Sarah Dinda are role players who play marvelously within themselves.
Coach Lisa Mandeville is the first to give all the credit to the kids, but she will admit that in her husband Lou, Jennifer Micowski (Gombotz) and Steve Compson, the Devils have a A-1 coaching staff. ...
Farmington has struggled all season. Coach Russ Crist knew the loss of Division I players Joelle Nawrocki and Laura Burdick would take a toll, but the crusher was losing Sarah Sylvester to a knee injury.
Sylvester, a victim of post-concussion syndrome that wiped away her sophomore year, led the Indians in scoring in the season’s first game. She went down in the second and the Indians have not been able to replace her scoring ability from the perimeter. ...

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Since arriving on the local sports reporting scene in 1991, I have spent most of my winters covering basketball and wrestling.

I knew nothing about wrestling in 1991-92 when I began covering the sport for The Bristol Press. I was a stringer back then and took whatever assignments I could get, including writing a feature about (are you ready for this) evening gowns.

I dutifully immersed myself into wrestling, a sport that few writers relish covering, and received a marvelous education from former Bristol-area coaches Dennis Siegmann and Mike Daniels (Central), Bob Germain (Eastern) and Jerry Daniels (Terryville). I was twice honored by the CIAC wrestling committee as wrestling sports writer of the year, the second award coming after I moved over to New Britain and connected with more great coaches like Jim Day (Berlin), Ed Smith (New Britain) and Pete Sepko (Southington).

In the meantime, I rarely got the chance to cover scholastic hockey. After all, our top towns (ciruclation-wise) of New Britain, Berlin, Plainville and Southington did not have varsity teams, and hockey's epicenter has always been the shoreline.

I had the opportunity to cover Farmington's Division II championship game in 2005. I had occasional chances to see some excellent Newington teams, but I have never been able to really delve into the local scene the way I'd like.

On Saturday, I went over to the Newington Arena for just the second time ever to cover Farmington/Northwest Catholic -- a 5:40 p.m. face-off.

The grandstands were nearly full with many others standing behind the glass. Parents of the student-athletes at both schools were there in force. Athletes from other sports -- most notably members of the outstanding Northwest basketball team -- were on hand to support their classmates.

As the game neared a conclusion, fans from Newington and Wethersfield began arriving for the second game.

The atmosphere was warm (even if the rink area wasn't). The excellent concession stand was doing a brisk business. Farmington played well, scoring six of the first seven goals and holding off a very resolute Northwest team, 7-4.

I enjoyed the game immensely and I hope to cover hockey more often as the winter season winds toward a conclusion.

Friday, January 4, 2008


The exponential improvement in the quality of top-notch girls basketball in Connecticut was on display at Chick Shea Gym Friday night.

Bulkeley at New Britain. The rivalry has been going strong for a decade, but the current crop of players exhibit superior strength and durability. The gap between the girls and boys product has diminished.

I like to get to where I'm going early so I made sure I'd see at least some of the junior varsity game. Believe me when I tell you that the understudies in these two proud programs could give more than half the varsity teams in the state a run. New Britain's Emily Polkowski, sporting a major shiner that must have been delivered by a stray elbow in a previous game, was sensational in scoring 23 points in a Hurricane victory.

The first quarter of the varsity game featured New Britain riding an emotional high to an unthinkable 20-3 lead. Every Herald sports reader and Division I coaches around the nation have known about NB junior sensation Symone Roberts for awhile now. She's always been fast and she's always been smart, but she's better than ever now.

I saw Roberts against Windsor on opening night Dec. 5. She scored 21 points in New Britain's only loss despite suffering one of her poorer shooting nights. I didn't see the 'Canes during their subsequent eight-game tear and the difference in her game is stunning.

The fluidity of her moves on her lightning-like thrusts to the hole was captivating. She is finishing her shots so much better, exhibiting a soft touch off the glass and a variety of moves that allow her to thread her shots through the maze of arms. No player that I've ever seen has been able to harness the kind of speed she possesses.

The talents and desire of her backcourt runningmate Sarah Sideranko may not come through in box scores but she complements Roberts to a tee. Her floor burns are a testament to her hustle. She locates Roberts flying down the floor like Tom Brady zeroes in on Randy Moss, garnering assists by the bushel.

And sophomore center Tyler Kimball hit the ground running after missing the first four games. She consistently outmuscled taller and graceful Bulkeley center Samantha Sanchez. She has the agility to put the ball to the floor and leave frontcourt defenders standing still. She scored 16 points and grabbed 16 rebounds while getting Sanchez in foul trouble. With Sanchez forced to sit much of the third quarter, Bulkeley could not put together enough of a run to get any closer than nine points.

And how fortunate the girls are to have a coach like Karen Byrne come in on the heels of the legendary Beryl Piper's departure. As I overheard several observers say, Byrne guides and teaches like the college coach she once was, and like Piper will probably land another college job down the line if she so desires.

The only possible downfall for New Britain is depth. Monika Malec and Cassie Bell round out the starting five. Sophomore Shakoya Samuels was the only other player Byrne used. The hope is that Heather O'Bright, a promising freshman frontcourt player, can bounce back from a head injury and contribute. Maybe Polkowski can adjust to the speed and power of varsity ball to help out, too.

But the fact is that New Britain has the stuff to win a third straight Class LL title and having the chance to witness the journey is a treasure.