Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The story of former St. Paul/Goodwin Tech football player Nathan Sirois that appeared in the New Britain Herald Wednesday has as luminous a silver lining as any I’ve ever written.

On the surface, it’s sad, something of an indictment of a system that allows a young athlete to slip between the cracks, denied of a chance to play.

Sirois, a junior at Goodwin Tech, wants to play so badly. The CIAC, which makes the rules, absolutely cannot make any exceptions no matter how politically correct they may be.

Sirois certainly isn’t the only Goodwin Tech student who would like to play football. Eight others still at Goodwin are in the same boat having played at St. Paul when the co-op was in effect. They could have transferred to St. Paul or a public school if football was that much of a priority.

Goodwin starting a program is a thought. Cheney Tech-Manchester split from East Catholic and began its own program under the auspices of Berlin’s Bill Baccaro, now back at East Catholic. Abbott Tech-Danbury has a team as does Wolcott Tech-Torrington. So do Wilcox Tech-Meriden and Platt Tech-Milford. Bullard-Havens Tech of Bridgeport has had one for years.

Apparently Goodwin does not have the support within the school to get one going and it is a major undertaking that needs support across the board.
Several vocational/technical schools remain in cooperative partnerships. Ellis Tech-Danielson is in a tri-op with Putnam and Tourtellotte-Thompson. Norwich Tech is partnered with St. Bernard and Windham Tech with Coventry. O’Brien Tech-Ansonia is in with Derby.

Goodwin is unfortunate that it is surrounded by big towns and cities. None of the area public schools are small enough that they require a co-op to stay in the gridiron business. Alas, there’s nothing left to do but feel sorry for Sirois, but don’t feel too sorry.

The Plainville boy is on the road to a career in manufacturing technology. He is smart and very determined. There isn’t a bitter bone in his body.

Sirois is the perfect example of the scholastic athletic system doing exactly what those who established and nurtured it for the last 100 or so years had hoped it would do. Team sports offer dynamics that enable players to form a cohesive group under the guidance of caring adults. They discover how success comes to those who work together with determination and efficiency toward a common goal.

Congratulations are in order all the way around.

Goodwin Tech wasn’t founded to win state championships. Sirois is a fine example of why the state had the vision to establish a forum for alternative education. Everybody can’t go to college to become doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers. We need young men like Sirois and everybody at Goodwin who had a hand in his development should be mighty proud.

The CIAC may loom as the villain in this production but think again. Rules were established and its committees are living by them as well they must.

St. Paul coach Jude Kelly has done everything possible to nurture Sirois and then some. The woman in the St. Paul booster club – unfortunately I did not ask her name – deserves credit for calling Sirois’ plight to my attention.

Include Goodwin athletic director Roger Pulito, who has been doing great things for kids for years. And Pulito told me how hard his colleague at St. Paul – David Dennehy – worked on Sirois’ behalf.

Sure I wish something could be done to foster the miracle of Sirois lacing up some shoulder pads and getting the chance to play again. He had so much courage to discuss his feelings with me so I could relate them to you. But the young man will learn from the experience and be fine in the long run.

If you’ll allow, I’d like to use this as a segue to what I continue to see at New Britain.

I’m not likely to give much attention to any of the cowards who file their critical anonymous diatribes after our stories on the website but the continued assault on New Britain football coach Paul Morrell is beyond absurd.

Nothing short of a state championship will put an end to it, but we simply cannot judge Morrell or any other coach on postseason accomplishments. Everybody in the city enjoyed what Jack Cochran brought to the NBHS trophy case. Cochran, in spite of his well-chronicled down side, probably possesses the finest football mind of anyone to draw X’s and O’s in state history.

Morrell isn’t the only coach in America who hasn’t won football games at a .935 clip. But he has won far more than he’s lost (even Notre Dame wouldn’t fire a guy who is 36-17) and he’s won even more of the battles that don’t get into the sports pages. He’s done a lot of great things for a lot of kids. Doesn’t that count for something?
Let the man coach.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


The sun shone brightly through a welcome autumn breeze on Tuesday, lighting the path for what we hope will be an outstanding fall season for our high school student-athletes and their teams.

It sure didn’t start out that way and it was due to something completely out of their control.

