Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Start of spring season uncertain with current conditions, more snow coming

Bristol Central baseball's varsity field as seen Tuesday morning. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)
The spring sports season is supposed to start on Easter Weekend, or Saturday, March 31 to be precise.
I took a ride around the area, visiting three schools and a park that hosts games during the season. March 31 is in jeopardy, especially with the latest winter storm coming Wednesday into Thursday of this week.
My first site was Bristol Central High School. The varsity field honestly looked the best out of all of the ones I visited, and that's with water standing in the way of a sliding runner and third base. Behind the plate is another story, with snow blanketing the grass behind home plate. There's also snow near the mound, and snow out in the field itself.
Having covered Bristol Central, I know that this multi-purpose field (it's used for soccer in the fall) doesn't handle water well. Even if the snow melts early, the field will still be soaked. 
Wolcott baseball's varsity field as seen Tuesday morning. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)
The Rams don't start their varsity slate until April 4, and they are on the road for the first two games. Their home opener is scheduled for Monday, April 9, against Hall.
The next stop was Wolcott High School. Except for a narrow path of grass in front of the left field fence, the varsity baseball field is covered in snow. It looks nothing like a baseball field at the moment -- more suited for cross country skiing -- and the incoming winter storm will only make that worse.
Wolcott is on the road for its season opener on March 31 at Woodland. The home opener is slated for Friday, April 6, against Oxford.
My third stop was Wilby High School. Perched on top of Bucks Hill, the Wildcat fields are already at a disadvantage. Like Wolcott, the Wilby varsity baseball field is covered in snow with very little grass visible.
Wilby's varsity baseball field as seen Tuesday morning. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)
Wilby begins its season on Wednesday, April 4, at Oxford. Kaynor Tech is the home opener, which is penciled in for Friday, April 6.
Bucks Hill Park was my last top on the wintry fields tour. The softball infield appears to be a muddy mess, and there is a decent amount of snow in the outfield, though nowhere near as much as Wilby or Wolcott. Bucks Hill Park's softball field is the home venue for Wilby softball, and more snow will definitely be an issue.
In my opinion, the spring sports regular season games shouldn't start until the first full weekend in April. The extra week could help the snow melt and the fields dry out. It's tough to cram the spring season into only a couple months, but starting in March in Connecticut doesn't work so well. Expect plenty of scrimmages to be cancelled over the next two weeks.
The forecast as of this afternoon for Wolcott and Waterbury, according to the National Weather Service website, is for 11-15 inches of snow and light ice accumulations. Ouch.
For Bristol, the forecast from NWS says 5-10 inches of snow.
Local TV stations vary in their forecast amounts from 4-9 to 6-12, and there could be locally higher amounts.
The infield of a Bucks Hill Park softball field looking quite muddy on Tuesday morning.
(Copyright, Sports on CT-69)
Burlington-based weather forecaster John Bagioni said the European model is showing the snowfall numbers dropping, but he cautioned against anything being a done deal. Bagioni couldn't be more right, given what winters in New England are like.
If this storm smacks the area as bad as the NWS says it will, local fields may need until the first weekend in April just to dry out.
No matter how much snow falls, more snow is not great for spring sports teams.
As far as high temperatures go, they will be mostly in the low 40s for Bristol and Waterbury, but a mix of high 30s and low 40s for Wolcott, according to NWS.
What all this snow and mud means is teams will have to share gymnasiums for practices. A hardwood floor can't simulate the bounces of a baseball or softball field, and only so much can be done inside to get ready for track and field. We'll see what happens with the storm and upcoming weather patterns. Hopefully I'm wrong, but I think the March 31 start isn't happening.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Sacred Heart's CIAC win streak ends in Division I final

