Monday, February 25, 2008

THE OPEN DOOR CLOSES

Luke Walsh left the spotlight of the mat at the New Haven Athletic Center quickly.

His State Open final against Charlie Costanzo of Danbury Sunday afternoon didn’t go the way the Farmington wrestler had planned. Costanzo went on the offensive from the start and prevented Walsh from wrestling his match. A pair of escapes was all he could muster in dropping a 4-2 decision, just his third defeat in 51 matches this year.

Walsh walked hurriedly from the main mat to a side mat behind the row of chairs where the officials held court. Most eyes were upon the triumphant Costanzo, a sophomore sensation in the incredibly long line of great Danbury wrestlers. Walsh was left alone to his thoughts, which undoubtedly centered on his window of opportunity slamming shut.

Walsh, and to a slightly lesser extent Evan Baily, Eric Orrell and Ben Brody, was the centerpiece of coach Eric Misko’s upward projection of a once-dormant Farmington program. Unlike Danbury, where wrestling reigns as the city’s proudest avenue to sporting supremacy, Farmington has been a difficult place to build a top-10 level team.

Had Walsh won, he would have been the first Farmington wrestler since the brothers Lingenfelter – Mike at 112 pounds and Jerry at 132 – to bring home Open gold since 1982. That accomplishment will now have to wait until another time.

Walsh was one of three local wrestlers to reach the brink, only to confront the specter of defeat at the state’s premier event.

T.J. Magnoli of Rocky Hill (145) was locked in an even bout only to yield a takedown with five seconds left to Derek Fish of Hand-Madison.

Trevor Ritchie of Southington, relegated to the second slot in Class LL at 160 the week before, hit the high note against previously unbeaten Jon Fiorillo of Berlin in Saturday’s semifinals. His bitter end came with his powerful frame wrapped tightly in a cradle by Ron Thompson of Westhill-Stamford, pinned at 1:03.

There were no Berlin wrestlers on center stage. Bristol, arguably central Connecticut’s wrestling hotbed, had just one competitor in the finals (Central heavyweight Tom Chambers) and he was pinned, too.

This Open belonged to Danbury, which has ruled the state since 1997. It belonged to eastern Connecticut with the ECC claiming seven of the 14 individual titles.

The Northwest Conference had one champion in Middletown’s 215-pounder Richard Perry, who did an Ozzie Smith flip after holding off injured Simsbury star Marcus Firze. The CCC had the heavyweight slot locked up with Chambers facing Resh Stanley of Weaver – the league’s lone champion.

Given how the cards played out, the local trio had nothing to be ashamed of. They had tremendous seasons for their respective teams and should have a special place in the hearts of their communities.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

WRESTLING BUILDS MORE THAN CHAMPIONS

I've heard plenty about the lack of dedication and loyalty our younger generation demonstrates.

Yes, most of them aren't quite sure what life's all about. They think they're indestructable. They thrive on challenging authority. They appear to be listening when we speak to them, yet we know our advice is going in one ear and out the other.

How do I know? I was there once. I woke up one morning when I was in my 30s and shook my head. Wow, so that's what Mom and Dad meant.

One aspect of the education we provide our youngsters that fuels their voyage toward maturity are interscholastic sports. They encourage the student-athletes to work together toward a common goal, respect their opponents and acknowledge rules and regulations, which help us keep order in our society.

The team sports are especially geared to interpret our messages, but the sport that annually shows such great merit yet sometimes slips by unnoticed is wrestling.

Wrestlers have to maintain their weight, yet eat well so they have the strength and stamina to deal with their bi-weekly challenges. They have to be especially aware of hygiene, with skin ailments like impetigo and ringworm always lurking.

The mental and physical challenges are so acute that I sometimes wonder how coaches find enough kids willing to sacrifice their time at the mall, extra-large orders of fries, jobs and interpersonal relationships to commit to a team.

There were four gyms full of such dedicated student-athletes Friday night and Saturday when the state scholastic wrestling sub-culture convened at Trumbull (Class LL), Bristol Central (L), Windham (M) and St. Bernard (S) high schools for their respective tournaments.