The New Britain High soccer teams were denied the chance to begin their season as planned when a Weaver administrator contacted athletic director Len Corto and told him the squads from the Hartford school were not going to show.

The first reaction on Corto’s part was anger. He knew how hard his soccer coaches Margaret Coates (girls) and Matt Denecour (boys) had worked for this moment and it was taken from them without a viable explanation.

The first reaction on my part was anger, too. The deterioration of sports programs in two of the three Hartford public schools has been a smoldering issue for a long time. Did it have to go this far without Hartford administrators reacting to the red flag that’s been flapping in the autumn breeze for at least a decade?

I sought an explanation from Central Connecticut Conference commissioner John Tarnuzzer before firing off written salvos about what has festered in my heart and mind since I moved to the region in 1990.

I asked if Weaver would be penalized for its neglect.

Tarnuzzer said that Hartford had just hired a scholastic sports administrator for Weaver, a young man named Wakime Hauser, and he wasn’t quite prepared for the negligence he encountered. Hauser could not be blamed for Weaver failing to show up yet he had to deliver the message to Corto.

The Weaver athletes, it turns out, were not attentive enough about getting their physicals and turning in the related paperwork. Hauser probably didn’t want to be liable in the event of misfortune and did what he had to do. Keep in mind that Weaver soccer player Dwight Turton, diagnosed with a rare disease, died in the summer of 2007 when he played against doctor’s orders.
Corto later realized that Hauser was beyond reproach.

What Tarnuzzer has to judge relates to upholding the conference’s integrity through sanctions as extreme as dismissing Weaver while considering that the CCC has to take a permissive stance because student-athletes should not be penalized for adults’ oversights and indiscretions.

The problems are systemic. I believe their roots are intertwined with the Sheff vs. O’Neill settlement that resulted in the establishment of the magnet schools that now dot the Hartford landscape. While I have no doubt that the addition of magnet schools was beneficial to education in general, nobody was charged with enacting the needs of the athletic programs.
I don’t want to go into a discourse on how vital athletics are in the education of our youth but they are important enough that somebody with integrity and vision should have been placed in charge to assure that the proud athletic heritage of Weaver and Public carry forward.

I have heard about the problems from people in both schools. They have been discussed in friendly conversation for much of my tenure as a scholastic reporter but nobody would go on record with the issues at hand or their potential solutions. Why would they? They could lose their jobs.

So the situation festers until some innocent, hard-working New Britain soccer players have their much-awaited opening game snatched from them.

Others around the CCC have been affected, too.

With Public’s departure from boys soccer turning the CCC East into a seven-team division, the remainder of the schools – Bloomfield, E.O. Smith, Fermi, RHAM, Rockville, Rocky Hill and Tolland – are left searching the state for two games. With the mega-conferences all restricting outside games, where were athletic directors and coaches going to find fill-ins, even as early as last spring?

That brings us to conference integrity once again.

Tarnuzzer is a capable administrator with a good heart. He will bring in veteran athletic directors and administrators from the CCC’s member schools to counsel Hauser and the Hartford Public administrators. Thankfully, Bulkeley is in good shape due in large part to its energetic administrator Diane Callis.

But at some point, Tarnuzzer will have to set policy that will disqualify member schools for such negligence. If he doesn’t, some undermanned football teams may decide they can’t compete with a powerhouse and opt to stay home, knowing that there will be no penalty.

The Hartford situation has advanced to the critical stage and it must be dealt with – whether tolerantly, punitively or a little of both – because the integrity of a 32-school conference is at stake.

The schools involved must first be willing and able to help themselves. Then we can count on the steady hand of John Tarnuzzer and the munificence of league administrators to bring Hartford’s athletic departments back gradually to the level where they can nurture the city’s kids and not inflict harm on others.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Bright red autumn highlights showing up among the withering remnants of summer green on New England boughs mean it’s almost kickoff time.

It’s a time to be cherished.

The oppressive humidity is whisked away by cooling breezes. The kids having gone back to school has its advantages. You can sit out on the deck and hear birds chirping and the distant sound of dogs barking instead of the booming bass of what today’s generation considers music.

One disadvantage is getting caught behind school buses in construction zones, but I always leave early when I’m headed to games anyway.

