Wethersfield boys soccer All-State players (L to R) Owen Ahmetrovic, RJ Darrell, and Anis Nurkic following a Conference Championship win. The three are holding the jerseys of the WHS players unable to play
The 2020 fall high school sports season was unlike any other. Football was limited to a few 7-on-7 scrimmages, regular season schedules were reduced, and state tournaments did not exist.
Despite all the roadblocks, the athletes around the state competed from the first whistle until the final buzzer and several local standouts made All-State teams.
Here is a compilation of the thoughts from the all-state athletes (and coaches) after being selected to the CHSCA (Connecticut High School Coaches Association) All-State teams.
Julia Peacock (Wethersfield): Wethersfield head coach Colleen Budaj on Peacock, “She came to us with a soccer background and transitioned her skills as a soccer goalie to a field hockey goalie. She understands the game of angles and gets herself in the right place to make the save. This season she became increasingly more vocal in owning her area and communicating with her defense. She is relentless and never gives up. Julia ended the season with a 93 percent saves record- which is a stat to be proud of. She stood her ground against some tough LL schools where the majority of the game was played in our defensive backfield. Above all of this, she is a great teammate. She is kind-hearted and does whatever the team needs her to do. She is not worried about her stats- she is more concerned about the team's success!”
Zack Lombardo (Middletown): “Ever since I was a freshmen making all state was a dream, making varsity freshmen year was a step in the right direction. Only scoring one goal freshmen year, zero sophomore year, and three junior year, I knew I had to step it up for my senior year. I worked constantly over the lockdown period and over the summer. Scoring 10 goals and 7 assists in 9 games was such a rewarding feeling to finally succeed the way I wanted to. I can’t say I did this alone, with the help of my great teammates and coach, our team went undefeated for the first time in a while. Our team was something special and I couldn’t have accomplished this great honor without them.”
Christian Amaral (Newington): “For me being selected as an All State player means I’ve performed well enough this season to be considered one of the best players in the state. It is a sign of recognition for the effort I’ve put in and it is a great award to receive. I couldn’t of done it without my teammates, parents, and coaches who always push me to be the best player I can be. I’m honored and humbled to be an All State soccer player and I will continue to work hard to achieve the rest of the goals I have set out for myself. It is a great award, but the work is not done yet.”
Tyler Neves (Cromwell): “It was an honor to be selected for All-State soccer this year. Heading into my senior year I had received no awards or recognition. I knew I had to practice, but it became difficult with Covid limiting the opportunity for team play throughout the spring and summer. I realized it was my responsibility to improve even without having outside help, so I took the time to put in the work. The All-State selection and overall recognition provides reassurance that the hard work paid off. The entire team has worked exceptionally hard, and we are all grateful that we were able to complete a successful season.”
RJ Darrell (Wethersfield): “All state meant a lot to me. I’ve worked really hard my whole life and especially over the summer to make my senior season a success. All state was one of my goals for the season that I set for myself. I was happy to get all state to represent Wethersfield and all my teammates and coaches.”
Anis Nurkic (Wethersfield): “Getting selected for All State means a lot to me. I worked really hard over the summer and I just put in 110% effort each game and practice. I improved my skills in every aspect, it was not easy but the hard work I put in this season and with the stats I had got me to the All State selection.”
Additional Selections: Owen Ahmetovic (Wethersfield), Jason Molineiro (Rocky Hill), Anthony Bocchio (Middletown).
Sierra Judson (Wethersfield): “Closing out my high school career as All State is an honor. I was blessed with a great coach, Tony Leone, and an amazing support system with all my teammates. Most importantly, it shows all the hard work and dedication I have put into this sport. Without my amazing coaches and teammates over these years I never would’ve been awarded with this. They are the ones who pushed me and challenged me everyday to become better. I am beyond blessed and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for me with college soccer.”
Additional Selections: Gabriella Villagra (Wethersfield), Olivia Mullings (Newington)
Boys Cross Country
Mike Zocco (Cromwell): “All State is an honor that not only tests an athlete’s skill, but their determination, grit, perseverance, will to succeed, and mental toughness. These strong qualities will not only allow them to achieve the all state honor, but also get them through many challenges life throws at them. All state is not only an athletic achievement, but a valuable life lesson.”
Additional Selections: Mark Rodriguez (Cromwell), Mike Bohlke (Newington)
Girls Cross Country
Maren Valente (Rocky Hill): “Despite not having a regular season, I am so thankful to get All-State and that I was able to race with my teammates. Even without state-level meets, it is so cool to see all of the hard work pay off!”
Additional Selections: Grace Mikan (Cromwell), Kate Bohlke (Newington)
Madison Massaro-Cook (Newington)
Olivia Thompson (Wethersfield), Alanna DePinto (Wethersfield), Sabrina Schuster (Wethersfield), Haley Krawcyzk (Wethersfield), Jamie Condon (Wethersfield), Emily Wolf (Wethersfield), Julia Pitchell (Wethersfield)
Newington High School senior soccer star Olivia Mullings was named to the United Soccer Coaches All- American team, becoming the first player in program history to earn the illustrious honor.
Mullings was a captain and goal-scoring machine as a forward for a Newington team that won the Region D Conference Championship, defeating a previously unbeaten Wethersfield on penalty kicks in November. She recently committed to the University of Hartford to continue her athletic and academic careers.
Newington athletic director Christopher Meyers said this of Mullings, “She is an outstanding player, but a better person. Her dedication to development and personal growth, while supporting her teammates and focusing on the overall improvement of the program is what has earned her this distinguished honor. We are so proud of Olivia and are excited to see her continued success at the University of Hartford next year.”
Mullings was surprised when she received the All-American honor, saying “To be completely honest I did not think that I would even make it on the watch list. It was my goal to follow in the footsteps of my idol Kayla Lozada, who also went to Hartford from Newington, but I also wanted to surpass her. I created my own type of competition with myself to see if I could be better. This season I didn’t feel like I represented to the extent of my skill set, and I had a couple setbacks regarding various injuries, but I still put forth all I could and am beyond excited and happy that I was able to achieve the goal I didn’t think I was good enough to achieve. It’s surreal to me still.”
Lozada, who starred with the Hartford Hawks for four seasons and earned All-Region, All-Conference, and All-Academic during her time in the Capital, was one of the many reasons that Mullings chose to stay local.
“I chose Hartford because I have been going there on various different occasions for Girls in Sports day and camps and clinics since I was little. When I got the interest in me initially, I was completely in awe because I never thought I was going to be able to make it to the D1 level. I didn’t think I was good enough on top of that coming from a school I had grown up around was completely flattering and exciting,” stated Mullings, “This year overall has been unbelievable in that I was able to achieve my goal and gain more confidence in my ability by receiving the All-American honor as well.”
Wethersfield senior Mia Destefani, pictured with parents Jennifer and Rocco, will swim at SCSU next season. Teammate Olivia Thompson will swim at Fairfield Unviersity
Wethersfield High School senior swimmers Olivia Thompson and Mia Destefani have made college commitments to continuing swimming at the next level.
Thompson, a four-year member of the Eagles swim team, has signed a national letter of intent to swim at Fairfield University next year. She is a member of CCC Divisional championship teams in 2017, 2018, and 2019, while also serving as captain and helping the team complete an undefeated 2020 campaign.
Thompson earned all-conference honors every year, while also being selected to the All-Academic Team. In 2018, she earned All-State status in the 200 free relay and 200 medley relay, and in 2019 earned All-State in the 50 free, 100 free, and 200 free relay. Thompson currently holds the Freshman, Pool, and Varsity records in the medley relay, 200 free relay, and 400 free relay.
Thompson was also part of the Eagles tennis team and was a member of the National Honor Society and National Social Studies Honor Society. She also participates in the Interact Club and Environmental Club, in addition to volunteering as a Special Olympics coach. At Fairfield, she will major in psychology.
Destefani, also a four-year letter winner, signed a letter of intent to swim at Southern Connecticut State University. She helped her team win divisional titles in 2017, 2018, and 2019. This season, as a senior, she was instrumental in leading the Eagles to an undefeated season.
During her high school career, Destefani earned CCC all-conference accolades in addition to CCC All-Academic status. She also participated in track & field and managed both the boys' swim team and the boys' lacrosse team.
*Information provided by the WHS AD Michael Maltese and the Athletic Department*
Rocky Hill seniors (L-R) Madison Hanna, Alexandra Podgorska, Grace Triblets, Sophia Buonanno have helped nagivate Terriers cheer through 2020's restrictions
Every high school sport in Connecticut has officially been impacted by COVID-19 and now cheerleading has been affected twice by the pandemic.
Cheerleading is held during both the fall and winter sports season, with teams performing at football games in the fall and at basketball game in the spring, which is also the season when cheer competitions are held.
“We’ve always looked at our team as a family and we were missing that this year. We were always there for each other and honestly they are all my best friends,” said Rocky Hill senior cheerleader Sophia Buonanno.
Rocky Hill is among the many cheer squads in the state that are awaiting a decision by the state of Connecticut and the CIAC on whether to begin an already delayed winter sports season.
A decision is set to be made in the week’s leading up to January 19, which would be the date that winter sports could start practicing.
Fall’s restrictions deeply impacted cheerleading, which is often overlooked but is one of the most difficult and challenging sports. The cancellation of the football season, combined with the harsh restrictions placed on cheer, made fall’s season nearly unrecognizable.
Restrictions eliminated stunting, taking away individual and group stunts that are normally performed.
“We tried really, really hard as a team to change our restrictions. We talked to the higher-ups to please let us do something. We will wear masks, we’ll be outside, we’ll do anything,” recalled Rocky Hill senior Grace Triblets, “We saw the other sports that were practicing every day. They were allowed to do things that we weren’t, so it didn’t seem very logical. We would have done anything to be able to have this year.”
Senior captain Anela Korkutovic added, “I was really sad with the way cheer ended up panning out this year. The lack of stunting put a damper on the season because it prevented us from working to our full potential. We were extremely excited going in to this season. This sport brought a lot of positive energy and joy into my life, and I was sad it wouldn’t be able to have that same full effect. Nonetheless, a limited season with my favorite people is still better than no season at all.”
Rocky Hill had 11 seniors that navigated through an unprecedented fall season, which was also cut short by the school’s own COVID concerns, forcing RHHS into temporary on-line-only learning for a couple of weeks in early November.
Even if a winter season is held, it will again hinder the team’s ability to bond and compete at the highest level.
“During football we’re kind of doing our own thing but during winter we normally have team dinners and we really come together as a team,” said senior captain Alexandra Podgorska.
As on now, cheerleading is separated into two risk categories by the state’s Department of Health. Sideline cheer is listed as a low-risk activity and competitive cheer has been deemed high-risk. This all but assures that a competitive cheer season will not be held, but leaves open the possibility of cheering at basketball games at some point this winter.
“There was a lot of restrictions. It’s basically just cheers, jumps, tumbling, and conditioning,” said Buonanno, who plans to cheer in college as she pursues a degree in Exercise Science, “Stunting is a really big part of building us as a team because you need to be able to trust everyone that you’re stunting with. It’s kind of hard to build the same relationships without it and to be honest it took a good amount of the fun out of it.”
As much as the girls enjoy cheering for the football and basketball teams, the real competition is done towards the end of winter season when the conference and state cheering competitions are held.
“The competition is really the highlight of what we do and that’s why we are here. We’re not just here to cheer people on, we are our own sport,” stated Triblets.
“During the game we’re kind of pushed off to the side, not front and center, which is okay because a lot of girls may not be confident and use that time to work on what they can without having to worry about everyone’s eyes on them,” added senior captain Madison Hanna, “It’s different during competition season.”
Despite a less than ideal senior year, the squad has accomplished plenty over the previous three years.
As freshman, they joined a cheer squad that helped make history with the Terriers football team, who advanced all the way to the state championship. The girls were able to perform in front of several hundred fans at Willow Brook Park in New Britain during the Class S championship football game.
“As much as I love comp, it’s so stressful sometimes so I think I prefer football only because the school spirt that we had,” said Podgorska, who wants to continuing cheering in college as she majors in Secondary Education-English, “Freshman year specifically because we were part of the crowd and the crowd joined in with us and made that bond nicer with the cheer team and the school. We got respect.”
The team also won a Central Connecticut North-Conference banner a few years back, which they called the highlight of their time at Rocky Hill.
One of the main aspects missing this year was the ability to mentor the sophomores and freshmen. Under normal circumstances that seniors would take the underclassmen under their wing, passing on the standards and traditions of the program.
“It was just really strange because we didn’t have a lot of time,” said Podgorska, “That relationship between captain and team wasn’t there this year.”
One of the traditions that was lost was the bus rides to and from away games. For the past three years the girls had rocked out to ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ by Kelly Clarkson during the rides, a tradition they continued from previous classes. They fear that these traditions may graduate with them.
“It was very different this season. We were separated into three cohorts of eight people and then we were thrown together on our first week of practice and didn’t know some of the people. It was really weird. The only one that could really stay in touch were the ones that we on the team last year together,” recalled Triblets, who will pursue Legal Studies in college.
Hanna, who hopes to go attend University of Central Florida to study Psychology, had some advice for the next generation of Rocky Hill cheerleaders, “Don’t look at it as just an after-school activity. You have to put all of your energy into it. It’s just like every other sport.”
Through thick and thin, the cheerleading class of 2021 has stuck together. It’s a bond that the seniors will share for life.
“I’ve never been a part of a more connected team. We all love each other and have gotten even closer despite the restrictions this year. I think it’s partially due to how much we have to stick together in this sport as a whole,” stated Korkutovic, who will be study Sociology and Communications in college, “We have our differences but at the end of the day these girls are absolutely some of my best friends.”
Wethersfield High School football founder and legendary head coach Joe Cottone
In a normal year we would be entering state championship weekend in high school football. In a normal year the boys of fall would be getting ready to put a big bow on another season on the gridiron. In a normal year, local high school football would dominate the headlines.
However, this certainly isn’t a normal year. So this week we present the third and final installment of the history of Wethersfield High School football by taking a detailed look at the founder of the program, Joe Cottone.
The following was written by Mike DellaRipa, a WHS’71 graduate and a proud “Cottone Boy”
All of us in our journey called life are truly fortunate, and lucky, when growing up we have as our teacher a person who lives a life of integrity, finds joy when “giving back” and teaching students, inspires them to give 100% in all they do and encourages them to continue their education after high school. One such teacher was Joe Cottone, who taught at Wethersfield High School for over 15 years.
Cottone was born in Hartford, lived through the tough years of the Great Depression and his values were learned through his devotion to his faith in God. He became a great three-sport (football, basketball and baseball) student athlete at Bulkeley High School and later at Dartmouth College where he graduated. He then served honorably as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during WWII.
Cottone later met and married the love of his life, Lillian June Echenique, nicknamed “Nicki” and they raised a family of five children. The Cottone family eventually settled down in Wethersfield where Cottone taught as a physical education teacher at WHS.
Coach Cottone started junior varsity football at WHS and 1960 was the first year of varsity football. Cottone taught players to be student athletes. This meant you were students first, athletes second, and were expected to always do well in class, graduate, always give your best effort and show good sportsmanship while playing football. He inspired his players and taught them the importance of teamwork.
His motto was “football is the game of life, you will get knocked down many times, but always be sure to get up right away and get back in the game”, a lesson his players never forgot, that led many to their success after high school.
From 1960 to 1973, his football teams went on to win five conference titles, 72 games and developed many All-Conference, some All-State, and one All-American player. His exceptional coaching ability was recognized when he was selected to coach in the Nutmeg Bowl, featuring the state’s finest football student athletes. More importantly, Cottone was a mentor to students and athletes, and made everyone feel important.
One compassionate story of his caring was one day he noticed a student who seemed depressed, and he pulled the student aside and assured that student his life was important, had meaning and not to give up. That student went on to graduate, and later told Cottone had it not been for his encouragement, he probably would have dropped out of high school.
Cottone’s trademark smile and optimism became known to all who knew him. After a few years teaching and coaching at WHS, he became affectionately known to everyone simply as “Coach”. While other coaches are known to sometimes use coarse language with student athletes, with Coach Cottone, true to his values, belief in God and setting a good role model for players, he would only use the words “Jeepers Creepers” when disappointed or upset, and players always paid attention and showed respect when he spoke.
He and his family opened their hearts and home with hospitality to many students in high school. Sunday afternoons watching football game films as a team at the Cottone home became a tradition with football players.
Cottone gave much of the credit in his career to the support and understanding he received from his wife Nicki. Their children became used to the front door of their home being like a “carousel” for current and former students coming over to see “Coach”. Stories of the Cottone family hospitality quickly became legend in Wethersfield, as did the impact on student athlete’s lives.
Bill Casey, WHS ‘63, football quarterback, stated “growing up without a father, I was lucky to have Coach (Cottone) in my life at this most important time”,
Two exceptional student athletes, Kevin Duffy and John Heaton, both WHS ‘63 went on to graduate from Indiana University and played football there. When Indiana faced the University of Southern California, led by O.J. Simpson, in the Rose Bowl, many remember with pride Duffy introducing himself on national television saying he was from “the historic town of Wethersfield, Connecticut”. Heaton went on to serve honorably in the U. S. Army in South Viet Nam. He always remembered how he was encouraged by letters he received from Coach while stationed overseas.
Two of Coach’s sons, Marc Cottone, WHS’63, a quarterback on the only undefeated WHS team in 1962, and Jay Cottone, WHS’67, another WHS quarterback, both went on to graduate from college and lead successful lives.
Marc Cottone graduated from Central Connecticut State University and worked for 10 years at American Airlines. He later moved to Florida to become the Personnel Director for Gulf Stream Thoroughbred Race Track, and then worked as Operational Manager at Global Security.
Jay Cottone graduated from Norwich University. He was commissioned in the Army Medical Service Corps and served honorably in the reserves. He became the head football coach at Plymouth State College for five years where he was the second winningest coach in the nation. As the saying goes ‘the apple didn't fall far from the tree’. Jay was also a quarterback coach at UMass Amherst. He then came back to Wethersfield to become the Athletic Director for WHS.
The WHS teammates of Marc and Jay Cottone, both who were taught football by their father since they were youngsters, regarded them as WHS football’s finest quarterbacks and team leaders.
Mike Cancelliere, WHS ‘64 football team captain, graduated from Trinity College where he also played football. He earned college All-League honors and was awarded the Trinity team MVP (Most Valuable Player) award in 1968. He later became an assistant coach on the 1970 WHS conference title team and then went on to a successful business career. He says he saw Coach as comparable to WHS Football as Vince Lombardi was to the NFL Green Bay Packers.
Bob Pandolfe, WHS ‘64 star player until an injury sidelined him, became a successful businessman, and spent much of his later years in life giving back, helping others overcome addictions.
Don Johnsen, WHS ‘65, was an exceptional running back for WHS, earning All-State recognition and received Honorable Mention as a Parade Magazine All-American. After WHS he attended Dartmouth College.
During the 1970 football season, Coach was hospitalized for an illness and could not be there for the football season opening game in September. His team became motivated to win for him. After beating his arch-rival Conard, the players immediately went to see Coach at Hartford Hospital, a moment they learned one of his values of working hard for a greater goal besides personal recognition.
Ned Lipes, WHS ’71, was a 3-year varsity football player and class academic salutatorian. Lipes went on to graduate from Harvard Business School and became a successful Group President of a Fortune 500 company. Lipes has said the important lessons of teamwork he learned from Coach contributed later to his successful career in business.
There are many other stories of how Coach taught and inspired student athletes, but all their stories cannot fit into this one article.
In 1974 Joe Cottone passed away, to the sadness of the many hundreds of current and former students and players who he had inspired and encouraged during his lifetime. At his funeral procession there were more cars than the eye could see.
Later, an archway was built at the entrance to the WHS football field, with the name Joseph F. Cottone Field across the top. It has, and always will be, an inspiration to all coaches and players to honor Coach’s values, which are always do your best, never give up, and show good sportsmanship. Many coaches and players now say they can still feel Coach’s influence every time they go through it.
The archway also stands as a legacy to one of WHS’s best teachers, Joe Cottone, who placed a high value on seeing all students get a good education, always do your best in class, graduate and continue your education after high school.
Shortly thereafter, many former football WHS football players, started a group called the “Cottone Boys”, made up of former football players on Coach’s football teams from 1960 to 1973 who wanted to see the legacy and values of Cottone live on, through acts of caring, compassion, support and encouragement.
The importance of giving back taught by Coach continued as the Cottone Boys have stayed in touch with each other since then. Once they purchased a car for a former player who was going through hard times. Many have been there just for encouragement to each other when one player became ill or being there for a grieving family when a member passed away
When the WHS Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame was later established, Coach’s five conference title teams were voted into the Hall of Fame.
For the 44-year period, 1974 to 2018, the WHS football program continued Coach’s influence of excellence on and off the football field with either an assistant coach or former player from Cottone’s tenure, on the football team coaching staff. Joe Klinger and John Hegenbart were two good coaches during this time.
Another good coach was John Campanello, WHS’73, football team captain and Cottone Boy. After WHS he went to Central Connecticut State University, played football there and graduated. From 1989 to 2004 he was an assistant football coach at WHS and then became the head coach from 2005 to 2018. Using the lessons taught to him by Cottone and his influence, his teams went on to win 83 games, four conference titles and make the state playoffs three years.
In 2009, a gifted student athlete and football player at WHS, Tyler Murphy, went to on Boston College where he played football. He then went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and is now assistant quarterback coach for the Miami Dolphins.
In 2017 the CT Board of High School Football Officials awarded to the WHS Football Team, players and coaches, the Outstanding Sportsmanship Award, something Coach would have been proud of.
In 2019, Matt McKinnon, a former assistant coach at WHS became the new head coach. McKinnon’s first season showed a record of 8-3. The winning tradition lives on.
Michele Cottone Kriticos, WHS’72, and Coach’s daughter, shares she remembers that to Coach, “every player was like his son”. Every one of his former football players would also say “Coach (Cottone) was like a second father to every player”.
The name and legacy of Joseph F. Cottone will always be remembered as one of the greatest teachers and coaches at WHS. Forty-six years after his passing, the values of Coach still influence WHS players and coaches. His values live on and are honored today by all who were fortunate to have known him and all who pass through the archway at the WHS football field bearing his name.
Article contributions from Michele Cottone Kriticos and Cottone Boys (in alphabetical order): John Campanello, Mike Cancelliere, Jay Cottone, Marc Cottone, Bob Fitzgibbons, Steve Kelley, Ned Lipes, Charlie Settino, Charlie Viani
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin