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Danae Rivers entered Wilbur Cross High four years ago with an established reputation as a middle distance prodigy. She’d won a Junior Olympic national championship at 10, and by 12 had set two national records in her age division.
Nico Ragaini also arrived for his freshman year at Notre Dame-West Haven a known commodity, the son of a former star athlete at the school who excelled in area youth leagues.
Potential can be a tricky thing, especially for young athletes still growing into their bodies. Rivers and Ragaini not only met lofty expectations, they achieved success almost immediately.
Both were honored Tuesday night as part of the Register’s annual Area MVP banquet at Amarante’s Sea Cliff.
Rivers became the first three-time recipient in the 22-year history of the award; Ragaini the first male underclassman to take the distinction.
“It’s a special honor,” Ragaini said. “It wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have great teammates in every sport.”
Rivers, unable to attend the banquet, echoed the same sentiments through Travis Gale, her indoor track coach.
Rivers, a cross country, indoor and outdoor track runner, capped an historic career in style. She won the State Open championships in the 1,000 and 1,600 during the indoor season as the Class L champion in the 1,600 during the outdoor season.
She also ran a leg on the State and New England Open championship 4×400 relay team during the outdoor season, and was fourth in the 800 at the New Balance Nationals during the indoor season.
Her parents, David, a middle distance runner at the University of New Haven and Andrea helped cultivate a love of the sport in their daughter. Danae burst onto the high school scene, setting a State Open records in the 800 for both the indoor and outdoor seasons as a sophomore. Wilbur Cross won its first State Open team title in 10 years.
The following season, she broke a 34-year old Class L record in the 800. And her time of 2:05.86, at the 2015 New England Open, stands as the fastest 800 time ever run by a high school female in this state.
New Haven has a rich history of producing Division I track talent. It was clear Rivers would join that group; the only question was when and where. In November, she signed a national letter of intent with Penn State.
John Gondak, the Nittany Lions track and field coach, is considered one of the top middle distance mentors in the country. He’s enjoyed success with Wilbur Cross graduates in the past, having coached six-time All-American Casimir Loxsom from 2010-13.
Rivers leaves for Penn State on Saturday. Her impact at Wilbur Cross won’t soon be forgotten. Numbers for the track programs were small in the years before her arrival; Rivers’ great success helped make it one of the most popular sports in terms of sheer numbers in the entire city.
“She’s meant so much to the program,” said Gale, the school’s indoor track coach. “She demonstrated and proved she’s strong-minded, physically and emotionally strong. And she had the opportunity not only to learn but to better herself as a runner and as a person. She’s made the program at Wilbur Cross something to be reckoned with.”
Ragaini also comes from athletic genes. His grandfather, Ron Parisi, was a star running back at East Haven in the 1960s. And his father, Gianni, starred for coach Tom Marcucci at Notre Dame in football and baseball before heading to UConn, where he was a teammate of Jim Penders, now the Huskies baseball coach.
A.J. Alessi, named Notre Dame’s lacrosse coach prior to Ragaini’s freshman year, remembers Marcucci pulling him aside shortly after he was hired.
“He said ‘you’ve got a kid coming in who’s a pretty special athlete’” Alessi recalls.
Ragaini has certainly lived up to the advanced billing.
As a football player, he’s a wide receiver, defensive back and kick returner. He made the Register’s All-State team as a wide receiver in 2014 when he caught 71 passes for 1,036 yards and nine touchdowns.
This fall, he was selected as a first-team All-State defensive back as the Green Knights reached the Class LL semifinals.
Explosive speed and maneuverability translates well to the lacrosse field, where Ragaini’s vision makes him the ultimate play-maker. He scored 30 goals with 36 assists this season, becoming the first Notre Dame lacrosse player to earn first-team all-state.
“He’s one of the fastest kids I’ve ever been around, in high school or college,” said Alessi, a former Quinnipiac lacrosse player. “He’s got great natural ability and instinct, but he’s still trying to figure out how to be a lacrosse player. Thirty-six assists as a midfielder is incredible, but I think he’s only scratching the surface of what he can eventually become.”
Ragaini, who played freshman basketball, gave up the sport to run indoor track between seasons. He was part of the winning 4×400 relay team at the Class L championships.
“With our three other legs, I could have walked the last lap. That’s how good the three who ran before me were,” Ragaini said. “in football, I had (Christian) Lupoli as quarterback, and couldn’t have done it without me, and my lacrosse teammates were great.”
Good grades and athletic success leads to opportunity, and Ragaini will soon make a decision on his future. He’s made a verbal commitment to Cornell for lacrosse, but hasn’t ruled out reversing course to play football. Army has made an offer. Several Football Championship Subdivision programs are interested.
Notre Dame’s athletic history dates back to 1946. Marcucci, class of 1966, has been working at the school since 1970.
“He’s as good an athlete as I’ve seen here in 46 years,” said Marcucci. “He can play anything. He’s just different. His explosiveness and speed separates him athletically. There aren’t too many guys who’ve come through here that have their name on three banners. He’s one of them.”
2015-16 New Haven Register MVPs
Dave Solomon Memorial Sportsperson of the Year: BOB DeMAYO, North Haven baseball coach
- Football: Mike Montano, North Haven
- Boys’ Soccer: Salah Oumorou, West Haven
- Girls’ Soccer: Megan Kikosicki, East Haven
- Field Hockey: Alyssa Stevens, Cheshire
- Girls’ Volleyball: Micaela Cardozo, Amity
- Girls’ Swimming: Caitlin McNary, Westbrook
- Boys’ Cross Country: Drew Thompson, Fairfield Prep
- Girls’ Cross Country: Samantha Drop, Coginchaug
- Boys’ Basketball: Rich Kelly, Fairfield Prep
- Girls’ Basketball: Elise Graham, Amity
- Ice Hockey: Adam Burkle, North Branford
- Wrestling: Luke Edmondson, Foran
- Boys’ Indoor Track: Shane O’Connor, North Haven
- Girls’ Indoor Track: Danae Rivers, Wilbur Cross
- Boys’ Swimming: Karl Bishop, Cheshire
- Gymnastics: Madison Clark, Sacred Heart Academy
- Baseball: Eli Oliphant, Amity
- Softball: Abby Abramson, Cheshire
- Boys’ lacrosse: Nick Franchuk
- Girls’ lacrosse: Meghan Dutchyshyn, Cheshire
- Boys’ outdoor track: Lucas Sumby
- Girls’ outdoor track: Jessica Drop
- Boys’ tennis: Peter Conlin, Hopkins
- Girls’ tennis: Daphne Kreiger, Amity
- Golf: Chris Fosdick, Xavier
- Boys’ volleyball: James Marinaccio, Cheshire
New Haven Register Athletes of the Year
Pierre Venditti (Law)
Diane Potkay (Derby)
Steve Coughlin (Ansonia)
Lisa Barbaro (Morgan)
Mike O’Keefe (Notre Dame-WH)
Lisa Barbaro (Morgan)
Peter Fink (Haddam-Killingworth)
Sarah Katinger (Bunnell)
Adam Greenberg (Guilford)
Nicholette Chambers (Hillhouse)
Chris Tracz (North Branford)
Megan Miller (Law)
Glenn McFadden (Hillhouse)
Jenn Piazza (Lyman Hall)
Brian Mariano (Naugatuck)
Emily Hardy (Westbrook)
Randy Gress (Notre Dame-Fairfield)
Melissa McGow (Branford)
Mike Tamsin (Branford)
Brittney Carfora (Branford)
Craig Kenney (Branford)
Natasha Harvey (Career)
James Nixon (Hyde)
Kristen Frost (Hand)
Terrell Wilks (Hillhouse)
Katie Yanagisawa (Amity)
Rob Moir (Seymour)
Ann-Marie Clarke (Hillhouse)
Jeremy Moore (Hillhouse)
Allison Barwise (Amity)
Conor Keniry (Notre Dame-WH)
Courtney Schissler (Branford)
Pat Gillen (Shelton)
Sage Esposito (Foran)
Jake Scinto (Cheshire)
Bria Holmes (Hillhouse)
Andre Anderson (Hillhouse)
Precious Holmes (Hillhouse)
Nico Ragaini (Notre Dame-WH)
Danae Rivers (Wilbur Cross)