From a local perspective, we have champions.

Southington’s Doug Fontaine continued his family’s rich wrestling legacy by claiming the 103-pound title in ‘LL.’ Berlin’s Jon Fiorillo – intense, focused and mature beyond his years – continued his quest for an unbeaten season by blowing by four foes at 160.

Farmington’s Luke Walsh put another feather in the war bonnet of Indians coach Eric Misko by winning an ‘L’ title at 119.

In Windham, Plainville’s Mario Acca powered his way to the 160 title, setting up perhaps another encounter with Fiorillo at the State Open in New Haven next Saturday.

And there’s T.J. Magnoli of Rocky Hill grabbing his second 145-pound ‘S’ crown in two years, and probably the most overlooked of the group because Hill was down as a team this year. Magnoli’s coach Joe Gaboury says it best about his star and the sport in general.

“T.J. is a great wrestler because he has completely dedicated himself to the pursuit of excellence in the sport,” Gaboury said. “He never stops learning and growing in the sport. T.J. puts in the time to be a champion.”

But it’s not only about the champions.

There are the dedicated placewinners and future champions like Justin Roncaioli of Berlin. He could have quit when he lost in the championship round but he ran the grueling consolation gauntlet and captured team points by taking sixth place.

Others who earned respect through similar performances are Berlin’s Cameron Banks, Ben Brody of Farmington and his young teammate Sean O’Connell (sophomore) who went 4-2 to take fifth at 189.

How about Plainville freshman Matthew Tanner, who battled his way to third place in Class M at 112? Do you think Matthew learned something Saturday that he will take with him the rest of his life?

Berlin sophomore Ryan Bisson, New Britain junior Nick Giallucca and Southington senior Joe Dupuis, who made a breathtaking run in his final state tournament, are also on the list.

To these warriors, I tip my cap. These, my friends, are our future leaders, and the sport of wrestling can sure build them. They respect their opponents, the decisions of the referees and the judgment of some of the best coaches in the realm of scholastic sports.

Monday, February 11, 2008

CCC POLICIES WARRANT CHANGE

The CCC has taken a step forward in its administration of the girls basketball tournament, which begins for three local teams on Saturday, but critics still abound.

Count me among them.

Up until this season, the first- and second-place teams in each of the four divisions qualified for the tournament. It was pointed out that deserving teams were getting left out and lesser teams were getting in because the third-place team in the North, for example, was obviously better than the second-place team in the East.

This year, the league designated the four division champions as seeds 1 through 4. Seeds 5 through 8 go to the teams with the best winning percentages in conference play, regardless of where they finished in their respective divisions.

The new format is a windfall for Southington, which had been relegated to third place in a North Division that includes last year’s Class LL finalists, New Britain and Manchester. Southington passed Manchester in the standings this season, so Manchester benefits from the new format.
Here is a look at the composite CCC standings heading into the final week of the season:

Team Div. CCC Ovl. CCC %
1. *New Britain 9-0 17-1 18-1 .944
2. *Bulkeley 9-0 16-1 17-1 .941
3. Fermi 5-2 14-2 16-2 .875
4. #Wethersfield 8-1 13-2 16-2 .867
5. Southington 7-2 14-3 16-3 .823
6. *E.O. Smith 7-0 14-3 14-4 .823
7. #Windsor 8-1 12-6 12-7 .667
8. Manchester 6-3 11-6 12-7 .647
Newington 6-3 11-7 11-7 .611
Bloomfield 4-5 11-8 11-8 .579
Bristol Eastern 7-2 9-8 9-10 .529

* Division winners, automatic top-4 seed
# Tied for CCC West lead

Now here’s where the situation becomes convoluted.

New Britain is the champion of the North. The Hurricanes are ranked second to undefeated Holy Cross-Waterbury in the New Haven Register Writers’ Poll. Personally, I think they should be No. 1 and I voted that way.

