Jim Bransfield: Championship week is here

It’s championship week in Connecticut high school sports. The basketball season finishes with all eight boys and girls championships this Saturday and Sunday at the Mohegan Sun arena, the hockey finals are this weekend at Ingalls Rink at Yale, and the boys swimming championships are mid-week for the Class LL, L, M and S titles at Wesleyan. The state diving open is Thursday at Middletown High and the swimming open is Saturday at Yale.

The Middletown area is guaranteed to have a boys basketball team playing for a title at the Mohegan Sun as Cromwell plays Valley Regional at Sheehan High in Wallingford Tuesday in a Class S semifinal match. The winner will play either Bloomfield or state power Sacred Heart — which East Hampton came with a whisker of upsetting the other night — for the crown this weekend.

Mercy and the Cromwell girls fans are disappointed that their teams won’t be going to state championship games, but they shouldn’t be. Mercy graduated four starters from last year’s team and to win the Southern Connecticut Conference title and then get to the semifinals are tremendous achievements.

This just might be Tim Kohs’ best coaching job.

Kelly Maher’s team in Cromwell had one of those bad shooting nights against Morgan. The Panthers missed a bunch of easy shots, but in the tourney all it takes is one bad quarter, a bad shooting night, a couple of calls that don’t go your way and you’re done. Still, to win the Shoreline title, go to the state M semis, and lose just two games all season is remarkable.

Fact is, it is very hard to win a state championship, let alone repeat. When a team wins a title, those kids should cherish it. The odds are huge it won’t happen again.

In swimming, the class meets will be held this week with Middletown High participating in the Class L meet Wednesday at 7:15 at Wesleyan. Class L is an extremely tough division with Fairfield County powerhouses Darien, Pomperaug, New Canaan and Wilton, plus strong mid-state teams such as Farmington, Hall and Conard.

Middletown was “awesome” at the state Class L trials Saturday, said coach Trevor Charles. He said he had 13 swimmers qualify for the Class L meet.

“We should be in the top five, and I’m hoping we can make a run at third,” said Charles, whose team goes into the meet with 80 points, courtesy of the performance of his divers at the Class L meet last Thursday.

Xavier will have swimmers in the Class L meet Wednesday at 3 p.m., and Haddam-Killingworth will have swimmers in the Class S meet Tuesday at 7:15 p.m.

The state open diving championships are Thursday at MHS at 5:30 p.m., an event that features the best 25 divers from all classes.

BOYS HOOP THOUGHTS

I thought at season’s end Middletown High’s boys team was maybe the best team in the area. For most of the year, I thought Xavier was the best club, but the Falcons stumbled badly down the stretch. Yeah, I know the schedule was difficult, but at season’s end, the Falcons simply couldn’t score. I figure Cromwell is the third best team, but all three are really close. Pick your favorite.

I saw Xavier play 11 times and at season’s end, the team looked out of synch. Maybe uncomfortable is the right word.

At the end of the year, I thought Brandon MacPherson was playing the best of any Falcon. While he couldn’t buy a hoop for three quarters in Xavier’s 48-41 loss to East Hartford — neither could anyone else — in the fourth quarter he was immense, scoring 13 points, almost willing the Falcons to victory.

Probably another word that describes the Falcons’ season is frustrating. Xavier began the season 7-1 and with 16 games in the book, was 12-4 and getting votes in the Register’s statewide poll.

But then things headed south and while never a good shooting team, the Falcons’ shooting became even worse at crunch time, scoring just 46, 33, 39 and 41 points in their last four games. And in the game they scored 33, they won over West Haven 33-30. Usually Xavier peaks at the right time, but not this winter.

Middletown’s season went the other direction. After an 0-3 start and at 1-4 following an ugly loss to New Britain, the Blue Dragons went 14-3. Among those wins were two over Maloney, a win over Bristol Central — now in the state Class L semifinals — and a tourney win over Notre Dame, a game in which their star, Brandon Simmons, was in foul trouble and who fouled out with a lot of time left to play.

An interesting thing about Middletown’s season is that its perceived weakness, inexperience at guard, turned out to be a strength. The MHS ball handlers — Makai Hunter, Caylen and Savon Williams — improved tremendously as the season went on. They repeatedly drove by the Notre Dame defenders for layups or fouls underneath.

Notre Dame coach Jason Shea said Middletown didn’t surprise him, but he was whistling in the wind. In his next breath, he talked about how his club couldn’t stop the dribble penetration they he thought they could. Sounds like a surprise to me.

Central coach Tim Barrette said that his biggest fear in the tourney game his club won over MHS was that he would fall behind early. “With Middletown’s guards, if we had to chase, it would have been a long night,” he said.

Middletown’s horrible shooting start doomed it against Central. But against a team with only four losses, MHS came from 14 down to tie at 50-50, but simply ran out of gas. Another impressive loss — if there is such a thing — came at the hands of Weaver in the CCC tourney. Weaver went on to win the CCC title and is in the Class M semifinals.

At the end of the day, I thought MHS coach Dave Sytulek turned in a coach of the year kind of job. Another sports writer who saw the New Britain game early on said, “I have no idea what he did, because Middletown looked awful that night. Now look at them. Two different teams.”

Give Sytulek some points for tossing Antonio White off the team. He gave him a chance after his midseason on-the-court implosion, but the kid did it again, said Sytulek. The coach also said that because he thought he should play more, center O’Brien Watson quit late in the season. Never will understand kids who quit.

By the way, Sytulek will have to wait until next year for his 100th career win. He went into the Central game with 99 wins.

WRONG DIRECTION

Instead of following the example of improving academic standards that is sweeping the country, the CIAC continues to “dumb down” the high school postseason. This year the organization decided to expand the hockey playoffs to 16 teams in each of the three divisions, regardless of record. That meant that truly bad teams were rewarded.

In Division III there were two teams with 4-16 records and two teams with 5-15 records in the tourney. All lost. In fact, in the hockey tourney, sub-.500 teams were 2-16 and there were scores like 9-2 and 11-3. Ugh.

Want more numbers? In boys basketball, sub-.500 teams were 2-21. Tell me again the reason for “rewarding” those teams. The combined numbers for boys and girls basketball and hockey in the first round for sub-.500 teams was 6-53. Yikes!

Ominously, the story making the rounds is the CIAC is thinking of having 32 teams in each of the four classes in basketball next year, regardless of record. If that had been the rule this year, then teams with five wins would have “qualified” for the Class S postseason and teams with 7-13 records would have made it in Class M boys.

I figure that if we are raising academic standards — while we can argue about how, no one argues that raising them is a bad thing — why do the very same schools insist on relaxing athletic standards?

Showing up, playing hard and trying are no reasons for rewarding kids with a postseason berth. Those are expectations. Postseason berths should be earned. With the 40 percent rule — or worse the fixed number rule — that is not true. Too bad.

ROSS vs. KINNEY

That was a dramatic competition between New Canaan’s Bobby Ross and Middletown High’s Dan Kinney for the Class L state diving championship Thursday last. Both are tremendous divers and are seeded 2-3 in the State Open which will be held at MHS’ Baldwin-Parmelee pool this Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

Kinney is the best diver in MHS history. In the Class L meet, he smashed both the 6-dive and 11-dive school record. On his first dive, one judge gave him a 9 and in all my years of covering diving, I had never seen a kid get a 9. Later in the meet, Ross also got a 9 from a judge. Amazing performances by both kids.

Kinney is one of city’s finest athletes and right behind him is teammate Monica Marcello. When their coach, Matt Quinn, said that it was a great achievement for a girl to finish fourth in Class L, he was spot-on. But forget gender, the kid is simply a tremendous diver.

At most other schools Adam Gauthier would be the team’s premier diver. But at MHS he is No. 3, although he finished seventh in Class L. Hey, the Nos. 2, 4 and 7 divers in Class L — a class that Quinn said is the best in the state — to be on one team doesn’t happen very often. Like never.

Quinn said that Ross’ and Kinney’s quest for a state open championship will be difficult because of the presence of Tianyi Zeng from Hand High School. The kid scored a ridiculous 544.15 to grab the No. 1 seed. Quinn said the family moved to the United States from China last year and that the kid is ranked as the 15th best high school age diver in the world.

One more thing. The kid is a freshman.

50 YEARS AGO

Last Thursday, March 13, was the 50th anniversary of the first high school basketball championship won by any school in this city. Middletown High defeated East Catholic of Manchester, 66-53, at Yale’s Payne-Whitney gym in front of a full house of 3,500 fans.

Like ironies? It was Middletown’s 13th win in a row, the margin of victory was 13 points and the game was played on Friday the 13th. Try telling the six top players — Tom LaBella, Tom Serra, Sal Zimmitti, Bill Brown, Phil Sienna and Bill Battle — that 13 is an unlucky number.

Since then MHS has gone on to win six more state titles — the first three by Prof Gallitto, the next three by Tom LaBella, and the last by Tom Zabek — and remains the only school in town to win boys state basketball championships.

HERE AND THERE

Middletown High’s winter sports awards banquet will be March 28 at MHS at 5 p.m. … call the school for information … the MHS girls basketball team will hold its second annual Alumni game this Friday, March 21 … the current varsity squad will play the alumni at 7 p.m. … “We will have DJs playing music and have giveaways,” said coach Rob Smernoff. “It’s a fun night for everyone.”

I thought the officials who did the Cromwell vs. Immaculate game were having a contest to see who could call the most fouls … one call followed another and the zebras just destroyed any flow the game might have had … they gave no advantage to either team, but they turned the game into a scrum.

Cromwell High bills itself as the Home of Champions and it’s hard to argue … the school turns out terrific teams in boys and girls basketball, baseball, soccer and football almost every year … the Panthers have more league titles and state championships than I have socks … and I have a lot of socks.

MHS will field club teams in both boys and girls lacrosse this spring … the teams are supported by donations and fund-raisers … I don’t like that because I think if a school wants to have a sport, then taxpayers should pay for it … but there is clearly a demand for the sport … once it’s established, the taxpayers should pay the freight.

Congratulations to Xavier wrestling coach Mike Cunningham and wrestler Will Chowanec for being named the Southern Connecticut Conference’s coach and wrestler of the year respectively … well-deserved … Xavier diver Liam Barnes finished sixth in the Class LL competition and will be in the state open at MHS this Thursday … Xavier’s Zach Williams set a new school record in the 3200 meter run at the New England Championships in Boston recently … his record time was 9:14.37 … he finished seventh.

For those who get their shorts in a bunch which league is stronger, the following is for you … going into this week’s action in boys hoop, of the 24 teams still playing, the SCC has three teams: Class LL Hillhouse, Fairfield Prep (they play each other today), and Class L Career … the CCC leads every league — it is also the state’s largest league with 32 schools — with six teams … LL New Britain, L Windsor and Bristol Central, M Weaver and East Catholic, and S Bloomfield …. the Naugatuck Valley League has three … Crosby in LL, St. Paul in M and Sacred Heart in S … the FCIAC has three including Greenwich, Ridgefield and Bridgeport Central in LL … the Southwest Conference has three in Joel Barlow in M, Bunnell in L and Notre Dame of Fairfield in M … and the Eastern Connecticut Conference has three in Waterford and Bacon Academy in M and Ledyard in LL.

In girls basketball, of the 12 teams left, three are from the CCC, South Windsor in LL and Weaver and Farmington in L, and one from the SCC in Lauralton Hall … OK CCC and SCC adherents, knock yourselves out.

This never-ending winter will end, trust me. To get you thinking sunshine and green grass, the high school spring sport season starts on April 9, just 24 days from today … on that day, Xavier will open its baseball season at Shelton, Middletown will open at home with Bloomfield, Mercy’s softball team will be home with Cheshire and the MHS softball team will open in Hebron with RHAM.

Vinal Tech’s baseball team will open April 10 at Middletown High and the Hawks’ softball team opens on the 11th at Wilcox Tech in Meriden.

By the time the high school season ends, we’ll be complaining about the heat.

Comments

  1. Marcus Da Truth says

    The ciac added more teams to each playoffs because they want to make more money. If anyone went to a playoff game for basketball. They would see a lot a people in the stands that paid $8 or $5 for students. And the door money belongs to the ciac. That’s all they care about. Not safety, or strength of schedule but how much $ they can bring in for a $30 state championship plaque!! Sad really.
    TRUTH!!

Leave a Reply