At the outset of this all-decade project, there was nearly nothing set in stone. There was an enormous amount of research that needed to be done to properly choose the members of each team and best rank each of the top lists. There was a least one thing that was a sure bet from the beginning, though, and that was Naugatuck’s top athlete of the decade: Brian Mariano.
Mariano’s exploits in Garnet and Grey are stuff of legend: He won 11 NVL titles in 11 varsity seasons, was a combined six-time all-NVL selection, a five-time all-state honoree, once an All-New England pick, twice an All-America honorable mention, twice an All-America choice, and a national champion, all of which came in soccer and diving (of course, the latter was his bread and butter). Not bad for a guy who never planned on stepping foot on the one-meter springboard.
“I had no intentions of diving in high school,” says Mariano, who still owns the Class LL diving record and just last year had his State Open mark bested. “I was a pretty good soccer player when I was younger and I was more into gymnastics, but the two older guys I did gymnastics with convinced me to try diving. I happened to beat the reigning state champion in my first meet and it kind of took off from there. I’m just fortunate that things worked out my way.”
Mariano knew he would be pursuing soccer at Naugy, aiming to win as many championships as possible. With him on the roster, the Hounds won four-straight league titles (1998-2001) and the 2001 Class LL state championship. That state title game, a 3-2 win over Westhill, was the stage for Mariano’s most famous accomplishment—the 360-degree flip throw-in from 50 yards away which soared by the goalkeeper and tickled the net for the game-winning tally…and earned him an ESPY nomination for play of the year.
“I learned from [my older brother and sister],” Mariano explains. “It’s a bonus that the throw-in could go 30-40 extra yards. I remember we were using a newer, lighter ball in the game and my adrenaline was pumping. Initially I thought it was headed over the goal so I put my head down, but then I looked up and saw a lot of traffic near the goal and finally the referee signaled a goal. It was unbelievable.”
Still, over eight years after one of the greatest plays in high school soccer history, Mariano says the flip is talked about all the time, especially at City Hill Middle School, where he is a gym teacher.
“All the time it’s brought up,” he says. “I thought after I got out of high school, people wouldn’t talk about it so much, but that hasn’t been the case. I have my students come up to me all the time and say that they heard about it and want to see it. They ask why it isn’t on YouTube, and I tell them we didn’t have YouTube back then.”
We’re working on that, by the way.
Mariano’s soccer career only begins to scratch the surface of his athletic accomplishments. He was an All-America honorable mention pick his sophomore year of high school, followed by a pair of State Open titles and All-America honors his junior and senior years. The greatest thrill of his Naugy career, though, remains his national championship in 2002.
“I was ecstatic when I found out,” Mariano recalls of the moment when he learned his videotape was judged best in the country. “I thought I was pretty good in Connecticut, but then I would go to a national meet and get my butt kicked. When I go over my parents’ house for dinner, I see the plaque and remember how cool that was.”
Next for Mariano was the University of Indiana, where he continued to build his impressive résumé. The 5-7, 160-pounder was named to the All-Big Ten second team in 2005 followed by the honors of being the Big Ten Diver of the Championships and Co-Diver of the Year in 2006. He still ranks in the top six in school history of three different events.
The biggest thrill of his career, Mariano says, was his participation in the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials, where he placed in the top six of two synchronized diving events.
“When I was watching the 2000 Olympic trials, I thought about how cool it would be to go,” Mariano says. “When I learned I had enough points to go, I was so excited. There were thousands and thousands of people there. It was absolutely ridiculous.”
Now, in addition to teaching at City Hill, Mariano is an assistant coach for Naugatuck boys’ soccer and the diving coach at Woodland—neither of which he planned on pursuing. And while it may be a long time before we see a local athlete the caliber of Mariano, he says success is waiting for anyone who wants to work for it.
“Now that things are more competitive than ever, it takes extra practice,” Mariano says. “You have to be a hard worker. You have to find your niche. Don’t be the next Brian Mariano.”