Bulkeley, which I believe should be second in the state, has wrapped up the South. E.O. Smith has clinched the East, but Wethersfield and Windsor are tied for the lead in the West.
Instead of seeding the division champions by winning percentage – obviously the best way to go – the CCC designates seeds on a rotating basis. This year, the East champion (E.O. Smith) gets the top seed. The West champion (Windsor or Wethersfield) gets the second seed, while New Britain is third and Bulkeley fourth.

So instead of the regular season’s best team – New Britain – getting the eighth seed (probably Manchester), the ’Canes host the sixth seed, which can still be one of several teams. Why should the team that earns the sixth seed have to face the league’s best team while the eighth team gets E.O. Smith, which has lost to Windsor and Manchester?

Here’s where it gets even crazier. Why should Wethersfield be subject to a coin flip to determine whether it or Windsor wins the West? The Eagles beat Windsor by 14 points in December, but lost the rematch by one on a last-second miracle shot on Feb. 1.

Wethersfield coach Brian Fanelli has a pretty good argument. The Eagles have a better conference record and have had the better of it in the two head-to-head games. But Windsor coach Vin Cianfarani has a worthy argument, too.

The CCC formulates a regular-season schedule based on performance over the past two seasons. Windsor has been among the state’s best for awhile. Wethersfield struggled for several seasons before blossoming last year and soaring this year. Thus, Windsor had to play a 1-2 schedule, facing New Britain and Bulkeley once, Manchester and E.O. Smith twice. The Eagles played a 3-4 schedule: Glastonbury (9-10) and Bristol Central (2-16) twice, Southington and Rockville (8-10) once.

Windsor suffered the bumps and bruises of the tougher schedule, but is better prepared to compete in the state tournament because of those challenges.

Wethersfield compiled the better record by fattening up on weaker teams in a season where Fanelli would have liked a game against a New Britain or Manchester to better prepare his club for a tourney run. The West, outside of Windsor and Bloomfield before it was decimated by academic problems, was notoriously weak this year (Hall, Conard and Weaver are a combined 12-42), which exacerbated Fanelli’s dilemma.

Prior to using the formula, coaches were allowed to make their own out-of-division schedules. Fanelli is not pleased with the formula mechanism. He surely would have liked to dump one or both games against futile Bristol Central for an opportunity to lock horns with New Britain or Manchester, something he may have been able to do if the CCC hadn’t intervened and set everybody’s interdivisional slate in stone.

“I’ll play anybody once but why do I have to play them twice,” Fanelli said. “I would like to seek my own games. I know the strengths and weaknesses of the conference. In other years when the West was stronger, I could have gotten teams more comparable to the talent I had. Why should the kids be penalized?”

He said he’d rather be 15-5 with games against New Britain and Bulkeley rather than a projected 18-2 (games against Newington and Weaver pending).

“The ultimate goal is to win the state championship, not the CCC West,” he said. “It’s not my fault that we didn’t play the best teams. I wanted to.”

The seeds will fall into place this week as the teams finish out the schedule. With star forward Heather Lyhne back from a knee injury after missing 10 games, the Eagles are hoping for an extended run in the CCC Tournament and a shot at the Class L title.

The CIAC girls basketball committee is employing a new tournament formula similar to the boys this year. In its never-ending quest to meet the problems posed by the schools with no borders, schools like East Catholic, Mercy, Trinity Catholic, Career-New Haven and Holy Cross have been “promoted” to Class LL.

Fanelli and the Eagles have a shot in Class L, so it’s understandable why he has a problem with the way the CCC has administered its schedule and league tournament. I understand Windsor’s situation, but I agree with Fanelli. The current format is flawed.

So within the next few years, here’s hoping that the league: 1) gives coaches and athletic directors more leeway in shaping their regular-season schedules; 2) seeds the CCC tournament field totally on the basis of conference winning percentage rather than the inane rotating process that arbitrarily shuffles the division champions.

