What could have been in 2020

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Kyle Brennan

Mercifully, there’s only about a week left in what’s been the worst year of many people’s lives. Never before have so many people been unanimously ready to bid a year sayonara than most of us are ready to do with 2020.

High schools have had their share of suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve lost graduations and proms, in-person learning and hanging with friends, and the opportunities provided by high school sports.

One day — hopefully sooner than later — scholastic sports, like everything, will be back to normal. But as we celebrate this holiday season and the coming of a year that will hopefully be much better than the one whose sand is about to run out, we also want to look back and imagine what could have been on the local high school sports scene.

The Naugatuck boys basketball team poses for a photo with the championship banner after defeating Holy Cross to win the Naugatuck Valley League boys basketball championship March 4 at Wilby High School in Waterbury. -BILL SHETTLE/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Title hopes for Naugy boys hoops: Fresh off their first Naugatuck Valley League championship in more than a half-century, the Greyhounds earned the No. 2 seed in the Division II state tournament and had as good a shot as anybody to win their first state title since 1942.

But on March 10, the CIAC became the first state association in the country to cancel the remainder of its winter tournaments. It was the same night that the Division II tournament was set to begin.

“We are heartbroken,” Naugatuck coach Mike Wilson said that day. “The most difficult meeting I ever had with a group of kids.”

Even other NVL coaches, including Sacred Heart’s Jon Carroll and Waterbury Career’s Ronan O’Leary, felt particularly crushed for the Greyhounds, who were led by Avery Hinnant, Derrick Jagello, Robert Sanders, Keywan Garris and Ese Onakpoma.

“After my own team, that’s the first team I thought about,” O’Leary said at the time.

Naugy was the No. 6-ranked team in the state media poll entering the tournament.

Woodland softball’s time: Many observers in the area buzzed about the Hawks being favored to win their first NVL softball title in a decade with eight impactful players set to return. All-State second baseman May Dawes, All-NVL catcher Kylie Bulinski and pitcher Riley Kane were going to lead the way, along with a solid group of sophomores and freshmen.

Fortunately for Woodland, if there is a spring season this year, that entire squad will return in 2021 — and the Hawks’ potential might not stop at just an NVL title.

Members of the Naugatuck girls tennis team celebrate after beating Watertown, 4-3, to win the Naugatuck Valley League team tournament championship in 2019 at Wilby High School in Waterbury. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Returning on court: Naugatuck dominated the NVL tennis scene in 2019, sweeping both league titles and picking up plenty of individual hardware, too. Several championship-caliber players, including Jay Mezzo, Brielle Behuniak and Hailey Russell, were set to lead their squads in title defenses as seniors.

Woodland, too, had potential, led on the boys side by Devon and Dante Polletta. All five players graduated and missed their senior campaigns.

Revenge on track: The Woodland girls saw their six-year NVL outdoor track championship streak snapped in 2019, but they would have had a great shot to regain the crown coming off their ninth consecutive NVL indoor track title and with five girls (Kim Poulos, Emma Slavin, Jade Brennan, Jaden Young and Jasmine Michie) trying to defend gold medals. All but Poulos graduated.

The Naugy boys were also ready to defend their NVL title with a slew of top performers, including Brendon Soubannarath, Charley Marenghi and Tyvias Dippelhofer.

Pinho Trophy game: After a two-year hiatus due to NVL football scheduling rules, we were set for the return of the George Pinho Trophy game between Woodland and Naugatuck. It is one of the marquee sporting events on the local calendar, but we’ll have to wait until 2021 to see the rivals tangle on the gridiron again.

Naugy spikers’ title defense: The Greyhounds’ upset run to the 2019 NVL volleyball championship was thrilling, and although it would have been a difficult task without Behuniak, the 2019 tournament MVP, Naugatuck still would have had the target on its collective back. Instead, with only division titles at stake due to pandemic-altered scheduling, the ‘Hounds are still technically the reigning champs ‘til next fall.

Local rivalry on the pitch: While Naugatuck and Woodland ended up in the same NVL Copper Division in girls soccer (the Hawks were 2-0-1 in three matches), the local rivals were placed in separate divisions for boys soccer. The Greyhounds and Hawks had developed one of the league’s fiercest rivalries over the past few years, oftentimes with championship implications on the boys side. Woodland ended up unbeaten in the NVL Copper, while Naugy suffered two losses to Holy Cross in the NVL Iron.

Woodland’s Nick Rousseau (26) looks for room to run as Seymour’s Marvin Matovu (10) closes in during the annual Thanksgiving eve game in 2019 at Seymour High School. -STEVEN VALENTI/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Postseason tournaments: With the cancellation of the boys basketball state tournament, the entire spring season, the NVL’s fall divisional tournaments, and the fall state tournaments, our area hasn’t enjoyed a taste of postseason competition since the first week of March — and there’s no telling if the winter or spring will get that chance in 2021.

Thanksgiving football: Football was the only fall sport that was completely canceled, and although the CIAC has promised to look at rescheduling football sometime in late spring, that seems increasingly unlikely. For the first time since 1924, Naugatuck and Ansonia didn’t meet in a Thanksgiving football game, and Woodland and Seymour didn’t square off for the first time since their rivalry began in 2003.

Sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner this year without having to thaw out first is a feeling I don’t want to replicate next year.

Simply being at games: Even for the fall sports that got to play for a month or so, attendance was limited or banned. We’ve gone nine months without roars, nine months without student sections, and nine months without the experience that high school athletes deserve. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait too much longer to get them all back.