Pictured: Fresh off winning the Shoreline Conference boys basketball championship, the Old Lyme Wildcats were raring for a state tournament run and return trip to Mohegan Sun.
By Paul Augeri
Connecticut high school basketball players, hockey players and swimmers, those whose seasons were still in progress until Tuesday morning, deserved better.
In particular, the seniors among them, many of whom will no longer wear their schools’ colors at home or on the road – we can’t imagine the sting of this or the emptiness they must be feeling.
Emotions were raw around the state after the CIAC, in abrupt and unprecedented fashion, canceled the remainder of the unfinished high school state tournaments because of rising concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
“It’s very disappointing that it got to this point,” Cromwell boys basketball coach John Pinone said. “I guess they did what’s best for the public.”
In Middletown, after a 15-win season brought high hopes of a run in the Division II tournament, coach Rick Privott and the Blue Dragons were readying for a first-round game against Wethersfield – a 6 p.m. tip-off that never came.
Instead, Privott scrambled to schedule an after-school meeting to take stock of his team, especially seniors Donte Pope, Jonathan Nkonoki, Kenny Fountain and Tyron Scharborough, and how each player was holding up.
“A lot of hurt and disappointment in their faces. They didn’t have a lot to say. Just confusion,” Privott said.
For Pope, who scored more than 1,000 points between playing for University High and then MHS, this would have been his first taste of state tournament play.
“What can you say to the seniors?” Privott wondered. “It’s unfinished business. And for a kid like Donte, who’s never been to the playoffs. To lose the opportunity like this, it was tough looking at their faces and explaining to them that this decision has nothing to do with any of us and we have to live with it.”
At Xavier, coach Mike Kohs and the Falcons were planning to host McMahon of Norwalk in a first-round game in the same Division II tournament. The Falcons had a very good year – 14 wins and a 15th in the Southern Connecticut Conference tournament.
They achieved all of that with a core of four senior starters – Marcus Williams, KJ Grisham, Andrew Brown and Stephen Kohs, a terrific outside shooter and the coach’s son. Mike Kohs won’t get to coach Stephen again in the Black & White.
“I’m extremely disappointed with this decision,” Mike Kohs wrote on Twitter. “It was heartbreaking to tell our team the decision made by the CIAC. Our team, parents, coaching staff, and particularly our senior players, deserved better.”
Xavier’s swim team went undefeated in the regular season, beating perennial powers Fairfield Prep and Cheshire along the way, and took home its first SCC championship. The Falcons were the clear favorite to win the Class L title in their own back yard, at Wesleyan University’s pool.
Coach Ron Vaughan has just two seniors – Ben Howell and Yavier Carbo-Colon – who are key fixtures on his freestyle relay teams. Otherwise, the entire Falcons roster will be back for another run.
“It’s unfortunate that the season had to end this way,” Vaughan, said. “I feel bad for all of the seniors across all of the sports. In the grand scheme of things, we’ll be very good next year. In talking with my team today, I said we will be (contending) next year for the two seniors who were cheated out of a championship season.”
At Coginchaug, the Blue Devils’ girls basketball team was supposed to resume its Class M quarterfinal game against Canton, which was suspended Monday when the power failed at Canton High, on Tuesday night. Coginchaug was down 24-13 when play was halted with 2 minutes left in the second quarter.
“This was not the way we wanted the season to end,” coach Chris Watson said. “We really wanted to go back to Canton and make something happen. If we played hard and lost, we would be fine with it.”
Coginchaug’s senior class of Raegan Moore, Molly Shields, Kerry Turecek and Taylor McDermott played a role in 63 wins and the 2018 Class S championship in their four years with the program. This season, the Devils turned things around with an eight-game winning streak to reach the postseason.
“I told them that our second half of the season was unbelievable and that I’m proud of what they did and that nothing diminishes that,” Watson said. “That and 63 wins in four years says a lot about this group.”
In Cromwell, behind the senior leadership of Sadie Budzik and Vanessa Stolstajner, the Panthers were one step away from returning to Mohegan Sun to defend their Class M championship. Cromwell beat SMSA in the quarterfinals on Monday, which set up a Friday semifinal against Bloomfield at a neutral site.
Tuesday’s scheduled practice instead morphed into a players meeting that offered no closure. Cromwell was playing some of its best basketball of the season in its three Class M victories.
