Top stories from a unique year of high school sports

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

With normalcy on the horizon — or already here for many folks — we can all look forward to a traditional year of high school sports starting this fall.

But that wasn’t the case for much of the last school year. There was a modified fall season filled with starts, stops and no postseason; a delayed winter season without state tournaments; and a mostly normal spring season with a full postseason, but also with a few pandemic hiccups.

Here are the top 10 stories from the most unique year of high school sports hopefully we’ll ever see.

Naugatuck played Seymour in a 7-on-7 game that included lineman challenges Oct. 19 at Naugatuck High School. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Football canceled: Heeding guidance from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the CIAC canceled its football season right before full practices were set to begin. The decision triggered a massive student-led protest at CIAC headquarters in Cheshire. The CIAC allowed for 7-on-7 scrimmages, while an independent league formed and played for a couple of weeks before the pandemic’s reemergence shut it down in early November.

Hounds, Hawks go unbeaten in fall: One of the many modifications made to the fall season was division-only play in the Naugatuck Valley League. Teams played some opponents three or four times, but at least they played. Naugy put together a perfect season in NVL Iron Division volleyball, while Woodland’s boys and girls soccer and cross country teams went unbeaten in NVL Copper Division play.

Woodland’s Sara Alessio (3) pushes the ball toward the box as Derby’s Dahiana Rodriguez-James (4) and Natalia Gruszkos (13) give chase during a game Oct. 19 at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Pandemic forces fall postseason cancellation, winter season delay: In lieu of a state tournament, the NVL was scheduled to host postseason tournaments in the same divisions it used during the fall. However, due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in early November, the league’s athletic directors unanimously canceled the tournaments. The spike in cases throughout the state soon led the CIAC to postpone the start of winter sports practices to Jan. 19.

Records fall in Woodland pool: Despite swim seasons in which most meets were virtual competitions, the Hawks set plenty of school records in the fall and winter. Freshman Emme Starzman now owns two girls school records, lowering the 100-yard breaststroke mark several times and teaming up with Kyla Behrle, Molly Kennedy and Maura Beltrami to set the 200 medley relay record. On the boys side, Jake Arisian put together the best individual season in school history, attaching his name to 10 of the 11 school records. D.J. Mulligan also got his name on the record board in boys diving.

Woodland’s Jake Arisian competes in the 500 freestyle during a meet with Torrington Jan. 7 at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. Arisian won the event with a time of 5:04:10 and broke the school record. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Greyhounds reach NVL boys hoops final: After withstanding a quarantine delay at the end of the regular season, Naugatuck came within a few buckets of defending its league championship in boys basketball. Ese Onakpoma scored 17 points and the ‘Hounds trailed by just one point inside the final minute, but Sacred Heart earned a 57-50 victory in the final basketball game in its storied history.

Woodland duo wins NVL doubles title: After helping to lead the Woodland boys tennis team to the NVL tournament final, the Hawks’ Andy Hopkinson and Tyler Macdowall teamed up to win the league’s doubles championship with a 6-0, 6-0 victory in the final. Woodland’s Nick Bshara and Brian O’Connell also earned All-NVL honors for reaching the doubles semifinals.

The Naugatuck boys won the NVL outdoor track and field championship May 22 at Torrington High School. -KEVIN ROBERTS/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Track titles go to Naugy, Woodland: There were no surprises at the NVL outdoor track championships as the usual suspects, the Naugatuck boys and Woodland girls, earned league titles. The Greyhounds defended their 2019 league title, while the Hawks won their seventh crown in the last eight seasons. Both meet records in the 800 meters went down courtesy of Naugy’s Jonathan Volpe and Woodland’s Jaden Young. The schools combined to have 23 All-NVL athletes.

Naugy-Woodland baseball rivalry explodes: In a rowdy game May 8 that saw the benches clear, two ejections and a protest, Naugatuck originally handed Woodland its first defeat of the season with a 6-4 decision. However, a violation of the CIAC’s pitch-count rule resulted in Naugy forfeiting the win. The Greyhounds got their revenge two weeks later, though, when they outlasted No. 2-seeded Woodland, 2-0, in nine innings to bounce the Hawks from the NVL quarterfinals. Woodland recovered to reach the Class M semifinals for the third time in school history.

Woodland’s Kylie Bulinski (12) comes in to score after blasting a walk-off, two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning to defeat Naugatuck in the NVL softball championship May 26 at Naugatuck High School. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Bulinski walks off Hawks for NVL softball title: At a packed Naugatuck High, Woodland junior catcher Kylie Bulinski hit a moonshot to right-center field for a two-run, walk-off home run to give the Hawks a 4-2 win over the Greyhounds and their first NVL championship since 2010. It was Bulinski’s second homer of the game. She was later named the Class M Position Player of the Year and helped Woodland reach the Class M semifinals for the first time since 2004.

Anderson, Lato hired to lead football teams: Two prominent high school football coaches will lead the locals on the gridiron this fall after being hired in the spring. Chris Anderson, the man who built the Woodland football program and led the Hawks to a pair of state and NVL titles in 2004-05, was hired as Naugatuck’s new football coach, succeeding Dave Sollazzo and interim coach Ollie Gray. After Chris Moffo resigned at Woodland, former Masuk coach and Beacon Falls resident Joe Lato accepted the job to lead the Hawks. Naugatuck will host Woodland on Nov. 12.