And why did the CCC become heavy-handed in shaping teams’ interdivisional schedules? Believe it or not, Jack Cochran is the reason in large part.

When Cochran was at New Britain, most of the CCC refused to play him (which, by the way, is going on in the ECC now that Jack is at New London). New Britain AD Len Corto, you may recall, couldn’t get enough games to fill the slate and had to schedule out-of-state games against Xaverian (Mass.) and Holy Trinity (N.Y.).

The only way the CCC could assure New Britain games was to draft the formula. It has worked out for football, but why did the league see fit to include all the other sports. Basketball wasn’t broken, so why fix it? Soccer, volleyball and the rest of the sports weren’t broken either.

Let’s keep the formula for football and scrap it in all the other sports. Let’s do what’s best for the kids.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

MY BLUE HEAVEN (part 2)

As an addendum to my previous post, I wanted to share a few final thoughts on the Super Bowl.

My two keys coming into the game were: 1) The Giants defense had to put more pressure on Brady than it did on Brett Favre and Romo in the previous playoff games; 2) The offense needed to establish the running game to loosen up the Patriots defense.

The other obvious key was to avoid turnovers, but that qualifies as a no-brainer.

Credit the Pats' front seven but the Giants never did fully establish the running game. Brandon Jacobs made something out of nothing several times and Ahmed Bradshaw showed the makings as a terrific rusher, but the running game was pretty much a non-factor.

But the Giants defense. Wow. We all knew about the great Michael Strahan, and Osi Umenyiora is the lone Giant headed to Sunday's Pro Bowl, but Justin Tuck and Jay Alford were excellent, too. I don't want to forget Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins, who also did their parts, albeit not as dramatically as the others.

I've heard relatively few talk of the linebackers, with the possible exception of Antonio Pierce, but Kawika Mitchell turned in a superb effort.

One reason I had the ultimate confidence in the Giants going in was due to recent performance of both clubs.

Osi said the Giants would have beaten New England in Week 17 had a playoff berth depended on it. I think that's a fair statement. The Week 17 game is at the heart of this analysis. The Giants were outstanding, save two late possessions where Eli threw a pick and they stumbled their way to third-and-too-long.

Going back further, the Pats had close calls against the Ravens and Eagles. They weren't the same juggernaut they were earlier in the year. I got the feeling that they didn't particularly care for playing against the NFC East face-busters.

Meanwhile, the Giants imparted their run-first, defense-oriented approach on the likes of Tony Romo and Brett Favre. They silenced two of the better quarterbacks in the game, and the two most explosive offenses in the NFC. Granted the Pats are on a different level than Dallas and Green Bay, but it's human nature that nobody likes to get sacked, pounded and hounded. Tom Brady, it turns out, is human.

So what of the future? The Giants are the third youngest team in the NFL. The elder statesmen -- Strahan and punter Jeff Feagles -- are likely to give it a go for at least one more year. And Eli has reached a higher plane just four years into a career that WILL bring more Super Bowls.

GM Reese, who did such a terrific job in his first draft, will no doubt shore up the secondary, add a breakaway receiver and keep the big boys on both lines coming.

The top of the world is a great place to find your perspective.

