Cromwell's Mark Rodriguez signing CCSU Letter of Intent. Pictured with parents Carolyn and Felix Rodriguez
The past four years have been nothing less than spectacular for Cromwell’s cross-country-king Mark Rodriguez.
Following four first-team All-Shoreline selections and three first-team All-State honors, the senior made it official this month by signing his National Letter of Intent to continue running competitively at Central Connecticut State University.
“I went on a tour there. I never met the coach because of the Corona restrictions but I did talk with him multiple times,” Rodriguez said of his college decision, “I definitely wanted to stay in Connecticut.”
Connecticut has always been home to the Nutmeg-native, who grew up in Cromwell with his six siblings—three brothers and three sisters.
His older brother, Erik Rodriguez, was a gifted distance runner at CHS before graduating in 2015.
“Erik was a top runner for Cromwell during his years as a Panther, so we had our eyes on Mark even while he was running for the middle school,” said CHS cross country coach Doug McGough, “Even then you could see his strong work ethic. Many times we caught him working out in the off season with his dad.”
It was at Woodside Intermediate School that Rodriguez realized he had a knack for finishing first, “When we were doing the gym mile, I found that I was better than a lot of the other people at it, so I thought I’d give running a try.”
Once at the high school Rodriguez took his running to another level, improving his times every year.
Along with perennially earning all-conference and all-state accolades, he also finished in the Top 25 at the State Opens and was an All-New England Qualifier and All-Northeast Regional Qualifier his junior year.
This fall he continued to tear up the trails despite the modified season that did not allow for Class and State Tournament due to the COVID-19 restriction.
“Honestly I’m just glad that we had a season for cross country,” said Rodriguez, who made the best of a less than ideal situation, “I took time to relax a little bit more because I’m often running most of the year round.”
Along with running cross country, Rodriguez was a distance runner during the indoor and outdoor track seasons.
CHS coach Josh LaMay called Rodriguez “a dream to coach”, praising him for his work ethic, “It is hard to quantify what Mark has meant to the Cromwell Cross Country team over the past four years. Prior to summer training each season he designed a schedule of weekly targets for people that wanted to run 300, 400 or 500 miles over the course of the summer. I don't remember Mark missing a practice, a weight training session or anything during his career. In addition to that even during the season he would log extra miles on his own. As a Sophomore Mark became the first male All-State runner in 14 years and he repeated that feat as a junior and senior.”
Rodriguez’s high school career achievements make him the greatest modern-day runner in Cromwell High School and the most accomplished since the program’s glory days in the 1960’s.
“Mark has had quite an impressive career while running for Cromwell High School. When he came in as a freshman, he took over the team and pushed the mindset of the team to a whole new level. He was the perfect example of the motto many coaches preach that "hard work pays off". He is so internally motivated that you never had to worry if he was going to get a workout in or if he was giving his best. Mark never misses a workout nor complains about a workout either. No matter if it is a hill workout, short interval day, or just a long run, Mark is like a machine in that he is always just so smooth and consistent. He has a quiet confidence that allows him to be very focused, so he never really seems to get intimidated,” stated McGough, “Mark holds the fastest time for a Cromwell runner on our home course with a time of 16:08. We will certainly miss Mark but are super excited to see him moving on to running at the next level. That is what you hope for as a coach is to see that passion for the sport in your athletes and the desire to take it to the next level. Mark is not just a great athlete but performs well in the classroom as well.”
The admiration between coach and athlete is mutual.
“They gave me a good training regimen. They showed me a lot of really good speed workouts that helped me, and also talk to me a lot about the mental aspect and pushing through challenges,” said Rodriguez, who added the mental side is one of the most important traits to being a great distance runner, “That’s one of the hardest things about running, pushing through it when you’re tired and you feel like giving up.”
Rodriguez added that he uses running for stress management and described his time at CHS as positive, “I’ll definitely miss the coaches, but they did a good job at preparing me for the next step in my running journey.”
His next stop is CCSU where he will join a proficient program led by longtime head coach Eric Blake, who guided the men’s cross country team to nine straight Northeast Conference championships from 2009-2017.
“There are a few goals that I want to work on with my times, continuing to move them up,” added Rodriguez, who is leaning towards majoring in Computer Science, “I am excited that it will be a longer distance because usually I do better at the longer distances so I want to be able to see what I could do at a 10k level.”
