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Thursday, September 2, 2010
New England Roundup: Connecticut

By Matt Stout

Tim Guernsey answered the question like he’s been asked it a million time before.

No, the RHAM volleyball coach doesn’t know how many consecutive games his team has won.

Really.

“Nope,” he said, chuckling. “I have no idea. It’s for writers.”

He does, however, remember the last time the Lady Sachems lost — to Farmington in the Northwest Conference final.

In 2007.

Nearly three years and three state championships separate then and now. Fifty-three straight wins do, too.

ConnecticutBut the streak is hardly a concern for RHAM, one of the state’s most dominant programs in any sport despite starting just eight years ago with a coach who never played the sport and in a town — Hebron — that loves its soccer.

Inside the RHAM gymnasium, there are blue banners signifying league championships and gold ones reserved for state titles. As one would expect, the only number on the gold ones is for the year, not that number of losses.

“People are going to come into the gym and they’re going to notice 2010, they won a state title,” Guernsey said. “Not that they had 10 losses or no losses.”

Nevertheless, they’ve been hard to come by at RHAM. The Sachems lost just one game (yes, game!) last season en route to their third straight Class M title. They rode big hitters in All-State selections Kelsey Welling and Tessa Smolinski, also the Gatorade Player of the Year, and a group of seven seniors well-versed in winning.

They’re gone, but in a program that’s quickly built a legacy of success, little else has changed.

Gold’s the goal. Again.

“In 2005, I had eight seniors on a team that went 18-2 and lost in the (state) quarterfinals. Then, it was six seniors (who graduated), then it was one senior, then it was this group with seven,” Guernsey said. “It’s been an every-other-year cycle.”

This season, just two seniors remain in outside hitter Chloe Rishell and middle hitter Jocelyn Taylor, the latter of whom was part of RHAM’s eight-person rotation a year ago. Like clockwork, seven juniors stand behind them, including Tessa’s sister, Laura, a setter; Kelsey Kirkpatrick, another middle hitter; and Kara Trippel, a libero.

Since they were freshmen, they “have been waiting to get into the limelight,” Guernsey said — like every other class.

“We’ve all kind of experienced it,” Rishell said of winning a state title. “But we’ve all been on the sidelines. I think the thing that is going to drive us most is we want to say we were a part of it.”

Guernsey does point to one difference this year. For the first time since he started the program in 2002 — and went 0-18 — RHAM lacks that knock-dead outside hitter in its 5-1 formation, someone who can take the ball anywhere on the net and leave a smudge mark where the floor used to be.

That moves the emphasis to defense and quicker passing, meaning RHAM will try to turn volleyball, a game essentially of mistakes, into a flawless act.

Good thing the Sachems have this perfection thing down. Even if they don’t know exactly for how long.

FAITH REWARDED
Faith Martin, in her own words, isn’t a scheduler. But she’s definitely an organizer.

Encased in an ever-expanding folder is her portfolio, full of reminders of homework and projects and, as the St. Paul-Bristol senior put it, “all my college stuff.”

For arguably the state’s best swimmer, paperwork isn’t light.

“She’s a planner,” said her mother and coach, Meegan Martin. “In school. In everything.”

Except when it comes to high school swimming.

Martin wakes up some days and feels like swimming one race. She’ll wake up on others and prefer a different stroke. It’s not uncommon, except when you consider that some of those days correspond with state championships.

The Connecticut record books may never be the same.

Devoid of a weak stroke, Martin is the only Connecticut swimmer to capture multiple State Open titles each of the last two seasons, winning the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle crowns in 2009.

The kicker is she didn’t even swim those events the year prior, claiming individual titles in the 200 IM and 500 free, and in the process, setting the State Open record in the former.

This year, she may go back to the 500 free, an event she altogether dropped last season despite being the best in the state at it.

“It takes a lot out of you,” she said.

It takes even more to catch her.

“That’s her mindset, definitely. She doesn’t choose her event until the last minute,” Meegan Martin said. “It drives me crazy. I have to put the entries in, and I ask her, ‘What do you want to swim? The 200 free, 100 free, 200 IM, the breaststroke?’ (She says), ‘Whatever.’ That’s the way she is. At the moment, she feels like, ‘I can do this fast.’ ”

And she often does. A member of the Ridgefield Aquatic Club for the first time this year, Martin hasn’t decided if her focus will be on the State Open or the short course junior national championships in December. She’s also planned college visits to Harvard, Duke and Penn State.

“I kind of just want to go out with a bang, maybe some state records,” she said.

It was then suggested to her that she just doesn’t know which ones yet.

Faith Martin laughed. “Exactly.”

FILLING THE VOID
For a player like Adam LaPlaca, there simply may be no replacing.

An All-New England performer and current Notre Dame freshman, LaPlaca made shutouts routine in his four years as the goalie of the Glastonbury boys soccer team. The Tomahawks’ best answer to filling his now vacant spot was the only player who has relieved him in recent seasons.

Apparently, replacing the state’s best goalie is never that easy.

Nate Holbert — who took over for LaPlaca during the second half of the 2008 Class LL championship after he’d received a red card — tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee at a lacrosse camp in July and will miss his senior season.

It left Glastonbury coach Mark Landers with seven possible candidates to assess for the open position, and Holbert with a job he probably never envisioned in his final high school year.

“A lot of the coaches would ask, ‘Who’s your goalkeeper next? Who do u have next?’ And they were kind of shocked when I said Nate’s name, that he was still around,” Landers said. “But what better role than to have him as a goalkeeper coach right now? He was out there [Monday] with his brace on and running the keepers through some drills that he knows so well. I think he’s going to be a valuable resource for us.”

If there’s a program in the state that can sustain such a loss, it’s Glastonbury. The Tomahawks have reached at least the Class LL semifinals in each of the last five seasons, claiming its third title in seven years in 2005. They’ve regularly produced college talent, and Landers amazingly is just the fourth coach of a program whose first state title dates back some 50 years.

But they’re also been heartbreak. Since that championship in 2005, Glastonbury has twice lost in the state championship — both times by one goal — and to eventual state champion Staples-Westport, 3-2, in 2009. In fact, since 2003, Glastonbury has either claimed the state title or lost to the eventual tournament champ each season.

Led by tri-captains Ryan Pajor, Eric Crevoiserat and Troy Lamagna, 15 players with varsity experience, including seven starters, return this season, all well aware of what it feels like to come so close.

“We’ve had success, there’s no doubt about that,” Landers said. “ And don’t get me wrong, you love winning all those games. But when you’re walking off the field in November, you’d love to win that last one. To be so close, I think these guys remember, they know.”

TOP HAT?
Last fall wasn’t a normal boys cross country season in Connecticut, nor New England. It’s largely because it wasn’t a normal one for Danbury High School.

Tucked along the New York-Connecticut border, one of the state’s largest schools has made a habit of being one of the nation’s best each fall. From 2006-08, the Hatters claimed State Open and New England championships and finished nationally ranked each season, garnering the top spot in the preseason in 2007.

But heavy graduations left Danbury with a slew of underclassmen in its top five last season, including two sophomores, a freshman and a junior at No. 1.

“I think they were a little … what’s the word I’m looking for?” coach Rob Murray said. “I think they were shell-shocked. They came in last year thinking they were just going to continue that (success) pretty easily, even though they didn’t really have much experience. But once they got into the season … they realized to be a state champion, you have to be different from the rest of the individuals in the state, you have to train differently than the rest of the other teams.”

Murray thinks they may have it now. Buoyed by a successful outdoor track season, in which their No. 2 runner, Nicholas Carlsen, ran a 15:19 5K, the Hatters open the season with a suddenly seasoned group that could reclaim its spot among the region’s elite.

They are the only top-10 team from last year’s State Open to return each of their top five runners, led by senior Alex Levine; Carlsen, the state’s top freshman a year ago; and junior Joe Raya. They have also developed the mindset Murray wants, a process he likened to mold sprouting on trees.

“Slowly, it kind of grows,” he said.

Danbury may not be the favorite, however. Xavier-Middletown, last year’s State Open champ, welcomes back two of its top four runners in No. 1 Ian Albert and John Annelli. Powerhouse Amity returns the back end of its top group, and Daniel Hand-Madison has one of the state’s best runners in Daniel Nestor.

On the girls’ side, not much has changed from 2009. Defending State Open champ Guilford has three of its top four runners returning — including No. 1 Valerie Williams — as does second-place Wilton. Glastonbury, which placed third last year at the Open, returns its top four, among them top-10 overall finishers Reid Watson and Lindsay Crevoiserat.

Matt Stout is the assistant sports editor at the Norwich Bulletin. Since arriving in Eastern Connecticut in 2007, he’s covered everything from high school sports to minor league baseball, serving primarily as the newspaper’s beat writer for the UConn men’s basketball team (2007-2009) and the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun (2007-present). A 2006 graduate of Boston University, he can be reached at mattpstout@gmail.com.