The sound of the New Britain High Marching Band practicing “Bingo” cascades over Willow Brook Park as I count the innings remaining in the most forgettable Rock Cats season in anybody’s lifetime.

As I crossed another day off the calendar Friday afternoon, the telephone rang. I looked at the Caller ID and smiled when I saw “George DeMaio.” The name isn’t as familiar to sports fans north of Wallingford and Cheshire, but those in Greater New Haven and along the Shoreline know him as, “The Coach.”

The Coach has no equal in the Hartford region. He is 110 percent dedicated to high school football in a way that transcends what most of us comprehend.

Listeners in the New Haven area can tune into WELI-960 AM to hear him from 5:30 to 8 a.m. Saturday mornings, but DeMaio’s legacy is his high school football broadcasts.

The Coach and his entourage – and I’m happy to be considered at least on its periphery – bring you reports from across the state as he broadcasts from those tiny press boxes behind the high schools of southern Connecticut.

The broadcasts were on ESPN 1300 AM for the last two seasons but listeners on the northern fringe – New Britain, Berlin and Southington – can get back on the Coach’s team now that he can once again be heard on the more powerful frequency. If only one of the Hartford area stations could do the same.

So The Coach was calling me to ask if I would go on WELI with him Saturday morning. That means 7 a.m., folks, which is a flat-out culture shock to a guy watching A’s-Angels wrap it up at 1:15. But for The Coach, the least I can do is wake up in the middle of the … er, morning?

I get the call at 7 a.m. sharp and I was awake, awake and studying up on my 2009 CIAC championship results and my Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance final poll.

As I waited on hold, the Coach was going over Friday’s sports results. He topped his presentation by telling his listenership where all the high school scrimmages were, when they were starting and who would be getting together to crash helmets on the final weekend before the curtain rises.

Now that’s coverage.

And if you’ve heard Coach’s voice, that’s passion. If you haven’t, I like to say Coach DeMaio is to Connecticut high school football what Dick Vitale is to college basketball. You may love Vitale or you may bristle every time you hear his voice but one thing cannot be denied – the man is passionate about his pastime.

We talked for about 15 minutes about a variety of football-related topics, none having anything to do with UConn or the Patriots. We talked about the new playoff format that stretches the season to Dec. 11. We talked about the incident in Middletown where two young coaches thankfully were exonerated from criminal charges after a youngster swooned in the summer heat from dehydration.

That’s The coach, right on subject.

When I think of the Coach, I think back to Thanksgiving morning 2001. The soon-to-be state champion Hurricanes traveled to Glastonbury for a game vital to their playoff hopes. The late, great Bo Kolinsky was covering for the Hartford Courant and after the game, we retired to his car to justify and standardize our statistics.

Bo turned promptly to WELI, fine-tuning the station with the fingers of a concert violinist. The strains of the Coach and company pierced through the static. He kept a count of how many of the scores he had from that busy morning. Keep in mind, there wasn’t any texting going on then. There were no smart phones conveying internet messages as events happened.

As another of The Coach’s correspondents phoned in, he bubbled over with excitement about breaking the record for the most scores ever. He had the playoff scenario virtually all mapped out before he left the air for some hard-earned turkey and stuffing. Bo and I smiled. “He’s one of us, isn’t he?” we agreed.

So why is what The Coach does important? That’s easy. Like Bo and the late Hal Levy did with similar conviction, the Coach, a grandfather of three, knows what it means to our society to honor kids who excel.

He knows that following professional and college sports is a worthwhile infatuation but the significance cuts much deeper when we’re supporting the neighbor’s kid. We’re fanning their youthful flames of determination, helping set a foundation so they can ascend tomorrow’s mantle of leadership.

If you have any doubts, just take a look in City Hall where former NBHS baseball player Tim Stewart makes big decision. You might also want to check in on Berlin Mayor Adam Salina, the Stanford grad who knocked on the NFL’s door before coming back to bolster his community.

So with fall season here and lots of great kids striving for that sweet smell of success, do your part and cheer them on. We at the Herald and Bristol Press, with help from dedicated coaches keeping us informed, will do our part. You don’t have to fret about The Coach doing his.

Monday, September 6, 2010


Long-time followers of Rock Cats baseball do not have to be reminded how classy manager Jeff Smith is.

Smitty played with the team for parts of six years, endearing himself to the community through visits to hospitals, schools, libraries and nursing homes.

Smith, who has been summoned to Minnesota to serve as an extra coach for the remainder of the season, was welcomed back warmly when the Twins promoted him to manager of the Double-A club.

What happened to Smith and the Rock Cats this season was unfortunate. The team, young to start with, was dealt some crippling injuries and the Twins’ minor league system was unable to sustain the hits. They avoided the indignity of a 100-loss season but he endured the worst season since Eastern League baseball returned to the Hardware City in 1983.

Smith, in tune with his warm demeanor, issued the following letter to the core of Rock Cats fans, who still came out in record number to enjoy the affordable family entertainment that the team engenders so well:

I would like to thank personally the fans of the New Britain Rock Cats for their support all season. Even though we went through some tough times on the field, our fans were always there to stand behind us, and cheer us on each and every night.

Part of a baseball player’s development is to play in front of big crowds and you guys have provided this. The Rock Cat fan base is like a tight-knit family and our players appreciate it.

Our players were all over the community again this year and we would have it no other way. The fans are what make the Rock Cats organization and stand above the rest. Thanks again for all of the support, and follow these young men as they journey to the Minnesota Twins.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I hit some medical bumps in the road in late August, nothing too serious but painful enough that I stayed around the house for a spell.

With constant discomfort comes that fog that shrouds the brain but the heart picks up the slack. Like hearts do, mine became a little more vulnerable, a little more tolerant of the aspects of life that usually have me spewing diatribes.

It rained most of the time I was cooped up and the combination of conditions cast me into a far more introspective state than I’m used to when I have writing, reporting, lawn-mowing and garden-watering on my mind.

The first thing I focused on was my 14-year run at New Britain Stadium covering the Rock Cats. I go there 71 times a year and I’m prone to take it for granted.

It’s easy to trash a team that may well lose 100 games but the bottom line is, better to cover a bad baseball team than a good anything else. While the overall product is grossly unacceptable, the individuals who have gone out there and made it happen are classy kids who have kept their heads held high throughout the debacle. Every one of them that I’ve approached to talk about what’s happened has kept a sharp perspective and an exemplary attitude about what it all means. Part of the deal is that the rest of the Eastern League was a lot better this season.

But having a corner of the New Britain Stadium press box as my spring and summer office is special in itself. A lot of it is due to the people, folks I’ve written about here from time to time. I sit with scoreboard operator Larry Michaels, official scorer Ed Smith and for most of this season Rock Cats intern Dan Karpuc from West Hartford and the College of the Holy Cross.

On my left I’ve had lovable Rock Cats voice Jeff Dooley by my side for 13 years. For the last two, I’ve gotten to know Joe D’Ambrosio, whose booming voice is a constant companion for the millions of UConn basketball and football fans.

Behind me is the domain of the technological experts, Luke Pawlak and Mike “Manny” Papazian, who bring the entertainment factor at the stadium to a major league level. There’s announcer Don Steele, long time Cats employee, friend and engineer Mike Torres and a bevy of amazing young people that Dooley brings in to participate in the broadcasts. There’s Bob Dowling, the team’s energetic and ever-smiling media relations man, the epitome of a Kennedy Democrat (which I never hold against him) and dedicated to every team and athlete who comes out of the Commonwealth.

Add in the visits from president Bill Dowling and general manager John Willi, vice president Evan Levy and assistant general manager Ricky Ferrell, hard workers like Kim Pizighelli, Jonathan Lissitchuk, Amy Helbling, Evan Paradis and Andres Levy. Heather Cavaliere takes the photos and writes the stories for the website, and feeds Dooley and D’Ambrosio the best baked goods in the state. I guess she figures that my figure cannot endure those delicacies.

They’re more than just friends, they’re closer to family.

Because of the people, because of the baseball, because it’s wonderful to watch nearly 6,000 people a game enjoying baseball. Because of the deep green of the grass, the brick-red warning track dirt and billboards with more colors than a rainbow. Because of the fine young men who play the game, the overwhelming compassion of the Minnesota Twins representatives. Because Dowling, Coleman Levy, Willi, Evan Levy et al have proven without a shadow of a doubt that minor league sports can make it in Connecticut.

There’s no place else I’d rather be.