High School Winter Sports Update
The CIAC announced last week that most winter sports, including basketball, can begin playing games on Feb 8. Pictured Wethersfield's Alexa Grenier. Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Campbell
After two tense months, the winter sports season is a go.
The CIAC (Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference) with guidance from the CTDPH (Connecticut Department of Public Health) and approval from the control board detailed a plan that will allow high school sports programs to begin practicing on January 19, with winter sports competition starting on February 8.
Winter sports were originally stalled after Governor Ned Lamont put a two-month pause on any amateur athletics in mid-November. The idea was to give a two-week window following the holiday break in order to track the COVID-19 metrics across the state.
The new winter sports plan looks a lot like the fall sports plan, allowing teams to play a condensed regular season and participate in a postseason experience, most likely league and conference tournaments.
However just like the fall season, the plan does not permit a state tournament.
Basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics, and swimming will be allowed to have 12 regular season games/meets, starting February 8 and continuing until mid-March. The postseason experience would take place from March 15-28.
This will mark the second straight year that both basketball and ice hockey will not crown state champions. Both sports were in the middle of the state tournaments when the CIAC cancelled the remainder of the 2019-2020 season in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak last March.
Wrestling, competitive dance and cheer have been classified as high-risk activities and will not be permitted to compete this season. Instead, they can have super-fun, small group conditioning and non-contact skill building during the winter session.
Sideline cheer – minus any stunting – can perform at basketball games.
Indoor track will also be limited to practice-only this season, with both indoor and outdoor meets still in consideration for March.
The biggest obstacle for the athletes this winter is that masks must be worn during competition, with the obvious exception of swimming and some gymnastic events.
In the fall, volleyball was the only sport that required mask to be worn while playing. The other sports (soccer, field hockey, cross country) required masks to be worn on the sidelines but not during competition.
Mask breaks will be allotted during basketball and ice hockey games, allowing athletes a chance to breathe freely and change masks if needed.
CIAC director Glenn Lungarini also announced that any alternative season between winter and spring has been canceled, eliminating what would have been a potential football season and possible wrestling season. Both sports are considered high-risk and because of the delayed start to the winter sports season the CIAC did not want the alternative season to overlap or shorten a spring sports season.
“We certainly understand and empathize with those athletes that would have been able to have some competition in that alternative season will not have that competition, but again through this experience we have tried the best we can to provide any opportunities that we could make available to or kids,” Lungarini said on January 14, “If we couldn’t provide those high-risks, we were able to successfully engage kids in low to moderate risk activities. We will continue to do that through the winter season,”
This puts an end to several agonizing months for the football players and coaches, who were put through a mental meat grinder, ultimately being told they could not play 11v11 football in the fall and are now being told the alternative season is no longer an option even though every other state in the country has played contact football or has an option for playing in this spring.
As of now, any high-risk sports are not permitted in the state and many have criticized the risk evaluations of high school sports. These evaluations are determined by the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Association) and the CTDPH makes the recommendations to the state on which risk categories should not be played.
Boys lacrosse, a relatively low-risk sport based on the fact it’s played outdoors and allows for social distancing, has been deemed high-risk, putting its status for the spring in jeopardy. The spring sports season is set to begin on March 29.
These inconsistencies have baffled players, coaches, parents, and supporters of sports considered high-risk.
As they have stated from the beginning of the school year, the CIAC continues to say that any decision is fluid as more data, health metrics, and specific sports information becomes available.
Starting this week, winter sports will proceed with athletic directors and coaches scrambling to put together schedules and give these athletes a proper experience, despite the challenges.
The CIAC notes that they do not recommend having spectators at sporting events but that ultimately the individual schools could determine what was best for their district.
Good luck to all the winter sports athletes, you all deserve a round of applause.
Cromwell’s Morrill Chooses URI
Cromwell senior Jason Morrill has committed to play soccer at the University of Rhode Island next fall.
“Very excited to announce my commitment to play Division I soccer at the University of Rhode Island! Thank you to my family, coaches, teammates and friends who have helped me along the way,” stated Morrill upon making his commitment in December.
Morrill was born and raised in Cromwell and has been playing on the Glastonbury-based Oakwood Soccer Club teams for nine years. The clubs team play year round, so he was unable to play for the soccer team at Cromwell High, yet he is an honor roll student at CHS and was part of Student Council and National Honor society.
At URI, Morrill plans to major in finance and will join his Rams teammates on the soccer field next fall.
