TORRINGTON — A smattering of Torrington High School parents seated on the one set of unfolded bleachers at the Connie Donahue Gymnasium Wednesday night was part of the strange new-normal atmosphere in a strange new-normal pandemic boys basketball season.
St. Paul Catholic beat the Raiders 63-50 in a game that seemed more like a scrimmage thanks to the lack of fans now common everywhere.
Coaches objected to referee calls in a normal voice.
A more relaxed attitude left time for pre-game conversations with Falcon coach Steve Phelps, Raider coach Eric Gamari and athletic director Mike McKenna about Sacred Heart’s recently-announced closing at the end of this year.
Torrington (1-3) took a 19-16 first-quarter lead over St. Paul (3-1), thanks to five Raider 3-pointers, then fell back in a 20-3 St. Paul second quarter that guaranteed the pre-game conversations were the more meaningful part of the evening.
The Falcons, winners over defending NVL champion Naugatuck last Saturday, relied on superior height and rebounding along with five threes of their own to hold a safe lead for the rest of the game, despite a second-half surge by Raider Joe White for 15 of his game-high 20 points.
Brian Duman, with 11 points and a buzzer-beating half-court three to end the third quarter, and Ben Smith with 14 including three 3’s joined White in double figures, but just one other Raider scored.
Meanwhile, four of the Falcons’ seven scorers hit double figures — Will Barton and Tom Lorenzetti with 16 apiece; Alex Partyka, 12, including three 3’s; and Jamie Leggett, 11.
St. Paul continues on its march to the 16-team league tournament that substitutes for the normal state postseason tournament. Torrington coach Gamari menawhile kids about opting out.
Sacred Heart, in its final appearance, is likely to play its very heart out to reclaim its spot in a long string of league championships.
The pre-game conversations focused on what happens next.
“Any time a Catholic school has to close, it’s sad day for us,” said Coach Phelps, whose school is in Bristol and not a traditional part of the school-of-choice draw for top Waterbury athletes.
Nevertheless, part of the conversation is about where the Hearts’ underclass athletes might now choose to go.
“St. Paul would welcome anyone who wants to continue their Catholic-school education,” Phelps said, while emphasizing the school’s lack of recruitment for them.
“We traditionally lose more of our top athletes to St. Paul or Holy Cross,” said Coach Gamari, on the other side of the picture — the drain from area schools of choice.
“The kids will now just go other places,” he predicted. “Prep schools are gaining a lot of traction.”
“(Sacred Heart’s leaving) hurts the league,” said McKenna, who’s also the NVL’s president. “Anytime a school leaves, it hurts and Sacred Heart has been a solid league member forever.”
The obvious focus is on the top basketball talents that brought the Hearts four straight state championships and a runner-up spot in the last seven years, but McKenna hones in on the less obvious facets that are just as important.
“There will be fewer playing spots,” he says. “The JV kids who end up in Waterbury public schools will either take somebody else’s spot or lose one themselves.
“And we’re losing one of the most active athletic directors in the league — Mike Madden,” McKenna continues. “He heads several of our committees and pitches in wherever he can. He’s going to be a real loss to the league.”
Wednesday’s game represented a fleeting win and a loss for two NVL teams. The conversations mulled the league’s loss of an important NVL school forever.