Best of the 2010s: Looking back at the top area high school teams of the past decade

Published on Wednesday, 1 January 2020 21:38
Written by RYAN CHICHESTER

@ryanchichester1

The decade of the 2010s is at a close, and provides the perfect opportunity to look back on the past 10 years of local high school sports, and the unforgettable moments that filled them.

The years 2010 to 2019 provided a little bit of everything in the local area, from extra-inning thrillers on the diamond in state championship competition to one of the most dominant strings of success in the entire state. The past decade certainly wasn’t short on memorable teams and moments.

There have been first-ever championships and extended runs of dominance, and this list compiles the most memorable programs of the decade, which includes a total of 23 state championships, with six of them coming from one program. Here are the 10 most memorable local teams over the past 10 years:

Newington boys volleyball, 2019

The Indians certainly boast one of the most dominant runs of the decade, and ended it in style with a third straight state title this past spring. Even after losing eventual All-State selection Mason Romano to a foot injury just before the 2019 state tournament, Newington and its other All-State talents in Louis Egbuna and Leonel Caceres rolled to a three-peat, and its win over No. 2 Cheshire in the Class M state final made it six state titles in eight years.

Perhaps the most remarkable feat by the program, led by head coach Curt Burns, was its ability to attract players from other sports who didn’t have extensive volleyball experience, like the basketball-centric Romano.

“The Newington championship teams during this past decade have always focused on trying to attach the best multi-sport athletes in the school to play volleyball and have a chance to win a ring,” Burns said.

From 2011-19, the Indians secured plenty of rings, as they reached seven state finals and won six of them, giving this program the best case for the most consistently dominant team of the 2010s. Thanks to them, the back wall of Newington’s gymnasium is packed with banners from the past decade, and will soon have another for 2019.

Southington softball, 2015

If there was an area team that could challenge Newington boys volleyball for the most consistently successful program of the 2010s, it would be the Blue Knights. After falling to Amity Regional in the 2012 state championship, Southington responded by rattling off three straight state titles in thrilling fashion, winning each state championship game by just one run.

The Blue Knights’ 2015 championship was particularly dominant, as the team ran off its second straight undefeated regular season before marching to the Class LL final, where it took down No. 2 Cheshire in a 5-4 thriller to complete the three-peat.

The 2015 win capped off a four-year stretch of reaching the state final on a yearly basis. Southington would reach it two more times in the decade, including another title this past spring.

Newington-Berlin ice hockey, 2012

A pair of area teams combined to create one of the most dominant teams of the decade, as the Indians co-op with the Redcoats produced back-to-back Division III state titles in 2012 and 2013.

Newington-Berlin rolled to its first-ever title in 2012, finishing with an 18-2-0 record to earn the top seed in the tournament, where it took down No. 3 Northwest Catholic 2-1 in the state championship.

“I believe the camaraderie of the players and the resiliency of the team was a factor in winning a state championship those years,” Harkiewicz said. “Players played for each other and believed in their ability to win a state championship from the beginning, right through to Ingalls Rink at Yale.”

Newington-Berlin repeated as champs in 2013 with the help of Manchester, who joined the co-op that year.

Southington football, 2014

Another back-to-back state champ makes the list, and deservedly so. The Blue Knights were an unstoppable force in 2013, rolling to a 9-1 regular season record while averaging a ridiculous 40.4 points per game. But Southington only got better during its 2014 title defense, cruising to a perfect 10-0 regular season in which it won by an average score of 45-10. All-State quarterback Jasen Rose picked apart opposing defenses in the state tournament, where the Blue Knights won its semifinal game 42-14 before destroying NFA 49-0 for a second straight state championship.

“Those teams, as our other teams, stayed with the process and were real hard working, teams with great chemistry,” head coach Mike Drury said. “They were teams that played smart football and played their best football when it counted. And you have to have players and guys who make plays. When you have some stud players, that always helps and good coaches who are always dialed in and really work extremely hard.”

Innovation boys basketball, 2019

There weren’t many memorable finishes or unforgettable clutch moments for the Ravens this past spring, but that only enhances just how dominant this team was. Innovation earned the top spot in the Division V tournament and showed why, hammering its postseason opponents by an average score of 18.8 points per game, including a 62-41 rout of No. 3 Old Lyme in the championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena.

“They did the two things that most high school basketball players won’t do, and that’s putting the team’s goals ahead of their individual agendas and accepting their identity as a defensive-oriented team,” assistant coach Phil Smith said.

Even before the state tournament began, the Ravens were an unstoppable force, winning what was their second straight CRAL Tournament title with a 62-49 win over Parish Hill following a regular season that saw only two losses.

Innovation was led by the dynamic duo of Lenny Okonya and LJ Hazelwood, who both took home All-State honors after winning the program’s first-ever state title.

