Editor’s note: This is the 23rd story in the New Haven Register’s Top 50 series.
Sitting between two of the largest professional sports markets in the country is this city, as rich with athletic tradition as either Boston or New York.
It may not have a big league team or even a current minor league affiliate, but if you take a stroll through the Floyd Little Athletic Center at James Hillhouse High School or take a look at the banners inside the Robert H. Saulsbury Gymnasium at Wilbur Cross you will quickly notice the achievements high school student-athletes in New Haven have accomplished over the last century.
The history dates to at least 1924 when the first recorded state championship arrived in New Haven with the Hillhouse boys basketball team. It was the first of a record 24 Connecticut titles the Academics have to date.
Seven years later came the city’s first track and field state title, setting off a run on dominance over the next 21 years during which Hillhouse won 19 championships between the indoor and outdoors seasons.
This tradition has since been replicated by current coach Gary Moore, who took over the program in 1992 and has reestablished Hillhouse as one of the premier track and field programs in the state, if not the Northeast.
In the 1960s and 1970s Robert Saulsbury acquired the Wilbur Cross boys basketball program and became what some may call the father or grandfather of New Haven basketball.
The first football crown came in 1984, but the creation of a new program at the turn of the century had established the Elm City as a football power.
And tucked right in the middle of these powerhouse programs is the lone golf championship the Wilbur Cross Governors earned in 1955.
The numbers are staggering, really.
186 state championships in four sports spread across four schools with countless coaches, athletes and community members there to win and witness them all. From East Rock to Dixwell, West River to North Haven, New Haven student-athletes have proven over and over again they can compete with anyone in Connecticut and win.
The city’s track and field success is unparalleled. With a total of 117 state championships, 31 of which are state open titles, it has become commonplace for a New Haven school, especially Hillhouse, to be on top of the podium at their own fieldhouse at the end of the indoor track season or one of the sparkling outdoor facilities Connecticut has to offer.
The first track and field title came in 1931 for the Hillhouse boys. The team won both the indoor and outdoor state championships that year and essentially set a precedent for decades to come.
Since Moore became the head coach in 1992 he has won 58 trophies, bringing the tradition of Hillhouse track back to the forefront where it plans on staying.
“That’s probably our proudest achievement,” Moore said. “That we’ve been consistent and not just be a flash in the pan.”
Especially on the girls’ side, the program has taken off.
Since 1992 they have won 38 state titles, including 12 state opens, compared to the two outdoor track titles the program had in its history prior.
And that tradition has been upheld by each and every class and, in some cases, the children of former athletes.
“I believe it’s always about getting kids to buy in,” Moore said. “It depends on the kid too, because at this stage I may have coached their mother.”
So that makes the alumni a strong group.
When Moore gets a new freshman class and they feel a sense of pressure to perform at the highest level, he points to the 100 or so alumni that may be at any given meet or when a former athlete comes to practice.
“People don’t come back to things that didn’t impact them,” Moore said. “They just come to visit or come to talk to them. All these elements play a part. When the kids go through that first season their eyes are wide open and say, ‘now I see what he’s talking about.’”
It’s about upholding that tradition.
“It’s not about numbers, it’s about believing in the program and buying in,” Moore said.
It’s easy to overlook the success from the other city schools on the track given the standard Hillhouse has set, but as noted, the city’s success is unparalleled.
Wilbur Cross High School has 26 state titles, including 13 at the state open level. Hyde Leadership has eight, three open championships and Career Magnet has four, all on the girls side.
But the success does not stop there.
Wilbur Cross’ most successful recent alumni, Danae Rivers, a three-time New Haven Register Athlete of the Year, is setting records at Penn State. Her time of 4:10.82 at the Florida Relays in 2018 set the Nittany Lions record, won her a Big Ten championship and earned her a spot in the NCAA Championships, where she finished eighth as a sophomore.
On the high school track, Career Magnet’s Dyshon Vaughn is the city’s most recent national champion. His jump of 24 feet 5.50 inches at the 2018 New Balance National Championships set the state indoor record as well as solidifying him as best in the country.
Best high school basketball team in the world
Possibly the most visible dominance in New Haven is on the basketball court. The city has 57 state titles combined between boys and girls, which has brought publicity to the city for at least the past 50 years, but no more than the time Wilbur Cross High School was called “The Best High School Basketball Team in the World” in the New York Post.
In 1974, eight years into Saulsbury’s tenure at Cross, he had his best team yet and that’s saying a lot, because he already had five state championships to his name.
Remembering it like it was yesterday, Saulsbury, on a recent phone call, told the story of the 1974 season.
Not able to travel outside the Northeast, New York powerhouse DeWitt Clinton came to New Haven at the beginning of the season.
“We defeated DeWitt Clinton on our home court at the beginning of the season by 18 points,” Saulsbury said.
Then DeWitt Clinton traveled to three separate tournaments across the country. First in California, then in Texas and finally in Washington, D.C., before returning home. DeWitt Clinton won every tournament against teams that were ranked No. 1 one way or another that season, but then they had to play the Governors again.
With Bruce “Soup” Campbell and Jim “Jiggy” Williamson, both two-time New Haven Register All-State selections, Cross went to the Bronx and beat DeWitt Clinton by 22, prompting John Wyles, the Clinton coach at the time, to tell the New York Post “they’re the best high school team I ever saw.”
The polls agreed. Wilbur Cross was named the No. 1 team in the country in the Washington Post poll to end the 1973-74 season.
Saulsbury went on to win 10 state championships, 497 games and set the table for basketball in New Haven for years to come.
We are 480 Sherman Parkway
As much notoriety as Wilbur Cross boys basketball gets and deserves, Hillhouse has its own basketball tradition in the city.
Twenty-four state championships for the boys and nine for the girls, the Academics have taken Connecticut back as their playground in basketball.
When coach Renard Sutton joined the coaching staff at Hillhouse in 2006, he sat down with then-coach Kermit Carolina to outline a plan to resurrect Academics basketball.
“We sat down and tried to set up a gameplan to see if we could get the city back to household conversations about high school basketball within the city,” Sutton said. “So many years the city was down.”
Then, in 2006 and 2007, Hillhouse won back-to-back state titles vs. East Catholic and could proclaim they were back.
Sutton began to field calls from outside Connecticut inviting his team to tournaments and big venues where the kids could showcase their skills and see a different level of competition than they were used to on a daily basis.
“When you start establishing a rapport for yourself,” Sutton said. “You have the guys call you up from Massachusetts, the Hall of Fame and invite you into these tournaments that you just can’t go walk in.”
Since the 2009-10 season, Hillhouse has played seven out-of-state schools and won six times, including against Paul Robeson and Cardinal Hayes from New York City.
But maybe the biggest of big venue games came in 2017 when Joey Kasperzyk and Hillhouse faced off against Tremont Waters and Notre Dame-West Haven for the Southern Connecticut Conference title at Quinnipiac’s TD Bank Sports Center to accommodate the large crowd and it still didn’t fit everyone that wanted to see the game.
“I’ve heard rumors that I really believe,” Sutton said. “That they were scalping tickets up to $200-$300 for people to come and see that high school game. People were standing outside in that weather with their face glued to the window to see the outcome.”
The Academics won the game 70-62 and went on to win their second straight state crown, the 24th in their history.
The formula has been simple from the days Sutton played in the Saulsbury program to now.
“If you want some, come get some,” Sutton said.
Saulsbury said the same thing. If the players want it bad enough, they’re going to put in the work.
From the beginning
In 1997, John Acquavita headed the start-up football program at Hyde Leadership. He had been teaching at Troup School in New Haven and coaching the middle school football program. As with any new sport, the first few years are junior varsity level to drum up interest and prepare the student-athletes for the varsity level.
In 1998, the Pequot League asked Hyde if they would accept an invitation into the league a year early due to a sudden vacancy left by Avon.
“I thought we were nowhere near ready to play any organized level,” Acquavita said. “But we didn’t want to decline the invite and not have it the next year, so we went into ’98 and went 0-10.”
But since the school now had a varsity football program, applications started to rise.
“Hyde was taking 50 kids per class at the time,” Acquavita said. “When I got there in ’97, only 22 kids applied for the 50 spots. Then in ’98 after the first year of varsity football, it went up to like 30. Then in ’99 we had a little success, we won four games and the enrollment went into the 80s.”
In 2000, just three years after the program was founded, the Howling Wolves went undefeated and won the Class S state championship.
“The applications went to over 350,” Acquavita said.
From there on, Hyde won four state championships, three with Acquavita at the helm and established the program as a “Class S power.”
In 2007 he made the move to his alma mater, Wilbur Cross, and while the championships haven’t come at the larger school, the rewards of coaching in New Haven have continued.
“Coaches coach because they love the game and working with the kids,” Acquavita said. “When you’re in New Haven, there’s no secret that you’re coaching job is going to be way more than Xs and Os.”
“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a kid who came here maybe a little rough around the edges, need a little straightening out and then they buy in and their family buys in and you turn the corner with that kid and you get them to graduate and possibly going to college.”
Of the 20 seniors in the 2018 graduating class from Wilbur Cross, 17 of them are going to college, two are going straight into the workforce and one in the military.
It’s something that each successful coach in New Haven believes in.
“I’ve always felt that New Haven has always put its sports programs as something that’s high up on the list to keep going, because they know the impact it has on the kids and they need that outlet,” Acquavita said.
The one line
When you compile a list of the state championships New Haven high schools have won, there is one line that stands out, because there is nothing else like it.
Wilbur Cross golf in 1955.
There is not a lot written about that team, much like high school golf today, but the players got their due.
The team was inducted into the Wilbur Cross Hall of Fame in 2013. John Walekewic, Walter Cummings, William Cummings, Dick Meade and Bobby Proto won the title at Patterson Club in Fairfield.
The history of athletics in New Haven is massive. It has had some incredible athletes over the years who have done incredible things. It has groundbreaking coaches and one-hit wonders, but one thing is certain: the city will always have its rich history.