My recent time spent covering the postseason for Hall and Conard has further reinforced my respect and appreciation for the scholastic sports scene in West Hartford.
BASEBALL: On the baseball front, Northwest Catholic made a powerful statement that it reigns supreme in town by sweeping its two-game sets with the public school teams, but the level of play across the board was almost certainly the best it’s ever been.
Credit the sensational work being done at the youth level for the dramatic upswing. Atop the list is the West Hartford Amateur Baseball Association, the brainchild of Rick Sanford and Steve Meucci. Their organizational acumen has been tantamount in providing expert instruction for the players and guidance for the players and their parents. They don’t get nearly the credit they deserve, and neither do the people aligned with them, some of whom I know (Elliott Lane comes to mind) and others whom I’ve yet to meet.
Conard’s teams have been consistently above average. The Chieftains have qualified for the Class LL (‘L’ in 2005) tournaments for the past nine seasons. They have won first-round games the past two years, beating Hall last week and Xavier last year, but have not moved past the next hurdle since 1975 when they lost to New Britain in the semifinals.
Hall’s 12-win season ranks as one of the best in school history. The Warriors went 13-9 and won the CCC West in 2009 under Dave Masters, but winning records on the diamond have been rare in the north end.
Neither school has ever won a state championship, but with the quality work being done at the youth level, primarily at the West Hartford Youth Baseball League where the philosophy is focused on competing rather than just having fun playing the game, statewide recognition is imminent.
Such recognition is familiar at Northwest, where Cory Carlson and his dynamic staff have the Indians racing toward their second Class S crown.
BOYS LACROSSE: For those who haven’t seen it, I urge you to read my story in the West Hartford News on Conard’s tournament ouster at the hands of Brien McMahon-Norwalk.
Talk about a coach who has dedicated his life to a program, I give you Bill Condon. He battled to keep his emotions in check after the 16-8 loss, but it wasn’t the setback per se that shook him.
Although he wasn’t prone to discuss it at the time and I wasn’t about to pry into his inner feelings, I could tell that this crop of seniors meant a lot to him and the thought of not being together as a team anymore tore him up. If that doesn’t convince you that your boy could learn something beyond the game playing Conard lacrosse, I’m not sure I could provide that service.
At the core of the Chieftains’ senior group is Ricky Cotton. St. John’s University is not only getting a dedicated athlete but a young man who will enrich the campus with his leadership, tact and understanding. By fighting back tears, Condon was showing me that his relationship with Cotton was somewhat closer to father-son than coach-player.
Cotton starred in three sports at Conard, so credit should also go to wrestling coach Chris Glowacki and football coach Rob Cersosimo for developing a great athlete and a greater person.
The Norwalk outfit showed once again that Fairfield County lacrosse continues to retain its superiority over any team greater Hartford can muster. At this writing, top-ranked Simsbury is still representing, but whether or not the Trojans can become the first Class L/Division I team north of Cheshire to capture a pennant remains to be seen.
GIRLS LACROSSE: The Hall girls turned in another inspired performance for another of West Hartford’s dynamic coaches, Steve Boyle, by turning back a capably upset-minded group from Danbury, 12-11.
Even in the internet age, there was no way Boyle could have known that the Hatters’ dramatic improvement stemmed from the return to eligibility of a state-class athlete in junior Raven Winters. With Winters supplying the athleticism and fellow junior Pauline Kaplan winning draws and controlling the area in front of the cage, Danbury was miles ahead of the team that Hall dismantled early in the season.
“We didn’t even know Winters existed,” Boyle said after the game. “We just knew based on their results against the top teams in the state that they were very much improved.”
The Warriors are very young. Kelsey Smith is the only senior, and how she distinguished herself in ultimately neutralizing Danbury’s dominance of the draw. Boyle instituted a counterattack strategy that Smith and Megan Tracy exquisitely interpreted. It was essential in Hall’s rebounding from a three-goal deficit in the second half.
Boyle heaped praise on the effort of his goalie Maddy Hooper, whose understanding of the position has advanced light years. Hooper, just a sophomore, will be among the state’s best by the time she graduates, if she’s not among them already. As Boyle said, she not only made spectacular saves, but disrupted the Danbury advances with aggressive play around the crease, and ignited fast breaks with good decisions after gaining possession.
Hall is not the quickest team around but there is none smarter. Boyle’s daughter Alannah and Cookie Aronow combine game savvy and excellent stick-handling to create offensive opportunities. They weren’t intimidated by Danbury’s defensive commitment to aggressive play.
Every team of Hall’s quality needs some speed element and that is supplied by junior Hayley Mullins. While Mullins will go to college on a soccer scholarship, she has the stuff to gain some All-State consideration in lacrosse. Mullins printing down the sideline, cradling the ball safely in the pocket of her stick, is a sight to behold.