“I really liked the coaching staff and they see me having a good future there. There is a very competitive atmosphere on the team and the coaches were talking to me about how everything is earned not given there. The environment also sounded like it was very similar to where I play now at Oakwood which interested me and was important to me,” stated Morrill, “The soccer program has been getting better each year and are continuing to grow as they have been back to back A10 champions. The Atlantic 10 conference is very competitive and is a good fit for my playing style. URI is also relatively close to home so my family are able to come watch my games.”
Wethersfield senior Sierra Judson, pictured with parents Tammy and Steve Judson (right) and WHS coach Tony Leone (left), signing letter of intent to play soccer at Merrimack College
Wethersfield High School senior Sierra Judson signed a national letter of Intent to play soccer at Merrimack College.
Judson is a four-year letter winner at WHS where she has served as captain over the past two seasons. She was named CCC All-Conference during both her sophomore and junior season and this past fall she earned All-State honors, also earning the All-Academic distinction in each of her four seasons.
During Judson’s time at WHS, the Eagles won CCC divisional titles in 2017, 2018, and 2019. This season she helped lead the team to an undefeated regular season and WHS soccer coach Tony Leone said that Judson is special player that doesn’t come around often.
“She is the total package. It would be easy to just point out her qualities on the field as a player but that wouldn’t tell the whole picture. She’s more than what we all saw on the field. It’s rare in high school sports to have someone that comes to practice as hard as she does every single session. You can see it in her eyes that she is there to improve. That is a quality in younger athletes that will make her successful at the next level,” stated Leone, “But what I perhaps enjoyed most about Sierra is that we often spoke about the game of soccer itself. She sees the game, is a student of the game and this too is rare at this age. It will serve her well in college. For me, leadership and abilities aside, these are what I will miss most, watching her compete and the banter about the game we both love. My only regret is that I was only around for a couple years of her high school career but hope I made even a small impact as she prepares for Merrimack.”
Judson also plays lacrosse at WHS and is a member of the National Honor Society.
Outside of school she has captained her FSA team, which plays in the ECNL, while also working at Soccer Revolution camps and as a CFC tournament field marshal.
Next fall, Judson will begin pursing a Health & Science major and join a competitive Warriors soccer team in North Andover, Massachusettes.
“I chose Merrimack because of the culture of the school and its philosophy. I instantly fell in love with the school and the people there are great. I also loved the community feel of the school. Merrimack has a stellar honors program that will challenge me to perform my best academically,” stated Judson, “Most importantly, I chose it because of the coaches and their dedication to the team. They understand the meaning of student-athlete and how school comes first and that is very important to me. The team culture is outstanding and I am excited to play with them.”
*Information provided by the Wethersfield Athletic Department
Rocky Hill's Ryan Robb (left) was named MVP and Cromwell's Nick Polizonis (right) was named the tournament's Most Valuable Hitter as RCP won another baseball state title in 2020
1. RCP Crowned Boys of Summer
RCP (Rocky Hill-Cromwell-Portland) U19 team won another summer league championship on August 9. Normally referred to at American Legion Baseball, CT Elite Baseball Association was established to allow Legion teams an opportunity to compete this summer, and RCP defeated Northern Connecticut 3-2 in the title game. Nick Polizonis (Cromwell) was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Hitter, providing three hits including a two-run double, and season MVP Ryan Robb (Rocky Hill) had two hits, driving in the other run in the championship victory. Tyler Baldwin (Cromwell) earned the win on the mound, while Justin Fraleigh (Rocky Hill) pitched the final out to pick up the save. It wasn’t a normal summer league season, but the local boys of summer brought home the league trophy for the third time since 2015.
2. Shabazz Strikes Twice
Middletown’s Kalil Shabazz took home first place in the 126-lbs division at the Class L state championships at Bristol Central High School on February 22 and then won the State Championship in the Open Finals at the Floyd Athletic Center on February 29. Shabazz entered the class finals as the #1 seed and proved with worthiness, defeating four opponents including Pomperaug’s Michael Carpenter in the title match. At the State Open, Shabazz solidified himself as the best overall in his weight class, defeating Class LL champion Tyler Johnson of Danbury in the championship match. No matter the opponent, Shabazz shellacked them all.
3. Eagles Soccer Undefeated, On and Off the Field
Wethersfield boys’ soccer defeated Newington 4-2 to win the CCC Region D championship on November 10, finishing with a record of 11-0-1. Anis Kurkic scored two goals and Will McCarter had two assists for the Eagles, who led from start to finish. Sam Johnson and Charlie Hayes scored the other two goals. The conference title was the cherry on top of a season which also displayed the selflessness of the Eagles during a road game at Bulkeley on October 8. Because of a lack of players, Bulkeley would have been forced to forfeit but Wethersfield’s captains decided to play for the opposing team. The captains carried Bulkeley to a scrimmage victory as RJ Darrell scored three goals and Kurkic added two in a 7-4 win. Darrell recalled the Bulkeley players saying they were happy to play in a competitive game for the first time all year. The scrimmage was a true act of sportsmanship.
4. Newington Edges Wethersfield on PKs – Wins Conference
Newington girls’ soccer defeated a previously unbeaten Wethersfield on penalty kicks after the team remained deadlocked 0-0 after regulation and overtime. The Indians made all five of their PKs and goalie Bri Norton came up with a game-ending save during Wethersfield PK attempts. The Eagles, who entered the game 11-0-1, had defeated the Indians in both regular season meetings but Newington rose to the occasion with the conference championship statement win on November 12.
5. Rocky Hill’s Glover Triumphant on Senior Night
Rocky Hill senior wrestler Jordan Glover, who has Down Syndrome, with a little help from Enfield’s Noah Bonini created an unforgettable moment in 2020. With both teams cheering on, Glover took down and pinned Bonini during Rocky Hill’s Senior Night on February 6, in what could only be described as both an awesome achievement for Glover and a wonderful act of sportsmanship on the part of Bonini. The world could certainly use more moments like this.
6. Frazier’s Fantastic Farewell Tour
Ashanti Frazier had unforgettable back-to-back months to start 2020. The Newington basketball star made last-second, game-winner shots in victories over Bristol Eastern (Jan 3) and Windsor (Jan 10), and then scored her 1,000-career point in a win over East Catholic on January 16. By the time the regular season was over, Frazier and Newington were 17-3 and the #3 seed in the tournament. Following blowout victories in the first two rounds of the tourney, the season was cancelled because of COVID-19 and Frazier farewell tour abruptly ended. The 2020 basketball season will forever remain unfinished but Frazier’s legacy at NHS will also last forever.
7. Gwynn Sets WHS Scoring Mark
Nicole Gwynn broke the all-time scoring mark in the history of the Wethersfield girls basketball program, scoring her 1,459th point in a win over Newington on February 18. Gwynn set the mark on a free throw in the fourth quarter, surpassing the previous mark held by 2010-graduate Abigail Corning. Gwynn would go on to lead the Eagles into the quarterfinals of the state tourney before the season was cut short due to COVID-concerns. Gwynn’s scoring mark will be hard to top and the mark she left on the program is indelible.
8. Piecewicz Named Defenseman of the Year
Wethersfield’s Trevor Piecewicz was named the Division II Defenseman of the Year and earned All-State in March as a member of the WMPR hockey team. His achievement was even more impressive considering he had spent the previous two seasons playing on the offensive end, leading the team in combined points during that time span. Piecewicz, who also scored his 100th career point in 2020, helped the Eagles captured their first conference title and the team was prepping for a state championship run prior to the COVID-19 cancellation.
9. Stergos Snags Defenseman of the Year
Cromwell’s Justin Stergos was a monster on both ends of the ice for the Newington Co-Op hockey team and his work on the defensive end earned him the Division III Defenseman of the Year award in early March. Stergos also finished second on the team in points, tallying a goal or assist in 11 games for and Indians team that finished with a league-high 17 regular season wins. The Cromwell-grad is currently playing junior hockey for the New Hampshire Avalanche.
10. Football Community Unites
Football came under attack this fall and was deemed high-risk/forbidden, but the football community fought back. Players, coaches, parents, and supporters gather on September 5 and again on September 9 to protest the decision by the CIAC and state’s Department of Health to cancel the contact sport due to the COVID-19 concerns. The gathering on Sept 5 saw hundreds protesting outside the CIAC headquarters in Cheshire and the gathering on Sept 9 had over 1,000 supporters lining the steps of the State Capitol in Hartford, with signs and chants of “Let Us Play”. Wethersfield was one of the most well-represented teams at the protest, with over 40 participants in attendance. Ultimately, 11-on-11 football was benched in the fall but not without a fight from the football community who formed a united front.
11. Stolstajner Wins POY, Again!
Cromwell basketball star Vanessa Stolstajner won her second straight Shoreline Conference Player of the Year award in March. Stolstajner, who helped lead the Panthers to a state championship in 2019, was again phenomenal in 2020, scoring 17 points and hauling down five rebounds per game. She was coming off a 24-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance in a state tournament win prior to the COVID-cancellation. Stolstajner graduated with back-to-back Conference POY awards and finished both her junior and senior seasons on a winning note.
12. WHS Swimming Record-Breaking Fall
Wethersfield girls swimming broke seven pool records and two varsity records during an undefeated season, which wrapped up with victory over rival Hall on November 4. The Eagles broke records in the 100 Free (Alanna DePinto), 200 Free (DePinto), 100 Fly (Julia Pitchell), 200 Medley (DePinto, Pitchell, Haley Krawczyk, Olivia Thompson), 200 Free Relay (DePinto, Thompson, Krawczyk, Sabrina Schuster), and twice broke the 400 Free Relay (DePinto, Pitchell, Thompson, Schuster). Needless to say, 2020 was a banner year in more ways than one for the 12x conference champs.
13. Newington Outlast Wethersfield on the Court
Newington boys’ basketball defeated Wethersfield 65-61 in overtime to secure a spot in the state tournament. Jayden Andujar scored a game-high 20 points and Alexander Ford added 18 more as the Indians won a game that featured 14 lead changes. Wethersfield’s Luke Latina sent the game into overtime with a bank shot as time expired in regulation before Newington seized the momentum in the extra session by making eight of ten free throws to secure the victory. It was an amazing turnaround for Newington, who starting the season 2-9 before winning six games down the stretch, including four of five to close out the regular season.
14. Community Remembers Costello
2014 WHS graduate and former professional baseball player Ryan Costello was remembered at Stanley Golf Course in New Britain on October 12, raising money for scholarships and awareness for Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. Costello passed away on November 18, 2019 from a rare heat disease and his parents, Tammy and Chris Costello, along with Wethersfield baseball coach Mark Bagdasarian founded the RC13 Foundation in his honor. The proceeds from the golf benefit went towards the foundation and the gathering allowed his family, friends, teammates, and community to celebrate Ryan’s life.
15. Klementon’s First Half High-Five
Emma Klementon erupted for five goals, all in the first half, as Wethersfield girls’ soccer defeated Middletown 8-0 on October 6. Klementon was a goal-scoring machine for an Eagles team that breezed through an undefeated regular season, outscoring their opponents 43-4. It was an extra special season for the Klementon family, as Emma and her twin sister Annie each played major roles during a senior season to remember.
16. Stockman Wins One More for Good Measure
Rocky Hill’s Elizabeth Stockman has a room full of state championship trophies and on February 15 she added more hardware to her collection. The senior won the 1600M during the Class M finals at the Floyd Athletic Center in New Haven, besting second-place finisher Kathryn Rodriguez of Wolcott by over six seconds. Stockman’s running career at RHHS is something to marvel at.
17. Nock Tops Shot
Wethersfield Clarissa Nock won a state championship in the Shot Put during the Class L Indoor Track & Field finals at the Floyd Athletic Center on February 15. Nock soundly defeated runner-up Sarah Ovesny of Shelton (37-08.25 – 36-06.25), ensuring her the title. She was a favorite to duplicate the feat in the Outdoor Track & Field finals, which were never held after the spring sports season was canceled.
18. Kelly Nets 1,000
Playing in the opening round of the state tournament, Wethersfield’s Alice Kelly made a layup in the third quarter to reach her 1,000th career point. Kelly, who did a little of everything for the Eagles, finished with 12 point on the night as Wethersfield eliminated Farmington from the tourney. Kelly and her team would win one more tournament game, reaching the quarterfinals, before the season was cut short by COVID-19.
19. Pope Hits Milestone
Middletown’s Donte Pope scored his 1,000th career point against New Britain on February 3. Pope transferred to Middletown as a junior and became an instant scoring threat for a Blue Dragon’s team that won 15 games in 2020 and was set to make a tourney run before the COVID cancellation.
20. Splendid Summer for RHLL
Rocky Hill Little League produced three District 7 titles this summer. The 16U baseball team won the District title and then advanced to the state championship game, defeating Meriden 5-1 to reach the state title game. The 12U baseball team swept West Hartford in a best-of-three series, outscoring West Hartford 16-5 in the two wins. The 12U softball team swept Cromwell is a best-of-five series, winning the series clinching game-three 4-2 to win District. The trifecta of titles was a glimpse into the bright future that awaits the baseball and softball programs at Rocky Hill High School.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin