Back Row (left to right): coach Jim Annino, Craig Dixon, Jack Lefebvre, Joey Potenza, Jared Semper, Ben Fagan, Dave Weston, Brandon Berean, Ian Mihalopoulos, coach Jeff Glowa
Front Row (left to right): Ryan Santello, Anthony Valentin, Jack Corona, Ethan UCol, Tyler Keithan, Ryan Rozich, Henry Stearns, coach John Matteis, Mike Baranski (very front)
The baseball team at Cromwell Middle School had a season for the ages, painting a picture of perfection by defeating all 11 opponents they faced in 2019.
“I’ve been coaching for 15 years and I’ve known a couple of the other teams that have gone undefeated but, being a smaller school, I never thought we would do it,” said veteran skipper Jim Annino, “It’s a very mature group of kids. They all seemed to like each other and regardless of the record they would have been the same.”
“We’re usually close to .500 or below but this season was different. There was great leadership from the kids on this team,” added assistant coach John Matteis.
Perfection began with an 8-5 season-opening win over perennial powerhouse Berlin, who had dominated the season series with Cromwell in previous years.
“They are usually really good. They’re a bigger school, so they have so many more kids to pull from,” Matteis said of Berlin, “Just seeing how we started the season, we were hopeful that it would be different. We just kept rolling with it.”
Following the opener, Annino sensed there was something special about the 2019 group.
“We were up two or three runs and they came back and scored a couple of us. Previous teams would have folded but these kids responded and got the runs back. It was a harbinger of what was going to come for the rest of the season.”
“We preached doing the little things, and our kids were phenomenal at laying down bunts and moving kids along. I think that’s what made the difference.”
What followed was 10 more wins for a team that had all the right pieces fall into place at the right time.
“We just had a lot of talent, a lot of size. We had good pitching, most games one pitcher went the majority of the game. The way our scheduled worked out, one week we played four games, so it was good to have a lot of depth at pitching. We had a lot of depth all around,” added Annino.
Brandon Berean was one of those who shined atop the mound, throwing a no-hitter and another one-hitter, and surrendering minimal runs throughout the season.
Catcher Henry Sterns was another standout, producing from behind the plate and rallying the team by leading players-only meetings during close games.
“Anytime we needed a lift he would always make some kind of a speech. It seemed to work every time,” Matteis said of Sterns, “Our guys never put their heads down, they never look worried that they could lose.”
Production came from the entire roster, including standouts Ian Mihalopoulos and Ben Fagan, who Matteis praised for his hustle.
“Every hit he’d run down, he’d dive after anything. He played multiple positions and was the type of guy that would run out of bounds to catch anything. Very fast, very athletic, a great overall leader on the team.”
Matteis, who teaches STEM at the Middle School, joined Annino in the dugout seven years ago.
“I was doing it for the first eight years by myself and having him come on and split the duties has really helped,” said Annino, who also has Jeff Glowa on his staff, “With some of the drills we get a lot more done with two or three people than with one. I think that’s made a big impact on the program, more repetition.”
As the wins piled up the idea of an undefeated season started to become a reality.
“We tried not to talk about it because we didn’t want to jinx it,” a smiling Matteis recalled.
At 10-0, the team needed one more win over East Hampton to complete the undefeated season.
It was a tight game for the few innings, but just like they had done all season, the team closed with another emphatic win.
Following the victory, Matteis had a jug of water dumped on him in celebration. It was a high-water mark, literally and figuratively, for a team that cemented their legacy at CMS.
“The fact that every player played every game and there was not a single player that we had to worry about putting in spots. Kids would play anywhere we told them to go,” Matteis said of the lasting impression of the championship squad, “It’s like they say, you’re only as strong as your weakest link and we didn’t have one. There was no weak link. It made it great for playing time, nobody was just sitting the bench, everyone was a part of every win. We didn’t just put our top nine out there. Especially at the middle school level when you’re trying to get everyone a chance to have those starting roles to see what that feels like. I hope we continue to have teams like this, but we were really lucky to have a team like this. It was not only great to have great kids, but great parents to go along with them.”
Shortly after the season ended, the parents had shirts made for the players that read ‘Undefeated’.
The shirts not only symbolized a perfect record, but also a perfect team that came together at the perfect time.
“Whoever we threw in, it seemed to work this year,” said Annino, “It was really a team effort from top to bottom.”
Wethersfield's Isabella Samse was selected by the Connecticut Sun in the 2019 Rare Reminder WNBA Draft. Photo: Jo-Ann Campbell / Rocky Hill's Riley Donovan was the 6th selection in the 2019 Rare Reminder NBA Draft.
This week is the NBA draft, where dozens of young prospects will fulfill their professional dreams. Here’s how this year’s lottery picks would pan out if we entered The Land of Make Believe, in which general managers selected from the hoopsters who starred on the local hardwoods. As a bonus, we’ve recalibrated the first 14 picks from April’s WNBA draft.
Welcome to the third annual bizarro basketball drafts…
1. New Orleans Pelicans: Gabe Charleston (Cromwell): Long, lean, and plays mean. Charleston has all the physical tools and passion to become a franchise player at the next level. Enforcer at the hoop defensively, and emphatic finisher offensively. Extremely quick hands and smooth around rim.
2. Memphis Grizzlies: Derek Tenney (Wethersfield): Difference maker that plays with poise and patience. Tenney can take over offensively, evidence by his 51-point outburst against Bloomfield, and has the athleticism to lock down the opposing team’s best player defensively. Game is complete and is willing to accept any role.
3. New York Knicks: Nick Wright (Cromwell): Ultimate team-first guy with the skills to match. Wright comes with a wealth of experience and will do all the little things needed to create a winning culture. Competitive wing that can score from the inside-out and offers position flexibility with his length and leaping ability.
4. New Orleans Pelicans: Mason Romano (Newington): Gifted talent that has a ceiling as high as his reach. Romano’s wingspan is both impressive and effective on both ends of the court. Nice footwork and added an outside touch, making him a major mismatch problem.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers: Tejan Lanser (Middletown): Tempo-setter with exceptional vision and a lightning quick release. Lanser is natural with the ball and thrives in transition, both finishing at the cup and finding cutting teammates. Excellent handles and range, possessing a silky-smooth step back jumper.
6. Phoenix Suns: Riley Donovan (Rocky Hill): Polished, versatile athlete that can play multiple positions thanks to long frame and deceptive strength. Donovan is an unselfish star that does everything well and can adapt to any system, very coachable. Can leap out of the gym and finish at the rim.
7. Chicago Bulls: J.J. Tracy (Cromwell): Outstanding on-ball defender that excels in the open court. Tracy is a valued asset on both ends of the court, with a knack for making impact plays in crunch time. Superior athlete with a non-stop motor and high basketball IQ.
8. Atlanta Hawks: A.J. Fair (Newington): Nice blend of quickness and toughness. Fair has skills and rhythm to thrive on both ends, creating tempo on offense and adding a disruptive nature on the defensive end. Fluid pull-up jumper and a willing passer.
9. Washington Wizards: Donte Pope (Middletown): Explosive, rare talent with the ability to change a game in the blink of an eye. Pope is a natural shot-creator and a budding star, evidence by his 38-point, 12-rebound performance against Windsor. Keeps growing, literally and figuratively.
10. Atlanta Hawks: Teddy Fravel (Newington): Intimidating, shot-blocking enforcer with the size, strength and swagger to excel at the next level. No matter what the sport he plays, Fravel makes big plays in big moments. Teammates love him; opponents, not so much.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves: Naimir Heyliger (Cromwell): Bulldog on the court that doesn’t back down from a challenge. Heyliger is a well-rounded player that knows and accepts his role, often sacrificing for the betterment of the team. Strong frame and a fit with any coaching staff.
12. Charlotte Hornets: Dante Burgos (Wethersfield): Confident sharpshooter that plays with desire and heart. Burgos is not afraid of taking and knocking down difficult shots in clutch moments, specializing in the wing and corner three-balls. Positive attitude will be welcomed in any locker room.
13. Miami Heat: Matt Sevigny (Rocky Hill): Hustler with a high sports acumen. Sevigny’s decision making is top-notch, anticipating well and playing with a quiet confidence. Consistency is his game and adds value as a coach on the court.
14. Boston Celtics: Julian Ortiz (Newington): Strong, solid base allows him to guard bigger players and gather rebounds in bunches. Ortiz has a knack for drawing contact and finishing at the rim. Exemplary teammate with exceptional vision in the low post.
1. Las Vegas Aces: Nikki Lukens (Rocky Hill): Brilliant on both ends of the court and checks off all the boxes. Lukens is a pinball-machine scorer yet is a willing, effective passer. A winner that rises to challenges and will bring a ton of game experience to the next level.
2. New York Liberty: Vanessa Stolstajner (Cromwell): Highly productive player that is only going to get better, which is scary for opponents. Stolstajner possesses great range with the explosiveness and burst to get to the bucket, and the foul line, on a regular basis. A legitimate superstar in the making.
3. Indiana Fever: Ashanti Frazier (Newington): Ultra-competitor that plays with a ton of energy and bravado. Frazier can score, rebound, pass, and defend with the best of them and is a spark plug from the opening tip to the final whistle. Positive influence on teammates, on and off the court.
4. Chicago Sky: Nicole Gwynn (Wethersfield): Hardworking, dependable wing with great court awareness. Gwynn can score at will and works tirelessly on the defensive end, creating easy transition buckets for herself and teammates. Athleticism is through the roof and the best is yet to come.
5. Dallas Wings: Najla Cecunjanin (Cromwell): Unique combination of low post power and outside shooting abilities. Cecunjanin has ice water in her veins, unafraid of any opponent or big moment. Picturesque stroke on the perimeter and battles tirelessly around the bucket.
6. Minnesota Lynx: Dominque Highsmith (Middletown): Superior talent that excels in the paint. Highsmith has all the court qualities you want, with a high character to match. Tough enough to mix it up inside and fluid enough to play on perimeter.
7. Los Angeles Sparks: Alice Kelly (Wethersfield): Ultimate inside-out weapon with great footwork. Kelly has a sweet stroke from outside and can dominate the inside, both offensively and defensively. Her calmness on the court, especially in pressure moments, is an added asset.
8. Phoenix Mercury: Sadie Budzik (Cromwell): Floor general with superb vision and ability to do it all. Budzik has the tenacity of a guard and the toughness of a post player, with all the physical tools to match. A coach’s delight that will do whatever it takes to win.
9. Connecticut Sun: Isabella Samse (Wethersfield): Energizer that will not be outworked on the court. Samse is truly an elite defender, especially off the ball, and has incredible range and consistency from beyond the arc. A competitor that wants to win at all costs.
10. Washington Mystics: MacKenzie Dunn (Middletown): Polished prospect that can play anywhere on the court. Dunn is comfortable finishing at the bucket and has the consistency to drain shots from deep. Natural instincts and sticky hands on defense to create turnovers.
11. Atlanta Dream: Karissa Zocco (Newington): Deadly knock down shooter with a confidence that is unwavering. Zocco shines with the ball in her hands and has the stretch to become an elite perimeter defender. Sky is the limit for this young prospect that is mature beyond her years.
12. Seattle Storm: Olivia St. Remy (Newington): No-nonsense inside presence who is constantly working. St. Remy maximized her talents with grit and toughness, creating second chance points and providing rim protection. A true center with a work ethic that is second to none.
13. Phoenix Mercury: Aleksa Peterson (Rocky Hill): Swiss-army-knife prospect that plays with rhythm. Peterson is a slasher that finds ways to score and has developed into a precision passer. Natural playmaker with added court charisma.
