The first of three consecutive state championship field hockey games was only a few hours away from starting last November, and yet a significant obstacle remained: The field at Wethersfield High School remained covered with snow from an untimely early storm.
“The games had been pushed back a day, but we didn’t get the melting here that some of the rest of the state had,” Wethersfield Athletic Director Mike Maltese said. “It was a little nerve-racking, to say the least.”
Along with members of the town’s physical services department, a group that included several Wethersfield field hockey players, parents and coaches, Principal Tom Moore, and Maltese began manually removing the snow from the field.
“I was out there with a plastic shovel from Ace Hardware,” Maltese said. “But by the time the first team arrived you would have thought it was August 15; there was no snow at all on the field.”
The effort was substantial, especially when you consider that Wethersfield itself wasn’t playing in any of the three games that day.
“No doubt about it … it’s an undertaking to host the state semifinals or the state finals; there is a lot of organization and logistics involved,” said Gregg Simon, the associate executive director of the CIAC (the governing body for high school sports in Connecticut). “As a member organization, we rely on our member schools to help. When I was the athletic director in Newtown, I always agreed to host state games because I knew our players would need someone else to host them.”
Four sites will host 15 state tournament championship games across four sports on Saturday. Eight boys and girls soccer finals are being split between the refurbished Dillon Stadium in Hartford and Veterans Stadium in New Britain; all four girls volleyball games are at East Haven High School; and all three field hockey games are once again at Wethersfield High School (where no shoveling is required this year).
Earlier this week, four state class girls swimming championships took place at either Wesleyan University or Southern Connecticut State University. The girls swimming State Open is Sunday at Yale University, and on Dec. 14 the fall high school season ends with four football state finals at either Trumbull high or Veterans Stadium in New Britain.
Choosing host sites for state tournament semifinals and finals (higher seeds host games through the quarterfinal round) is part of the planning process for sport-specific CIAC committees comprised of principals, athletic directors and coaches. Many of those sites have been hosting games for years; others are chosen on a year-to-year basis.
“The committees determine the list of possible sites and then vote on them; CIAC staff does not have a vote,” Simon said. “At the end of the school year the committees then review the sites to see how things went.”
Committees evaluate potential state tournament sites based on several factors, according to Simon.
“The facility itself, the parking, the size of the bleachers … all of that is important,” Simon said. “We try to create an atmosphere that feels like a state championship. When Dillon (Stadium) reached out to us (about hosting boys and girls soccer finals) we were thrilled. We are also thrilled that Mohegan Sun loves hosting the boys and girls basketball finals, and that we can have the hockey finals at the Whale in New Haven, which is a classic arena.”
One oft-heard criticism from players, fans and coaches has been site location. Why, for example, did two teams (Ridgefield and Staples) from Fairfield County play back-to-back girls soccer state finals (2017, 2018) in distant West Haven?
“We have some flexibility in where the semifinals can be held based on which teams are playing, but the state finals are big events that need to be planned well in advance,” Simon said. “Over the years the CIAC has tried to accommodate schools. But Connecticut is a small state so any drive is relatively short. Outside Connecticut there are states where people have to go seven, eight, nine hours.”
Member schools don’t host semifinals or finals to make a profit. Although the CIAC fully compensates for all staffing and venue costs, the revenue from ticket sales goes back to the CIAC. Schools can keep the money made from concession sales, often using those funds for booster clubs or athletic department expenses.
“We rely on those ticket sales,” Simon said. “People have this misconception that we’re sitting on millions of dollars. We aren’t. We’re a non-profit that operates like one.”
For the CIAC, expenses can add up.
“We staff it and pay 25% to 50% more than we usually pay because it’s extra time,” said Anthony Verderame, the director of athletics at East Haven, which will host the girls volleyball state finals Saturday for the fourth straight year. “It’s four security people, two police, two cleaners, a site supervisor, a technical adviser, two ticket takers, two ticket sellers, a clock operator, an announcer, and a trainer.”
“Some places make it financially impossible,” Simon said. “The charge to rent their facility is not sustainable for us. Some of these rental charges are built into town contracts so there’s not much we can do.”
In most sports, the CIAC gets a warm response from schools when it inquires about playing state semifinals or finals at their sites. But there is one sport that elicits the type of response rate associated with door-to-door salesmen.
“We get lots of rejections for football,” Simon said. “It’s December, so lots of high schools have closed down and winterized their stadiums by then.”
“One year we got a call from the CIAC a few days before a state game was to be played asking if we could host,” said Mike King, the athletic director at Trumbull High School, which will host two football title games this year. “I guess there was a problem at the other place, so we re-opened our stadium and got the heat going in the bathrooms.”
For King, Maltese and Verderame, the incentive to host state games is based on reciprocity.
“My philosophy is about doing your share and pitching in,” King said. “Our girls volleyball team played its state semifinal at Cheshire and is playing in the state finals at East Haven. We’re glad that other schools stepped up to have those games.”
“We’ve been hosting the field hockey state finals for at least 15 years now,” Maltese said. “I’m not going to tell you it’s relaxing — I won’t be sitting back in a lawn chair on Saturday —but there is a sense of pride in being asked to host these games. We’re trying to do what’s best for those kids on the field who are playing in a game they won’t forget.”
“You have to look at the CIAC as a family,” said Verderame, the director of athletics at East Haven. “Each family member takes a turn hosting a holiday. Our holiday is girls volleyball this Saturday.”