“Coming off a big win last night, you expect to go to practice today and instead it was the end-of-the season talk that you weren’t expecting to have,” coach Kelly Maher said. “Yeah, a tough one today, I’ll give you that.”
Budzik and Stolstajner do not play a spring sport, so Monday was the last time they wore the Cromwell red and black.
“They were still caught up in the disappointment of it all,” Maher said of her two captains, “and we just told them you can’t take anything for granted, you have to make the best of it and begin to move on. Those are the two I feel really sorry for.”
Pinone, who has coached the Cromwell boys’ team for two decades, believed the Panthers were set up to make a run in the Division IV tournament. Like fellow Shoreline Conference members Old Lyme, Valley Regional and East Hampton, his squad didn’t have a tournament at all. Cromwell was scheduled to make the trip to Danbury on Tuesday to play Abbott Tech.
Pinone loses seniors Tyler Baldwin and Nick Polizonis, who at least have a final baseball season to look forward to (at least of this writing).
For Old Lyme and Valley, it was their year to contend for the championship in Division V. Both rosters were heavy on seniors who experienced the Shoreline wars and had state tournament success in 2019. Old Lyme reached the state final and Valley got to the semis. Old Lyme had Shoreline Player of the Year Aedan Using, who has a Division III career at Brandeis ahead of him, as well as Ray Doll, Brady Sheffield, Ty Dean and Jared Ritchie – kids who have played alongside each other since the sixth grade.
“For teams like Old Lyme, this was an opportunity of a lifetime,” Pinone said. “Any team that had a legitimate opportunity to win a state championship has to feel even worse than teams who knew they could win one or two games or maybe get to the semifinals. This is their chance to finish their careers on top.
“In 2009 we were the clear-cut favorite to win the state title. I can’t imagine if we had no tournament. It would have been devastating. This is one of those moments in life that, it happens every now and then and it’s just unfortunate. Life’s not fair and this is one of those examples.”
Valley coach Kevin Woods, whose Warriors won 17 of 21 games and were the No. 3 seed in Division V, had a bye into the second round. He was having a hard time Tuesday with the fact his six seniors – Cade Ensinger, Gavin Grabowski, Jake Grow, Chris Sparaco, Dylan Sparaco and John Tibbets – won’t play for him again.
“Maybe we could have lost some more games so we could have played in the first round,” he joked. “As a coach you’re not going to fix the basketball part of this or get a message across that’s going to make any sense.
“I feel for the kids. In the Shoreline tournament (semifinals), Morgan played a great game that night and we lost. These kids don’t get a chance to redeem themselves. Historically, we’ve been a better state tournament team than Shoreline tournament team.
“For us and Old Lyme, it’s been like two trains heading in the same direction. As much as Old Lyme might look like the tournament favorite, how often does the No. 1 overall team in the NCAA tournament win the tournament? This is why you look forward to playing the games. It’s one and done.
“Could we have won the title? We’ll never know, I guess.”
In East Hampton, the Bellringers were sensational from the outset of the girls basketball season. They won 19 of 20 regular-season games, captured their first Shoreline championship since 2008, were the No. 1 seed in the Class S tournament and waiting to play Old Lyme in the quarterfinal round Thursday.
At least coach Shaun Russell’s squad will have another shot in 2021. Every player returns except senior Maggie Donahue.
The East Hampton boys team was denied of a first-round home game in the Division IV tournament. Stephen Brady, a First Team All-Shoreline selection, and Chris Weyrauch are the only seniors.
Morgan defeated Parish Hill on Monday night and was poised to play again Wednesday at Montville. The Huskies will bring back a strong core of juniors next season, but Jon Fiorillo and Nic Colebank have played their last games for the team.
Hale-Ray knocked off Westbrook in the first round in Division V for its first tournament victory since 2011, when it reached the second round in Class S. Seniors Zak Cunningham, Jacob Soucier, Antonio Dadario and James Gagne, along with role players David King and Cody Velikaneye, led the Noises to 13 victories after a four-win 2019 season.
“My heart goes out obviously to all of the kids across the state,” Valley’s Woods said. “At a small school, these opportunities to win a championship don’t happen very often. Even at the big schools, when you have a number of seniors together, it doesn’t happen a lot.
“For a small school like ours to have that opportunity, it’s even bigger than the team sometimes. It’s a community thing. I’ve been to Mohegan Sun four times now (two titles, two runner-up finishes). You never realize how many people are supportive of you.”