Sacred Heart's Raheem Solomon, right, and Notre Dame-Fairfield's Tyler Bourne, left,
hooked up in a memorable duel between seniors during Sunday night's Division I state final.
Solomon outscored Bourne 33-30, but Bourne and the Lancers won their first state title
and ended the Hearts' 107-game CIAC win streak. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)
How do you measure a 107-game winning streak?
On Feb. 5, 2014, Crosby boys basketball defeated Sacred Heart in the NVL Tournament final at Wilby High School. Little did we know that the Hearts wouldn't lose again for over four years.
No. 4 seed Sacred Heart's 107-game CIAC winning streak was ended on Sunday night by No. 2 Notre Dame-Fairfield, 65-60 at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Hearts' run of four straight state championships also ended.
Four years. The streak lasted 1,468 calendar days from its beginning to its end. There were 1,473 calendar days between losses.
The streak began on Feb. 12, 2014, when No. 3 Sacred Heart beat No. 14 St. Bernard 65-26 at Alumni Hall in a Class S second round game. This won't matter to the Hearts' detractors -- and there are many -- but the Hearts didn't make the postseason in 2013 while in Class M, finishing 6-14. Sacred Heart was dropped to Class S. (ASIDE: You may question the decision-making of adults, but remember that the players are just kids. Leave them out of any discussions about what class the Hearts should have been in, or where the players came from.)
Andre Anderson (4) attacks the basket for the Hearts. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)
The last win of the steak may have been the most thrilling. No. 4 Sacred Heart rallied from what was a 16-point deficit at one point to nip No. 8 Windsor 59-58 in the Division I state semifinal round at the University of Hartford's Chase Arena.
The 105 wins in between included four state championships and four NVL Tournament titles.
Notre Dame, a two-time runner-up to Sacred Heart, put an end to the streak on Sunday night. The Lancers played a great game, led by seniors Tyler Bourne and Noreaga Davis.
"It was like this every night," Hearts head coach Jon Carroll said of the streak. "It may not seem like it with some of the scores, but it was a grind every night."
Like the Windsor semifinal, Sunday night's game was an uphill climb. Notre Dame jumped out to a 12-5 lead with 3:37 remaining in the first quarter. It was 15-9 Lancers at the 1:22 mark. Sacred Heart ground its way back to a 15-all tie by scoring the last six points. There were two straight baskets by senior Isiah Gaiter, then fellow senior Zach Francisco grabbed a loose ball and laid it in with his left (off) hand to tie the game. Gaiter had five rebounds in the quarter.
Solomon buries a 3 late in the third quarter. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)
Senior Raheem Solomon also had five rebounds in that first quarter, but he didn't score. Solomon wound up leading the Hearts with 33 points and 12 rebounds in his final game for the maroon and gold. Solomon was unbelievable at many times, soaring over opponents for rebounds, going one-on-one before pulling up for shots, or driving to the basket and drawing fouls.
Solomon had a big seven points and five rebounds in the second quarter as Sacred Heart claimed a 26-25 lead at halftime. Gaiter had a team-high 10 points and six rebounds, but he also had two personal fouls, both coming in the first quarter.
Gaiter played the second quarter with two fouls, but couldn't escape trouble in the third. Gaiter picked up his third foul at 5:37 to go, then was whistled for his fourth 15 seconds later. The Hearts were ahead 32-29 before the fourth foul. Damion Medwinter made two foul shots to cut the lead to 32-31. Six more points from the Lancers put them ahead 37-32.
Notre Dame was still ahead 39-36 with just over two minutes left in the quarter, but then Solomon went off. Four foul shots were followed by a big-time 3-pointer from the right wing with 43 seconds to play in the quarter. With the third quarter winding down and the game tied at 43, Solomon went one-on-one with his defender, pulled up and drained another shot from the right wing to put Sacred Heart ahead 45-43 going into the fourth quarter.
Isiah Gaiter goes up for two. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)
The Hearts upped the lead to 48-44 on another Solomon 3 at the 7:07 mark of the final quarter. 
That's when Bourne seized the moment. The 5-foot-9 sparkplug buried two straight 3-pointers for a 50-48 Lancer lead with 5:16 to go. A Davis basket off a Bourne drive had Notre Dame ahead 52-48.
Bourne and Solomon had a great battle going on in this game, and it made for some real entertainment for those who made the journey to Mohegan Sun Arena.
Solomon responded to Bourne's hot streak by making an unbelievable three-point play. He banked in a short shot on the left side of the basket with a Lancer defender hanging on his arm. His free throw cut the Hearts' deficit to 52-51, 4:17 to go.
Two foul shots from junior Josh Reaves put the Lancers up 54-51 at 3:56. Solomon then seized the moment with four straight points, and his most spectacular sequence of the night put the Hearts ahead for the last time in the 2017-18 season.
Solomon blocked a shot at one end of the floor, then raced to the other end. When Gaiter's initial layup missed, Solomon tipped it in for a 55-54 Sacred Heart lead with 3:20 to play in the game.
It looked like the Hearts might have had another comeback in them. The Lancers took the game away and seized their first state championship, and first undefeated season, in program history.
Davis tied the game at 55 on a free throw with 3:11 to go, but missed his second. Medwinter was there for the rebound and put it back in for a 57-55 Notre Dame lead. 
The Hearts take a timeout to regroup. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)
At 2:25 to go, Bourne drew the fifth and final foul on Gaiter, ending his career. Bourne made one free throw, but missed his second. This time Reaves pulled down the offensive rebound. After a three-point miss, Woodley Monnexant chased down another rebound and got the ball back to Bourne, who was fouled. One more free throw out of two for Bourne put the Lancers ahead 59-55, 1:56 to go.
Freshman Connor Tierney's hook shot put the Hearts within two points at 59-57, but they would get no closer. The Lancers did what they needed to do to win. Senior Noah Francisco fouled out for the Hearts, ending his career with 13.6 seconds left. Two foul shots from Bourne accounted for the final score.
Notre Dame head coach Chris Watts was emotional after the game, and he had every right to be. The hardest part for him, he said, was watching the clock tick down.
"Waiting for those three zeros," Watts said. "We had a five-point lead with nine seconds left, but you still have to coach the game. I'm so happy for the kids and the school."
Carroll stood in front of his bench and calmly answered questions afterward, not an easy thing to do by any stretch after such a monumental loss.
"This hurts right now," Carroll said. "I feel for my seniors."
Those seniors were Solomon, Gaiter, Zach Francisco, Andre Anderson, Noah Francisco, Fran Barton III, Nick Williams, Garrett Jones and Mike Napolitano.
A streak that at times seemed like it wouldn't end finally did on Sunday night.
"We'll come back," Carroll said. "We'll be alright."

