CLISE: Non-NVL games a boon


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We’re two-thirds of the way through the Naugatuck Valley League’s non-conference experiment and so far the results—both quantitative and qualitative—have local athletic directors believing their decision to end the era of NVL isolationism was a wise one.

The league’s ADs voted in December 2008 to amend the NVL constitution to allow non-conference games during the regular season. The NVL already permitted out-of-league contests in a handful of sports, such as swimming and diving, track and field, and golf. But in others, the 2009-10 school year represented a new opportunity to schedule unfamiliar opponents.

During the fall and winter seasons, the league’s football, soccer and basketball teams posted a combined 42-24-3 record in non-conference games. Its strongest sport was boys’ hoops, in which NVL schools went 10-4.

Woodland was one of two schools to boast a perfect ledger. The Hawks were 5-0; St. Paul Catholic was 7-0. Naugatuck teams went 2-3.

BEAC_2010_03_19_p14.qxp (Page 14)“I think the flexibility it gives the coaches in scheduling the types of opponents they’d like to see really helps us,” Woodland AD Brian Fell said. “If you’re a team that’s struggling, maybe you can schedule somebody that could be a good competition but also could get you a win that gets you going in the right direction. If you’re one of our better programs, you get out there and see what’s out there in the state and pick up an opponent that’s going to be tough.”

Indeed, several NVL teams have sought top-tier foes but, unfortunately, this is one element of the experiment that has been a disappointment.

In football, Seymour hosting New Canaan looked like a sure-fire epic; the Wildcats were the preseason No. 4 team in the state, the Rams No. 1. But the Cats, in their first season in three decades without head coach Paul Sponheimer, got pounded, 35-0, as part of a 1-9 campaign. Seemingly resurgent Naugy proved no match for eventual state champion Notre Dame-West Haven, in a 42-8 loss. And the Ansonia-Hillhouse season opener, though it went the Chargers’ way, didn’t live up to expectations. Ansonia cruised past the Academics, 41-12.

In boys’ basketball, Torrington fell to Bridgeport Central, 73-55, Holy Cross beat Hartford Public, 64-46, and Sacred Heart couldn’t keep up with Half Hallow Hills West (N.Y.), losing, 75-56, in a game played at Springfield College. The only non-conference game that was as good as advertised was Crosby’s narrow, 68-65 defeat at Hyde Leadership.

Perhaps the biggest inter-league failures have come on the pitch. The most infamous was the Watertown girls’ soccer team’s 8-0 virtual forfeit against Nonnewaug, a game in which Indians coach Tony Mucciaro used only junior varsity players because he did not want to tire out his varsity squad the day before an NVL meeting with Woodland.

“I asked [Watertown administrators] seven times to cancel this game and seven times I was told to play it,” Mucciaro told the Republican-American after the game. “I have six kids sick, four with temperatures, and another had an asthma attack. I meant no disrespect to Nonnewaug, but what good does it do me to play with four varsity players?”

On the boys’ side, the Naugatuck-Pomperaug showdown was postponed twice because of rain, and when the teams finally did meet, it was under poor circumstances: The undefeated Greyhounds had just played an overtime NVL tournament semifinal the night before and were scheduled to play the league championship the next day. And it was raining again. Naugatuck’s starters played about 10 minutes then Pomperaug scored three times on NHS’ reserves, and the soggy affair was called at halftime.

“It was lousy. It ended up being lousy,” acknowledged Naugatuck AD Tom Pompei. “So we’re hoping to do that differently this year so that it becomes a little bit more meaningful.”

I, for one, am glad to hear Pompei plans to give this matchup another shot next autumn. There’s little doubt Naugatuck-Pomperaug could become a good rivalry, not only in boys’ soccer but also in other sports.

“If it were up to me, I’d play Pomperaug in just about everything,” Pompei said.

Fell may try to cultivate a similar relationship between the Black and Gold and nearby Oxford.

“There are some matchups that are just natural rivalries: Us playing Oxford in boys’ basketball I think is a great idea,” he said. “They’re right down the road. They’re a relatively new school; we’re a relatively new school. I think that’s a great natural rivalry that could definitely get up some steam year after year, if we could get that going.”

The Hawks picked up a 73-53 win over the Wolverines this year, a late-season victory that helped them reach the postseason for the first time since 2005.

Even though it’s too early to know whether those rivalries will develop, and several marquee matchups ended up being duds, we’re already seeing why non-conference games are a good idea in the long run.

“I’m a firm believer in that cliché to be the best you have to beat the best,” Pompei said. “So I don’t really like to duck opponents or go out and purposely get a weaker opponent to guarantee a W. I want to play somebody who’s going to give us a measure of where we are in our program. And again, I don’t want to set us up for failure, but at the same time, I try to find an opponent that’s comparable to us, that can be comparable or even a little bit better that can be a measuring stick for where we are outside of the NVL.”

Fell agrees, saying out-of-league games help evaluate his teams’ state tournament prospects. For instance, he believed Class L Daniel Hand was kind of school the Woodland girls’ basketball team “to be competitive in the state tournament that we would need to schedule and be competitive with.” The Hawks’ 52-48 win over Hand in the fourth game of the season helped establish WRHS as a squad bound for the postseason.

And the benefits of non-conference play are not limited to individual schools, according to Fell.

“Not only just us. We get to see what the other league schools are doing,” he said. “We get to see how our league fares overall. We’re seeing who the Holy Crosses are playing out of league and who Naugatuck is playing, and we can kind of gauge where our league is, as a whole, and say, ‘Wow, in this particular sport, our league looks to be very competitive statewide,’ or ‘Hey, our league is kind of weak this year; we’re going to need to step up our game’ type of thing.”