Thomaston, the Northwest Corner’s State Championship town… where, this year, no one is more identified with that status than Abby Hurlbert.
“When we needed a big hit or a big play, Abby was always in the center of it,” said softball co-coach Kelly Finlay in a statement that echoes through Hurlbert’s two other sports – field hockey and basketball – as well.
Thomaston’s field hockey team reached the Class S semifinals, the school’s highest-ever state tournament level for the sport.
But it was short of the goal Hurlbert and the Golden Bears set for themselves.
In her final year at Thomaston, Hurlbert was on the way to one of her personal goals – All-BL and All-State in all three of her sports for three straight years.
Now, the near miss for a state championship, following a near miss in the Berkshire League, served as a driver.
The Golden Bears came within an eyelash of wresting the BL title from league field hockey power Nonnewaug.
Falling one level short of a state championship stung just as much.
“Being so close, I didn’t want that to happen in the next two sports,” said Hurlbert.
Hurlbert’s “I” translated into “team” for the Golden Bears’ undisputed leader.
“When you start playing (at Thomaston High School), you can see the camaraderie. It just made me want to be part of the team,” she says of her own beginnings in the Thomaston ethos.
The baton is passed from one grade “generation” to the next. This year was Hurlbert’s turn.
In field hockey, she scored 12 goals with 16 assists from her midfielder slot.
“It’s not just scoring goals; I had to make sure I was back on defense as much as possible. I wanted to be the player my team could rely on.”
Hurlbert is that rare athlete who excels in all her worlds.
She’s captain in her sports, but also president of the Thomaston Student council and a high honor roll student, all while working part time at Tony Turina’s coffee shop.
Sports are the centerpiece.
Hurlbert is going to Southern Connecticut State University in the fall, maybe to study physical therapy, maybe to become a coach or athletic director, maybe sports management.
Whatever it is will involve sports.
The same focus pervades her choice of what she’ll play.
“When I’m playing a sport, it’s my favorite,” she said after the field hockey season when she said she would play field hockey in college.
“Basketball was my favorite sport in high school,” she says. And, sure enough, after basketball season, she thought she might pick that sport in college.
Now that softball season is over, she says, “Just softball. I might want to play another sport, but I’m just sticking with softball for now.”
Hurlbert lives in the moment of each sport. She’s talked with Southern coaches in all three sports. She could play all three; don’t be surprised if she does.
Meanwhile, the memories of her final year in high school are fresh.
Hurlbert broke her wrist playing basketball her freshman year, then spent the next two years winning Berkshire League titles with her teammates.
“Her junior year might have been the most impressive,” said Coach Bob McMahon. “Realizing that Maggie (Eberhardt) needed to dominate, she was happy to play Scottie Pippin to Maggie’s Michael Jordan.”
The combination worked to perfection right up to a championship game against Capital Prep, the best girls basketball team in the state.
There, the torch passed.
Buried early by a bigger, quicker and stronger team, Eberhardt and freshman Morgan Sanson rallied for 11 points apiece.
Hurlbert, a strong 5-feet-10, scored 10 points in the first half, then went to war in the second with 18 more points and 10 rebounds.
“The second half revealed our character,” said McMahon. “We wouldn’t relent. We started talking about winning the next minute, then the next quarter.”
The Golden Bears won the final period 22-19, carrying seniors Eberhardt and point guard Sydney Keith off the floor on their shoulders.
Hurlbert was ready to take over.
Nevertheless, there were doubters.
“People thought we wouldn’t move forward without Maggie,” said McMahon. “We never look to replace people; we move forward to the next level.
In the absence of Eberhardt and several other key players, Hurlbert was more than the leader; she was the centerpiece, willing to do whatever it took with her young teammates.
“After four years of coaching her, I still don’t know what her position is. I just call her a player,” said McMahon.
Early in the season, Hurlbert was the de facto point guard – proving it to be the one spot on the floor not built for her talents.
“We got other guards in the lineup and moved her back where she belonged,” McMahon said.
That’s when Hurlbert climbed to the pinnacle.
“She has unlimited range and the ability to finish with both hands near the basket,” says McMahon. “She can defend all size positions and she’s one of our toughest rebounders.”
“We definitely didn’t want to give up the BL title,” Hurlbert said while the Bears were struggling.
“They say athletics doesn’t build character; it reveals it,” said McMahon. “It’s easy to play hard when you’re winning. But when you can do that when you’re not winning, that’s toughness.”
This year, that was Hurlbert and, as usual in Thomaston girls basketball, the attitude spread to her teammates.
“She’s a great teammate and competitor,” says McMahon. “She has expectations for herself and those around her. She’s not afraid to get on people, but she’s also their No. 1 supporter.”
The formula worked. Thomaston rose from its early ashes to a three-way tie for the BL title and its third straight BL Tournament championship, then set its sights on bigger things.
“We knew what it felt like to lose at Mohegan,” said Hurlbert.
Willing their way through tight games in the Class S quarters and semis, the Bears had to come from behind in the semis against Sacred Heart, then found themselves in the same spot late in the final against St. Paul Catholic.
In overtime, with 0.2 seconds left on the clock, the Bears were down three points.
Hurlbert hoisted a three-pointer; a Falcon caught her on the upswing, sending her to the line for three free throw tries with the game on that same line.
“I still get nervous when I watch it; it still brings back the chills,” she says. “I couldn’t let myself get nervous. I had to think, ‘These are going in.’”
And, of course, they did.
Thomaston won in the second overtime.
“We experienced what it was like to win a state championship. I wanted it again in softball,” says Hurlbert.
Make the translation again from “I” to team. Hurlbert was the leader, but, this time, with only 11 players on the roster.
“We knew everyone was there because they wanted to be,” says Hurlbert. And many of the kids, like Hurlbert, were there fresh from the basketball championship.
Nevertheless, the odds were similar to early-season basketball. Thomaston graduated five starters from the year before.
Once again, Hurlbert could play anywhere on the field.
Starting as a pitcher, she alternated between shortstop and the mound last year with Sanson, her cousin, then a freshman.
This year, the switch became full time.
“It was a big role change. Some kids can do that; some can’t,” said co-coach Gene Torrence. “We knew Abby could. There was never any wavering or whining about it.”
“I played infield in AAU,” said Hurlbert.
“It was very different from last year,” said Torrence. “We knew she could generate the offense. On defense, we needed to position people in the right spot. (Hurlbert) and (sophomore) Danielle Genest worked together in a really nice double-play combination.
“Having (Hurlbert) at short was like having a coach on the field. You lead by example and that’s what Abby did.”
Once again, a Berkshire League race provided the spur.
“We finished one game behind Northwestern for the BL title. That just gave us the goal of going on for the bigger goal,” said Hurlbert.
Same path, no snow.
If the basketball championship was driven by willpower, Thomaston’s trip through the Class S softball tournament proved its mettle: 10 innings for a 2-1 win over St. Paul in the second round; nine innings, 2-1 over Coventry in the semis.
Now, in the finals against Old Saybrook, the Bears were down 6-0 after only two innings.
“We set up after our semifinal win and I brought in some of my police films,” said Torrence, Thomaston’s former chief of police. “We talked about battles. I told them, ‘We’ve won the battles; now it’s time to win the war.”
Yeah, but 6-0 after only two innings?
“We’ve been down each game, but not 6-0,” said Hurlbert. “So, we obviously had a challenge.”
In Thomaston – and maybe everywhere – that’s what championships are all about.
The Bears went to work. Sanson and her defense no-hit the Rams for the rest of the game. Thomaston scored two runs in the fifth, then four more in the sixth.
“When they tied it at 6, we lost the game,” said Old Saybrook coach Laura Westner.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Gabby Hurlbert, Abby’s sophomore sister, stood on second base, one out, Abby at bat.
“For some people, the game slows down in big moments,” said Coach Torrence. “(Hurlbert) has that extra level of focus. I don’t think there’s a more clutch player anywhere.”
Hurlbert lined a shot that looked like it might clear the fence.
Instead, it rocketed right to left fielder Tina Gosselin.
Next up, senior Erin O’Neill found the gap with a line drive that scored Gabby Hurlbert for the championship.
Nobody was happier for O’Neill than Hurlbert when O’Neill won the tournament’s MVP award for her accomplishment.
Hurlbert went on to sweep the Berkshire League’s Ray Marinko Award for the league’s outstanding senior athlete, male or female.
For her, playing in Thomaston was its own reward.
“I’m going to miss it,” she said. “I’m going to miss the Thomaston feeling. It’s hard to explain – the way the town and the school get involved.
“Even people you don’t know come up to you. It’s just fun to play in this town.”