Monday, February 4, 2008

MY BLUE HEAVEN

As a rule, I don’t like to blog about events and beats I do not cover, but Super Bowl Sunday 2008 was indeed extremely special to me in a number of ways.
By now you know I’m a Giants fan, not the bandwagon-jumper who went along for an anti-Patriots ride, but as true blue a Giants fan as there can be.
My love of the Giants and traditional autumn Sunday afternoons with the family dates back to the earliest days of my life. I cannot say I remember the day Alan Ameche of the Baltimore Colts bulled across the goal-line from the 1-yard line for the touchdown that sank the Giants in overtime, 23-17, in the 1958 NFL Championship game, but I sure enough know where I was.
Sundays were always spent at my father’s parents apartment in New Haven near Edgewood Park. Grandpa Julius was an avid Giants fan, and we’d always huddle around his black-and-white television to get a glimpse of the game while Grandma Ida and Mom would work their wonders in the kitchen.
Dad always told me about listening intently to the Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers game of Dec. 6, 1942 on the radio with Grandpa when the broadcast was interrupted with the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Dad said he knew right then and there that he would soon be off to fight in World War II, which he did nobly through the end of the European theater.
I was 6-years-old in 1958 and the memory just doesn’t extend that far back but I absolutely recall the Giants teams of the early 1960s that mesmerized us week to week, lost title games to Green Bay (37-0 in 1961 and 16-7 in the 1962) and then to the Bears (14-10 in 1963).
How I revered middle linebacker Sam Huff, quarterback Y.A. Tittle and end Del Shofner; back Frank Gifford, tight end Kyle Rote and Connecticut’s own Andy Robustelli in the D line. Pat Summerall was kicking field goals for those teams long before he ever called a kickoff with John Madden, or kicked his alcohol problem.
The 1962 championship game was a particularly traumatic time. I was forced to go to a friend’s bowling/birthday party at the old Whitney Grove Lanes in New Haven while my Giants were losing a tough one. I remember throwing the ball down the alley, not caring what I knocked down and running over to the TV set in the bar.
What followed were 24 years of utter frustration from the “Good-bye, Allie (Sherman)” years of the mid-to-late 60s followed by the excruciating tenure of Alex Webster through 1973 and the horrible terms of Bill Arnsparger and John McVay that tortured Dad and I through the rest of the 1970s.
The Giants were laughingstocks. It seemed they would never get to the Super Bowl until Ray Perkins initiated the reversal that Bill Parcells ran with in the 1986 and 1990 seasons.
Without going any deeper into the history, let’s just say that any mention of “Giants fan” was always modified by “long-suffering.” On to Super Bowl XLII.
My son Jason was an innocent infant not yet four months old when the Giants beat Denver in Super Bowl XXI, but family tradition influenced his rooting interests, too. He’s not so innocent now but he and his old dad spent hours decorating the living room for Sunday.
There was the old Giants pennant with the sketch of a quarterback wearing Tittle’s number 14. Headlines from the now defunct Giants NewsWeekly shouted out the Super Bowl wins over the Broncos and the Buffalo Bills in the “wide right” blessing from 1991.
A cap and two tee-shirts heralded the present Giants for crashing through three favored playoff foes on the road to even make it to the altar of the glimmering Patriots. Jason even had a string of Christmas lights capped with little Giants helmets and a Christmas stocking with the familiar NY. The atmosphere was magic.
We believed. We knew they could do it. When they did, there were Jason and I embracing like we hadn’t since he hit his first Little League homer. I couldn’t hold back the tears. I’m even having trouble now. I stuck my head out the door and bellowed, “Patriots? Patriots who?” A few too many liqueurs? Maybe.
Jason danced in the street. I watched replay after replay of the game’s big plays and sopped up every word of the glorious interviews.
I was particularly moved by the owners’ commentary. John Mara called the victory the greatest in franchise history. Steve Tisch and his family reveled in the splendor. John’s father Wellington, the beloved Giants owner, died in 2005. Steve’s father Bob died in 2005. My loving father Herbert Lipshez died in 2005.
So when you see me wearing the spoils of my dearest moment in sports in the form of a cap or shirt, I hope you won’t think it childish for a 55-year-old guy.
It represents what the Giants have meant to my family. That’s what they mean to me. That’s what they’ll hopefully mean to Jason’s son (or daughter) when that blessed time comes to make it five generations.
My family and friends watched as I inched up to the edge of the couch for Eli’s magnificent moment. Was that Dad and Grandpa Julius who kept their fingers fixed on the ball that David Tyree miraculously caught? Did they help Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs to get his feet tangled, allowing Plaxico to make the easy catch? You can’t tell me they didn’t.
The assembly stared at me with complete shock when they saw how intense I was as if to say, “Hey, it’s just a football game.” But this was more than a football game, baby. The tears I shed should stamp my ticket for Big Blue Heaven.