Newtown girls fulfilled their mission

This story has been corrected. Read below

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- This could be just any high school girls' basketball game. The players stretch as rapper Macklemore plays over the loudspeakers. Students and family members settle into the wooden pullout bleachers for the 5:15 tipoff. Championship banners at both ends of the Hawks' Nest remind everyone of the school's proud athletic heritage, although the coach of the 2012 Connecticut Class LL champions is still worried. "We haven't been practicing well," said Jeremy O'Connell. "They're good. This might get ugly."

The only hint that this Jan. 22 game is unique comes when the Panthers from Pomperaug High in nearby Southbury go over to the Nighthawks to present them with white warm-up shirts similar to the ones they're wearing. On the front, both sets of shirts have a now-familiar town seal attached to a blue-trimmed black ribbon. The backs are different, though. The Panthers' shirts read: YOU'RE NOT ALONE. The Nighthawks' read: NEWTOWN STRONG.

On Dec. 14, 39 days earlier, 26 innocent people were gunned down just up the road at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The girls' basketball team, which had brought tremendous joy to Newtown last March, was the first team charged with bringing Newtown something even more important in the wake of the shooting: comfort.

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The Newtown girls huddle for a moment of silence before a game against Pomeraug.

"We had a meeting to decide whether we should play or not. To be honest, I was against it. I just thought it was too soon. But then one of the girls mentioned that she had heard from the family of one of the victims. They wanted us to play because their son needed to get out of the house. Once I heard that, I was all in." -- Mary Jo Rossi, senior

There is something wonderfully chaotic about the start of a school day at Newtown High School. In wintertime, bundled-up kids stream through the doors in the early morning light, and Facebook takes on a much more human form as hundreds of conversations break out on the way to the lockers. Then first bell rings, and the students scurry off to classes and labs and the art studio, where a Francis Bacon quote hangs in the window: "The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery."

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Newtown's state championship banner.

The banners in the gymnasium tell only part of the story of Newtown High School. One look at the blog maintained by Principal Charles Dumais gives you a fuller view: items on the Yoga Club; visitors from Liaocheng, China; a blood drive; leotard donations organized by the gymnastics team; math and science competitions; letters-of-intent signings; cap-and-gown fittings; and the happy news that the American Birding Association had just named the common nighthawk as its bird of the year.

These days, of course, the blog is filled with sobering reminders of Dec. 14: thank-you notes to schools all across the country who have reached out to Newtown in tangible ways; the chamber choir's performance, "From Broadway With Love," a benefit concert for Sandy Hook at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Conn.; a public meeting in the high school auditorium on Jan. 30 for the Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety.

Perhaps we're as tired of the reminders of the tragedy as Newtown is of the TV trucks and media visitors. But it's worth scrolling down through the high school blog back to Jan. 15, and the Sandy Hook Promise, a video of a variety of Newtown High School students delivering an eloquent and heartfelt appeal to move forward. The words would not be as powerful if read on a page or screen; their promise "to choose love, and to love everyone, and to start now," needs to be heard.

"They're amazing kids, aren't they?" Dumais said in his office. "This is my fifth year as principal, and as trying as this year has been, it's also been tremendously rewarding to see how the students have responded.

"The girls' basketball team is a good example of that. Their mission changed in the middle of the season to something more important than defending a state title. They helped us to transition from a time of grieving to a time of healing."

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Said Principal Charles Dumais: "Their mission changed in the middle of the season to something more important than defending a state title."

During the 26-second moment of silence, I looked around at all the banners on the wall and realized that Newtown would no longer be known for our great sports teams, that we would be known for something terrible. And then I thought, maybe one day people will remember us for how we handled tragedy. Maybe we will come to be known for our strength. -- Bridget Power, senior captain

Jeremy O'Connell looks and acts like a coach. Himself the son of a coach, he's been blowing whistles and running drills for 17 years, the last three for the Newtown High girls' varsity. When he took over the team from athletic director Gregg Simon three years ago, he brought a new level of intensity to practices and a new sense of possibility to games.

Last year, blessed with a strong senior class that included all-state point guard Riley Wurtz, O'Connell exceeded all expectations by taking the Nighthawks to the Class LL title game as the No. 9 seed. In that game, played at the Mohegan Sun Arena, they held off a furious comeback by repeat finalist Mercy High of Middletown to win 44-42 for their first state championship.

"There was just so much happiness that night," said current senior captain Maddy Good. "We slept over at Mohegan Sun. And when we got back to Newtown, people were so happy for us. It was crazy."

Having lost Wurtz, who scored 18 points in that game and now plays for NYU, O'Connell knew this season wasn't going to be as easy. "Plus, we were now the champs," he said, "so everybody was gearing up for us." The Nighthawks, who lost only three games last year, dropped their first three games of the season, the third to Farmington on Dec. 13.

The next day, the world changed. "We went into lockdown when I was in chemistry that morning," said sophomore Michaela Nowacki. "As word got out as to what had happened, all I could think about was my brother, who is a fourth-grader at Sandy Hook."

"My brother's a Sandy Hook fifth-grader," said Good. "He was OK, but he really liked one of the kids who was killed. It was just such a horrible day."

"Basketball became secondary," said O'Connell, whose own two young children go to a different elementary school. "My role as a coach took a backseat to my roles as a father and a teacher. My focus was now on how do we get these kids through this. But as it turned out, they were the ones who got us through it."

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Newtown coach Jeremy O'Connell understood what returning to play meant -- for his players and the town.

I went to two funerals before the game that night. One of them was for a little girl whom I had taught in religious school at St. Rose. Caroline Previdi. She was such a sweet girl, she had such a light. -- Kerry Scanlon, junior

At some point, Newtown schools had to return to at least the appearance of a routine, and as it happened, the girls had a home varsity basketball game against neighboring Masuk of Monroe, Conn., on Dec. 19. "We still left it up to the kids," said Simon, who's now in his 13th year as AD. "We had a swimming meet on the 17th, but they decided not to compete, and we totally respected that decision.

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Players exchange shirts before the game.

"The one thing we insisted on was that there be no national media presence. This was about a return to normalcy, and we couldn't have that with cameras and a lot of reporters running around. What made the Masuk game so fitting was that it was a chance to thank Monroe for giving us the elementary school that we now use for the Sandy Hook students."

It was also appropriate that the game involved the girl basketball players. Nothing against their male counterparts, but several of the girls had baby-sat for, or taught, or coached kids who went to Sandy Hook Elementary. Some had siblings there. Everybody in Newtown knows somebody who was touched by the tragedy, but the girls tended to have closer relationships with the kids from SHE.

Newtown High treated the game as a baby step back to normal. There were 26 balloons in the Sandy Hook school colors -- 20 white, 6 green. The gym walls were encircled with paper cutouts of linked figures, interspersed with the letters SH, and on one side of the gym hung a hand-made sign that read NEWTOWN STRONG.

There was a 26-second moment of silence, and Dumais gave a touching speech welcoming people back and thanking Monroe for its help. The basketball team started a Threes for Sandy Hook fundraising challenge, encouraging people to donate $3 for every 3-point field goal, with the money going to the families of the victims. "That's our game anyway," said O'Connell. "We're not very tall."

All in all, $2,400 was raised that night. "We got to run," said senior captain Erin Kenning that night. "We got to get our minds, our frustration out of us a little." The Nighthawks also got their first win of the season, 64-44.

And the next morning, at the General Store in Newtown, people were talking about the game for a change.

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"They helped us to transition from a time of grieving to a time of healing," said Dumais.

I baby-sit for a girl who was in one of the classrooms, but who escaped. Right after that, I came over to take care of her, and the poor girl would freak out at every loud noise. A closet door would close hard, and she would come running to me, "Protect me, MJ, protect me." She's getting a little better now, though. -- Mary Jo Rossi

The victory over Masuk started a six-game winning streak that turned things around for the Nighthawks, who wore green and white angels of Sandy Hook bracelets that have been sold to raise money for charity. But as O'Connell acknowledged before his 7-6 team played the Pomperaug game on Jan. 22, "The title last year was wonderful, a dream come true, but this team is not here to do that. They're here to do something bigger. They're here to bring a community together. They're here to show us what's it like to be scholars and athletes and citizens."

After the Panthers gave the Nighthawks the special warm-up shirts, they nearly ran the home team out of the building. At the end of the first quarter, the score was 19-6, and at the end of the first half, it was 40-13. O'Connell wasn't angry or resigned, just a little baffled. So he left the halftime talk to the girls themselves.

"That's not the way we usually play," Rossi would say later, "so I kinda let it out. Play together. Pull for each other. Show them we're better than that."

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Newtown coach Jeremy O'Connell.

With Powers and senior Cassie Ekstrom leading the way, the Nighthawks stayed even with the Panthers in the third quarter. Newtown wasn't going to win this game, but the Nighthawks were not going to give up, either. They traded baskets with Pomperaug right up until the last 10 seconds, when junior Sarah Lynch -- who scored the winning goal to give Newtown the state title in soccer last fall -- sprinted the length of the court to stop a breakaway. It was a foul, but a very good foul. Newtown lost by 27, which was the margin after the first half.

They lost, but they're smiling, and O'Connell said, "I'm proud of the way they played 'em even the second half." Then he gave each player a hug as she left the Hawk's Nest.

There won't be a state title for Newtown this year. But the Nighthawks did win their last six games to finish the regular season 13-7 (they lost in the first round of the state playoffs), and on Sunday, Feb. 24, will travel to Ramapo College to play Saddle River (N.J.) Day School in a special Threes for Sandy Hook benefit game. Saddle River was one of the first of many schools who have organized their own Threes for Sandy Hook program, and this is the Rebels' way of reaching out to tell Newtown it is not alone.

It won't be just another girls' basketball game.

The other night, we were having dinner at Maggie McFly's in Southbury, and a man came over to our table, I guess because I was wearing my Newtown sweats. Turns out he was the uncle of one of the victims, and he thanked me and gave me a hug. -- Maddy Good

A Feb. 20 story about the Newtown High School girls' basketball team incorrectly stated how the team finished its season. The team qualified for the state playoffs, but lost in the opening round.

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