WATERBURY — The Naugatuck swim team pulled off a real seat-grabber Friday at the Kennedy High’s John Reardon Pool, defeating Sacred Heart by the slimmest of margins, 95-91.
Both the Greyhounds and Hearts came into the meet undefeated in the Naugatuck Valley League, sporting 4-0 ledgers. There was excitement in the air, as fans poured into the stands; by the start of the first race, there was standing room only.
On several occasions, the roar from the crowd almost blew the roof off the place, and you could sense that this one was going to come down to the last event. It did, as Naugatuck won the final race of the meet. The 400 freestyle relay team of Will Wright, Chris Branco, Trevor Heller and Kyle Conrad raced to victory in a controversial finish that had both sides displaying heated emotions afterward.
The Hearts clung to an 87-85 advantage, entering the decisive final event. The Hounds not only need their top quartet to win but also needed their second stringers to finish third or better. Sacred Heart could still win the meet, even if Naugy captured first place in the relay, by taking second and third.
Tensions were running high, and the fans were deafening as the swimmers stepped onto their blocks. Throughout the race, swimmers from both teams paced the edge of the pool, waving towels at their teammates racing the length of the pool.
On the final leg of the relay, Kyle Conrad got a jump on Hearts anchorman Kelly Dullard, allowing Naugatuck to finish first by a mere second. But the meet wasn’t over just yet; Naugatuck still needed a third-place finish to pull out the victory.
The foursome of Jake Branco, T.J. Warren, Kevin McNamara and Jim Vaz easily took third, and the Greyhounds erupted, commandeering the diving board cheering the victory.
That drew the ire of the Hearts, and a mob scene ensued on the deck with swimmers, administrators and coaches jawing back and forth at one another. Sacred Heart claimed Conrad left the block early, which would have led to a disqualification and a Hearts victory.
The referees agreed it was too close to call, and any controversy surrounding the breath-holding finish will have to be decided at the NVL championships, slated for March 5 back at Reardon.
From the looks of it, you better get your tickets early and be sure to bring your earplugs. There won’t be an empty seat in the house.
“It feels great,” Naugatuck head coach Jim McKee said of the big win. “Coming into their place with a packed house, and after they took 1-2-3 in diving, it really feels good. Nothing has been determined yet. It just means Sacred Heart can’t lose another meet, and by the looks of it, they won’t. For us, it means we could lose another meet, but we probably won’t. The championship wasn’t decided tonight; it will be decided in a couple of weeks.”
Sacred Heart took the opening race, winning the 200-yard medley, and led on the scoreboard throughout, until the 200 freestyle relay. The Hounds managed to stay within striking distance, as Conrad captured the 200 freestyle in one minute, 48.96 seconds. Trevor Heller won the 50 freestyle in 22.78, and Naugatuck trailed, 32-30, going into the diving competition.
Sacred Heart took the top three spots to build a comfortable lead. Heller finished second in the 100 butterfly, getting out-touched at the wall by less than a second by the Hearts’ Ray Snyder.
Naugatuck came storming back, with Conrad winning the 100 freestyle in 49.60 and Chris Branco besting the field in the 500 freestyle in 5:05.22, winning by half the length of the pool.
That closed the gap to 61-49, and the Greyhounds fans erupted with cheers of “Naugy” when the 200 freestyle relay squad of T.J. Warren, Kevin McMullen, Conrad and Dalton Fennell raced to victory in 1:36.08 to put Naugatuck on top for the first time, at 71-69.
A second place finish by Fennell in the 100 breaststroke kept Naugatuck in contention, but Sacred Heart retook the lead, with Ed Garrity taking first and John DeLucia finishing third, for an 87-85 Hearts lead.
It all came down to the final race, and Naugatuck pulled out the victory in less than a second, with a time of 3:24.41.
“I’m very happy for my guys,” McKee said. “It was a very emotional meet, and Sacred Heart is a very good team. The only thing that was decided was the winner of this meet. The championship will be decided in a couple of weeks.”