14. New York Liberty: Jessica DellaRatta (Cromwell): Brings her hardhat to work daily and happy to make others around her better. DellaRatta is stable around the rim, both offensively and defensively. Doesn’t need the spotlight but is at her best when the stakes are high.
Moments after Newington defeated Joel Barlow in the 2018 Class M boys’ volleyball championship, the conversation shifted to the following June.
“Last year when we finished the championship game we were like ‘alright we got this one now it’s time to move on to the next one’,” said senior setter Leonel Caceres.
Despite just winner their second title in a row, all the returning players could talk about was a potential three-peat.
Last Thursday night Caceres and the Indians took the triple dip, downing Cheshire in four sets (16-25, 25-16, 25-19, 25-22) at Shelton High School.
It was the team’s sixth championship in eight years and the program’s first time capturing a state title in three straight seasons.
Newington earned the title shot in Shelton after holding off a talented Wethersfield squad in the semifinals, winning in three sets (25-20, 25-18, 25-23) at New Britain High School last Tuesday night.
Eagles coach Debbie O’Brien shared an emotional moment with her team following the loss and reminded them to keep their heads held high.
“We came in second in the conference, which we hadn’t done in a while, and we had one of the best records that we’ve had in a long time, and we had never made it to the semifinals. They should be proud of what they accomplished. They had a goal and they worked towards it. It was one of those special seasons, and they came in and enjoyed it every step of the way.”
The Eagles won 15 regular season games and swept through the first two rounds of the tourney, eliminating Bloomfield and New Canaan.
Against Newington they held the lead at some point in all three sets and nearly rallied to take the third, scoring five of seven points late, making one final push to save their season.
“There was no giving up, it’s all heart and confidence,” added O’Brien, “I never thought we were out of it for a second because that’s how this team has been all year long.”
It was a tearful goodbye for seven seniors, including captains Kevin Rascius, Riley Grenier, and Josh Malizia.
“They’re all skilled players. They study the game, they love the game, and they’re gym rats,” O’Brien said of her departing players, “They’re all such great role models and great leaders. They welcomed the underclassmen and were always teaching them and pushing them to improve. They are leaving huge shoes to fill.”
For Newington, it was business as usual.
The tourney win over a neighboring rival was satisfying, yet it was the just a stepping-stone in their triple crown journey.
“We weren’t worried about all the hype around the game. We just have one goal, and that is to get that three-peat. We were only worried about closing it out in three, no more,” said senior Louis Egbuna, who finished with 12 kills.
Fellow senior Teddy Fravel put an end to both the first and final sets, with two of his team-high 14 kills.
“As soon as we started picking holes in their blocks then the game was a lot easier. We started using the whole court and that really allowed us to pull away,” recalled Fravel.
Wethersfield led midway through the first set until Newington’s serving specialist Jasper Cayunda came off the bench and swung the momentum, serving up four straight winners, including an ace.
“We felt as the game went on our serves were bothering them more. Jasper’s four-point run was huge, he made the serves that mattered. That boosted our confidence very much,” said Caceres, who dished out 34 assists.
Julian Ortiz had a team-high three aces and Riley Miller was a force at the net, blocking four shots.
The semifinal sweep was the appetizer for the championship entrée, which was served over ice at Shelton High.
Following the semifinal win, the team’s confident seniors relished the chance to go out as three-time champions.
“We expected to be here and the fact that we got it done is a blessing. Coming in as a freshman I didn’t expect to win a couple of rings and now we have a chance for three. We have the chance to be the first Newington team to go back-to-back-to-back, and that’s what is going to happen,” said Caceres.
“It just shows how hard work pays off. We’ve been working since we were freshman and now we’re all seniors still working hard and we just want one more ring. If we can close it out and get that ring, then we’ll know that all that hard work has paid off,” added Egbuna.
Fravel was more matter of fact and upped the pressure, “We have talked about it as seniors and have come to the conclusion that we cannot lose or else we can’t show our faces at Newington. That’s how serious this is.”
The trio delivered in a big way in the championship tilt, finishing the season the same way they started, beating Cheshire in four sets.
Caceres dished up 42 assists and Egbuna had 10 kills.
Fravel earned championship game MVP honors following 17 kills and four total blocks.
It was a fitting end for a senior class that elevated an already successful program to another stratosphere.
Caceres, Egbuna, Fravel, Ortiz, Miller, and reliable libero Collin Liedke will all be graduating, leaving an obvious talent void.
However, as he has done for countless times over the past decade, head coach Curt Burns has been grooming the next cast of potential champions.
Jacob Baclawski, who finished third on the team in kills this season, will be returning, along with the likes of Cayunda, Mason Romano, Keenan Esau, and Alex DiPaolo.
By next spring, the names above will be dominating the headlines and will potentially be on the road to four in a row.
#12 Riley Grenier gets ready to set as #20 Luke Kelleher and #15 Dylan Knapp look on during Wethersfield's three set victory over Bloomfield last Wednesday night. Photo: Jo-Ann Campbell
Boom Boom Pow by The Black Eyed Peas topped the Billboard Charts when Wethersfield boys’ volleyball last hosted a state tournament game.
All that changed last Wednesday night when the #4 Eagles welcomed, and defeated, #13 Bloomfield in three sets (27-25, 25-20, 25-19) during the opening round of the Class M tourney.
Nearly a decade had past since the program had played a state match at WHS, a drought dating back to June of 2009.
“We wanted to take advantage of that, being in front of our home fans,” said Wethersfield coach Debbie O’Brien, who guided her team to a 15-5 mark in the regular season.
Wednesday’s three-setter didn’t come easy for the Eagles, who had to withstand an early flurry from the visiting Warhawks, led by the explosive duo of Chaddane Williams and Emmanuel Goods.
Bloomfield had the home team on the ropes in the first set, leading 24-23, before the Eagles scored four of the final five points.
A kill from Kevin Rascius was followed by back-to-back winners from Conor Senk, before an overhead slam from Dylan Knapp ended the opening set.
“That’s something we’ve talked about all season. Teams get runs on us and we have to shut it down before it’s too late. For the most part we did that, although in the first game it got close,” said Rascius, a team captain.
“You could tell both teams were a little jittery. I could feel the team was jazzed a little bit and they just needed to work through it,” O’Brien said of the back-and-forth first set, “We’ve gone through those spurts that have hurt us, but then we get that one stop when we need it.”
Rascius took over early in set two, scoring four straight points, included three aces. The senior finished with a game-high eight aces.
“I noticed that one of their weaker passers was in the middle, so I was just trying to target that spot.”
Luke Kelleher increased the lead to 21-16 with consecutive blocks before Rascius ended the set with a thunderous spike that ricocheted off a Warhawk.
In the final frame, Mason Sundquist had a kill and block to provide an early cushion before Senk scored six of the final seven points for the Eagles, including the match’s final two after Bloomfield made one last run.
“Finishing teams off has been biting us all year, so when we saw them coming back we knew we had to turn it up,” said Senk, “This year we’re a higher seed and we wanted to take advantage of the home court. I feel like our whole mentality is a lot better than last year and I think these home games, getting the fans to come out, is really helpful.”
A loss would have been a wrap for seven seniors, who lived to play another day.
“We didn’t want to lose in front of our home crowd, especially it being the first home states game in a long time,” said Rascius, “The seniors are all close. We have a lot of fun at practice and we’re all friends outside of volleyball.”
The tourney triumph was the Eagles third win over Bloomfield in less than six weeks, also winning in straight sets on April 15 and needing five sets at Bloomfield on May 8.
“Blocking-wise we changed a little bit because they have those two hitter, #7 and #10, who are both super good. We did try and adjust to those two,” said O’Brien, referring to Williams and Goods, “The first time we played them we controlled the game a little more and the second time we went five. They had excelled since then, so we were ready for them, we knew they were coming. They’re scrappy, you saw them dig out some balls and makes some saves, and they were big on the blocks. We knew we needed to pass and have a lot of different options, otherwise they would just read us and block.”
“We knew they have two really dominant hitters and they’ve gotten better the two times we played them, so this time we focused on covering and blocking and really finding a way to slow down the hits. I feel like we did that today,” added Senk, “The practices we had this past week really paid off.”
As he has done all season, Senk led the team in kills. He’s one of two starting juniors, along with libero Cameron Ky, who wowed the crowd with his usual array of diving saves.
Knapp, a sophomore, came off the bench to supply a handful of winners.
“He’s played more positions than anyone else this year. We’ve had him left side, we’ve had him right side. We’ve had him playing middle and we’ve had him on the outside. He’s versatile,” O’Brien said of her blossoming underclassman, “He’s that quiet kid, but we joke that every once in a while that beast comes out. He’s been that silent, secret weapon and he’s made a huge difference.”
Knapp has also earned the trust of the seniors.
“I’ll be honest, sometimes he gets in his own head and we have to pick him up but when that happens he steps up for us and today he did that. He gets big blocks and really helps out our team. He’s going to be big the next couple of years,” added Rascius.
Coming into the season O’Brien knew her team had the right pieces and the right mentality.
“At the beginning of the season I told them ‘don’t miss this because you guys have that special connection.’ They been working towards it since last season when we lost against Mills. They couldn’t wait to get back on the court.”
The team won their first nine games to start 2019, only dropping four set over the nine-game span.
“We’ve just had one of those special seasons. The senior class leadership has been, without a doubt, the key. It’s just one of those teams that doesn’t come around a lot. They work hard, they know how to have a lot of fun, and they know how to keep that balance. They click and they play for each other. It’s just one of those teams.”
The special season continued with more home cooking last Friday, sweeping New Canaan (25-21, 26-24, 25-16) in the quarterfinals at WHS.
After waiting 3,648 days to host a playoff game, the program only had to wait one day to host another.
“The confidence that all of us have this year is really bringing us up. Last year we were kind of unsure about ourselves and we didn’t really have an identity. Then we had a good start this year and the way we've been playing has really brought our spirits up and basically makes us ready for anyone,” said Senk.
The Starting Five: Local Athletes of the Week
Matt Sevigny- Rocky Hill (Baseball): Sevigny drove in three runs on three hits as #29 Rocky Hill upset #4 Montville 8-5 in a 13 inning-marathon during the opening round of the Class M tourney. The season ended for the scrappy Terriers in round two, but the three-sport senior made a lasting impression during his time at RHHS.
Ryan Saindon- Newington (Baseball): Saindon had a walk-off RBI in the bottom of the 7th inning, driving in Gunnar Johnson as Newington held off Xavier 5-4 in the first round of the Class LL tournament. The junior was a major contributor for an Indians team that fell in the second round at Enfield.
Emily McKenna- Wethersfield (Golf): McKenna shot a tourney-low 77 to finish atop the leaderboard as the Eagles repeated as conference champions, winning the CCC Championships at Tunxis. The senior was joined by teammates Leah Ayers, Taylor Ayers, Sydney Bowers, and Meaghan Murphy at the event. It was the latest accomplishment for an Eagles team that finished the regular season a perfect 16-0.
Matthew Lecky- Middletown (Track & Field): Lecky finished third in the 1600 Meters at the Class L Outdoor Track & Field finals. The senior has had a memorable four years at MHS, both on the track and on the cross country trails.
Anthony Caracoglia- Cromwell (Track & Field): Caracoglia was part of Cromwell’s 4x100 relay team that took first place in the at the Class M Outdoor Track & Field finals, teaming with Dudley Salmon, JJ Tracy, and Ethan Wilson for the championship win. The junior also took home third place in the Long Jump and finished sixth in the Triple Jump.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin