MIDDLETOWN >> A sensational catch, some clutch free-throw shooting, an amazing run, a walk-off homer and a game-clinching touchdown are just some of the memorable moments we’re celebrating today with our Third Annual Top 10 Plays of the Year.
The only criterion was that I had to be there to see it…and believe it.
So a few of the year’s best moments were not on our year-end list: like Coginchaug’s sensational Distance Medley relay team of Jessica Drop, Samantha Drop, Allie Alsup and Megan Decker earning All-American honors with a spectacular run at the New Balance Track and Field Center at The Armory in New York City; Middletown’s Amanda Fudge draining a three-point shot at the buzzer against Rocky Hill to give the Blue Dragons their first CCC divisional title; Middletown placekicker Mike Aresco tying a state record by making four field goals, including a school record 52-yarder, against Farmington; Haddam-Killingworth’s Brinley Anderson scoring a goal, with an assist from her sister Molly, in the Cougars’ Class S co-championship 1-1 tie against Westbrook; and Middletown swimmer Jack Doherty’s record-breaking Class M meet in which he set new marks while winning the 100 and 200 freestyle events.
Here’s our Top 10 Plays of 2016.
Enjoy. And Have a Happy New Year!
1. Cromwell’s defense. Cover Me.
Actually, this isn’t “one” play but rather a series of defensive plays that the Cromwell girls basketball team made during their 43-20 victory over Notre Dame-Fairfield in the Class M state championship game at The Mohegan Sun Arena.
Cromwell’s staple under head coach Kelly Maher has always been its defense. And Notre Dame-Fairfield, which already beat two undefeated teams – New Fairfield in the SWC final and Enfield in the state semifinals – had the personnel to give the Panthers trouble.
So in the biggest game of their lives, on high school basketball’s biggest stage, with a chance to atone for last year’s championship loss, and with a chance to finish 28-0, Maher’s bunch limited Notre Dame-Fairfield to eight field goals.
The term “defense wins championships” never seemed more appropriate.
Notre Dame’s 20 points were the lowest ever in a CIAC state final. The Lancers shot 8 for 28 from the field (28.6 percent) and just 1-for-7 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“They came ready to play,” Maher said. “Twenty points in a state championship game? We told them it was going to come down to defense. I couldn’t be happier with the way they played tonight.”
2. Austin White’s catch. Local Hero.
We’ve seen Austin White make an assortment of spectacular catches while roaming the outfield for Portland High School and the RCP American Legion baseball teams over the past few seasons.
This catch might have topped them all.
The bases were loaded with two out and RCP had a three-run lead against West Hartford in the state tournament’s opening round series at Monnes Field. The lead, however, was about to disappear when Alex White, Austin’s cousin, blasted a Tucker Lord pitch high and deep to left-center field.
But White sped into the gap, made an amazing leaping catch and crashed into the outfield fence.
“That’s a major league play, a web gem, whatever you want to call it,” West Hartford coach Jim Hungerford said. “I literally felt chills on the back of my neck when he made that catch. That’s the game of baseball.”
White lay on the ground after crashing into the fence and RCP’s players and coaches, as well as Alex White, rushed to his aid.
“I knew I was going to hit the fence so I stayed straight just to make sure I didn’t hit my shoulder,” White said. “The best part about it was when I opened my eyes I saw my cousin. He asked me if I was OK. I said, ‘Yeah…thank you.’”
RCP went on to sweep the best-of-three series and advance to the American Legion State Tournament Super Regionals.
3. Peter Dewey’s 3-pointer. I’m on Fire.
This was the Shoreline Conference championship game and with Cromwell clinging to a one-point lead against upset-minded Lyme-Old Lyme, Panthers senior guard Peter Dewey drained a three-pointer from the corner with just one minute and six seconds left to give the Panthers their biggest lead of the night at 47-43.
Top-seeded Cromwell then held on down the stretch when Dewey made 3 of 4 free throws to escape with a hard-fought 52-48 victory at Wilbur Cross High School.
Dewey had made big shots all season. And with the SLC championship game still in doubt, Dewey, who buried six 3-pointers to lead all scorers with 23 points, saved his best shot for last.
“I couldn’t be happier for Peter,” Cromwell coach John Pinone said. “He’s had a terrific last 10 or 12 games where he has just made big shot after big shot. I think he’s number two in the state at making threes. He’s kind of our leader out there. He’s got some fire to him.”
4. Kyle Judson’s free throws. The Promised Land.
The Coginchaug boys basketball team made a memorable run in the Class S state tournament last March. They were everybody’s Cinderella story while making their first state championship game appearance since 1982.
The No. 11 Blue Devils eventually lost to top-seeded Immaculate-Danbury in the final. But not before experiencing a number of clutch tourney moments.
In the Class S semifinal, Coginchaug led East Windsor, 44-43, with 59 seconds left to play at New Britain High School.
Down the stretch, Panthers senior Johan Gil-Guerro missed a three-pointer from the corner and Blue Devils senior guard Kyle Judson scooped up the rebound and was fouled with just 13.1 seconds left.
Judson, who also canned some big late free throws in Coginchaug’s quarterfinal win at Classical Magnet, calmly swished both free throws for a 46-43 lead.
East Windsor’s Tristan Givens then missed a game-tying trey from the top of the key and the Blue Devils were headed to The Mohegan Sun Arena.
“I was in a similar scenario last game,” Judson said. “We practice free throws all the time. I knew I could sink them. I was composed.”
5. Eric Jones’ walk-off homer. My Beautiful Reward.
The Wesleyan baseball team was trying to accomplish something that had never been done in NESCAC baseball tournament history, namely, win three straight tourney titles.
Tied 6-6 against Trinity in the tourney opener at Holman Stadium in Nashua (N.H.), Cardinals senior catcher Eric Jones led off the bottom of the 10th by slamming a 3-1 pitch from Daniel Pidgeon high over the left field fence to give Wesleyan a memorable walk-off win.
“It was a fastball and I took a hack at it,” Jones said. “I knew the ball was going to go out. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Jones also hit a clutch extra-innings homer at Hamilton earlier this season.
“Eric has worked so hard and has been so impressive on so many levels and for him to have that moment was just a thrilling capstone for his career,” Wesleyan coach Mark Woodworth said.
The Cardinals, however, suffered consecutive losses to top-seeded Tufts and Trinity the following day, ending their quest to make NESCAC tournament history.
6. Kristian Sapp’s touchdown run. Wrecking Ball.
The Cromwell/Portland football team had an amazing season in 2016. The Panthers went undefeated in league play to win the Pequot Conference championship and stunned defending state champion Bloomfield, 28-14, in the Class S quarterfinals.
The game against the Warhawks, who were riding a 23 game winning streak, was like a classic heavyweight title fight with the underdog Panthers delivering a late knock-out punch on senior Kristian Sapp’s touchdown run.
The Panthers led 22-14 with less than two minutes to play and all Sapp wanted to do was get a first down. Instead, Sapp got a terrific block, burst through an opening and raced 67 yards to seal the victory.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Sapp, who rushed for 269 yards and scored three touchdowns. “The seniors have never been to the playoffs before so this is our first win.”
7. Jessica and Samantha Drop’s three 1-2 finishes. Born to Run.
Before heading off to run track for the University of Georgia, Coginchaug’s Drop sisters decided to do something special. While powering the Blue Devils to their second consecutive SLC Indoor Track and Field championship,
Jessica and Samantha Drop finished 1-2 in the 1000, 1600 and 3200 events at New Haven’s Floyd Little Athletic Center.
Jessica won both the 1000 and 1600. Her winning time of 5:06.89 in the mile easily broke the meet record, while Samantha Drop’s runner-up time of 5:14.38 also eclipsed the previous mark of 5:16.19 set by Lyman Memorial’s Kelly Sorrell in 2005.
In their last race together, the twins ran side-by-side during the entire 3200 meter run. Samantha happened to inch across the finish line first. The Drop’s times (11:20.55 and 11:20.77) broke the previous meet record by 17 seconds, which was set by Samantha last season.
“That was their plan from the get-go,” Coginchaug coach Kate Germond said. “They wanted to go 1-2 in three events together. Their times are so much better than last year. It’s crazy.”
8. Emily Sienna’s run. She’s the One.
The Shoreline Conference cross country championship meet has always been one of the highlights of the fall season. And upstaging the whole event this year was the mesmerizing performance from Hale Ray sophomore Emily Sienna.
When Sienna approached the finish line, she was all alone. Literally. There were no other runners visible on the course’s final stretch.
Runner-up Kelsey D’Amico (20:12.6) was over a minute behind Sienna, who led from start to finish.
“I had a great start,” Sienna said. “I wanted to keep the lead the whole time and tried to separate on the down hills. I was very confident. I knew what the competition was and made a move to separate around the mile mark.”
Sienna won her first SLC championship with a blazing time of 18 minutes and 58.1 seconds.
“She’s special, there’s no doubt,” Hale Ray coach Dave Kraszewski said. “She’s a girl who lives running. And she keeps getting stronger and better.”
9. Matt Sapere’s touchdown pass to Jason O’Brien. Reason to Believe.
Because when Valley Regional/Old Lyme quarterback Matt Sapere hit a wide-open Jason O’Brien with a 64-yard touchdown, it gave the Warriors a stunning 7-0 third quarter lead against St. Joseph-Trumbull in the Class M semifinals.
Because when O’Brien scored a roar reverberated from the famous hill at Deep River’s Blythe Field all the way through the Connecticut River Valley and all the small Pequot Conference towns in between.
Because the play was designed by assistant coach Kevin Woods on the locker room blackboard at halftime.
Because the Valley Regional/Old Lyme football team has delivered so many memorable moments over the years … and this was another one.
Because, despite going on to lose 28-7, it was a play that had the Valley faithful starting to believe again.
“Not many people thought we would be 10-1 after beating Berlin …and being up 7-0 in the third quarter against St. Joe’s,” Valley Regional/Old Lyme coach Tim King said.
10. Anthony Caramanica’s triple. Glory Days.
This was an historic season for the Hamden baseball team, which won a school record 19 games and captured its first SCC Quinnipiac Division title. Green Dragons senior pitcher Ron Grant, who was selected the SCC Player of the Year, was virtually unhittable.
Grant, a hard throwing lefthander, had defeated Xavier twice during the regular season, including a 17-strikeout masterpiece in a 1-0 win.
So when Falcons senior Anthony Caramanica stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the fourth and Xavier trailing 1-0 against Grant in the opening round of the Class LL state tournament, no one could have predicted what happened next.
Caramanica blasted a Grant offering to the gap in right-center and raced around the bases like Pete Rose with a three-run triple.
Caramanica’s momentum changing hit and Scott Marks’ sensational pitching performance lifted the No. 34 Falcons to a 5-3 upset over the second-seeded Green Dragons at Hamden’s Rochford Field.
“The last time (Grant) jammed me so I was hoping I’d get something on the outside and I took it that way,” said Caramanica. “A 34 seed beating a two seed … that’s crazy.”