GAME STORY: Click here to see what I wrote for The Hoop Zone.

GALLERY: Click here to see the photos I took at Sunday night's game.

Go to The Hoop Zone to see all of their coverage. Great photos from Jim Shannon, and great stories from Joe Palladino.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

ANALYSIS: Hearts need quick start against Lancers in Division I final

Isiah Gaiter and Sacred Heart would love to be all smiles again after tonight's Division I
state final against Notre Dame-Fairfield. That would mean a fifth straight championship
for the Hearts. Of course, the Lancers were be a determined bunch out for revenge
and their first state title. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69, 2017 file)
The day of the Division I boys basketball state final is finally upon us.
Tonight at 6 o'clock at Mohegan Sun Arena, No. 4 Sacred Heart (24-2) goes for a fifth straight state final against undefeated No. 2 Notre Dame-Fairfield (26-0), a team in search of its first championship.
The Hearts can make history, but the Lancers are also motivated by history, and revenge. Notre Dame-Fairfield was soundly defeated by Sacred Heart in the 2016 Class M and 2017 Class L championship games. The Lancers don't want to see their undefeated season close with another loss on the biggest stage.
Expect Notre Dame-Fairfield to come out with a whole lot of fire and determination in this game tonight. Anything less would be unacceptable for the Lancers and head coach Chris Watts, given what he and his players said at Friday's luncheon.
Sacred Heart, which rallied for a win in the final minutes against Windsor after being down as much as 16 points, needs to be ready for that opening punch. A slow start would not be good for the Hearts against the Lancers.
Where All-State duo Isiah Gaiter and Raheem Solomon have gone, so does Sacred Heart. Timely contributions from senior Andre Anderson, the senior Francisco twins Noah and Zach, along with freshmen Connor Tierney and Caleb Sampson, would be big tonight. Those contributions need to come on the offensive and defensive ends. A full effort is necessary tonight for a fifth straight championship.
Speaking of defense, Sacred Heart needs to put a padlock on Josh Reaves, who is averaging 25 points per game in the state tournament. Of course, don't forget about senior speedster Tyler Bourne, who has had some monster games this season.
This will be the biggest state final exam Sacred Heart has faced in the last five seasons. If the Hearts have what it takes, and it will take plenty of effort and guts, they will pass and take a spot in history next to Cromwell and Warren Harding, the other schools in the state that have won five straight finals.
This game should be awesome. I will be covering it for The Hoop Zone along with Joe Palladino, but I won't shortchange you on here. Expect plenty of stuff here in the near future.