“It wasn’t just the fact that this team won a state championship that made it so special,” head coach Matt Lance said. “It’s where they came from that made it so extraordinary. Just four years earlier, Innovation basketball wasn’t a competitive program…the fact they faced failure time after time and became such a dominant team in just two seasons is what was most remarkable.”

Plainville boys soccer, 2018

The Blue Devils’ path to a title was much different than Innovation’s, but just as memorable thanks to who they took down along the way. After losing seven regular season games, Plainville entered the Class M state tournament as the No. 23 seed, but the team hit its stride at the right time to win the program’s first-ever state championship.

“The team was terrific in so many ways,” head coach Tim Brown said. “But what made the team special was their belief, and understanding they can achieve greatness. All were on the same page. It was a band of brothers.”

What was particularly notable for the Blue Devils in 2018 were its final three wins in the tournament, which came against the top-three seeded teams. After beating No. 2 Granby 2-1 in penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, Plainville took down No. 3 Stonington to advance to the title game, where it shocked top-seeded Ellington 1-0 to cap off an unforgettable year.

Newington baseball, 2011

Like the Plainville boys soccer team in 2018, the Indians weren’t considered a dangerous squad heading into the 2011 Class LL state tournament. Entering as the No. 17 seed after a decent 12-8 regular season, Newington caught fire at just the right time, surging to the state championship game after a dramatic 6-5 win over No. 4 Amity in 10 innings.

In the final, the Indians drew a local opponent in No. 7 Southington, which turned to its ace in Sal Romano (who is now with the Reds organization). Newington had its own ace on the mound in Cole Bryant, and after a rain delay, the Indians pushed across a run on an error in the 10th inning to end a painful championship drought at Newington High, which hadn’t won a state title in any sport since 1980, but had lost 12 state championship games in the interim.

The Indians may not have that championship in the modern day, considering Bryant threw a ridiculous 176 pitches to make Newington champions at last.

Plainville baseball, 2012

Like Newington the year before, the Blue Devils weren’t seen as a particularly dominant team in the Class M state tournament after a 13-7 regular season and a No. 11 seed, but Plainville flat-out bullied its way to a state championship appearance, winning its first three games by a combined score of 43-7 to secure a date with No. 9 Haddam-Killingworth in the title game.

The Blue Devils were forced to battle through a much closer game in the championship but came away with a 3-1 win to secure an unprecedented eighth state championship.

Southington gymnastics, 2015

What a decade it was for the Blue Knights, who were at least Class L runner-ups from 2010 to 2016, and were State Open runner-ups in three of those seasons. In 2015, Southington won the Class L state championship, its third in a row, compiling a score of 139.125, well ahead of second-place NFA, which finished with 132.675.

The Blue Knights won every event in the 2015 championship to cap off the three-peat, with Lexi Rothstein posting top scores in the vault and bars. Southington carried its momentum into that year’s State Open as well, finishing as the runner-up and concluding one of the most consistent stretches of dominance the area has ever seen.

Southington boys volleyball, 2010

To round out our list, we have to go back to the beginning of the decade, when the Blue Knights showed a similar dominance that their football counterparts would display a few years later. After a 17-1 regular season, Southington entered the Class L state tournament as the No. 2 seed, and marched to the final against No. 1 Staples, which turned out to be an all-time classic bout between the two best teams in the tournament.

The Blue Knights were clobbered 25-10 in the first set, then took two straight classics by scores of 28-26 and 25-23. After Staples tied the match at 2-2 in the fourth set, Southington took the decisive fifth set 15-11 to erase three straight years of torture, when the Blue Knights lost in the state final from 2007 to 2009. The beginning of this decade was much friendlier to Southington than the end of the previous one.

Honorable Mention: New Britain boys basketball, 2019

Recency bias could play a part here, but even though the Hurricanes couldn’t get that last win to secure what would have been the team’s first state title since 1950, it was still an incredibly memorable run.

New Britain ended the regular season with a 15-5 record and cruised to the quarterfinals, where it went on the road to No. 3 Wilton and needed a steal and a layup from senior Kaiyon Gunn with 15 seconds left to pull off a thrilling upset. Four nights later, against No. 2 Glastonbury, the Hurricanes were up just one with 18 seconds left and needed more heroics, this time in the form of a pair of free throws by Tahmeen Dupree, to send the team to its first state championship appearance since 2002.

“They had an old-school bond,” head coach Kurt Reis said. “A bunch of hard-nosed kids from New Britain who grew up together, played together and stayed in New Britain together. They bought into doing something special.”

It didn’t end with a trophy, but the Hurricanes’ run to Mohegan Sun captivated the town with the thrilling finishes it required to get to the final.

Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or rchichester@newbritainherald.com



Posted in New Britain Herald, Berlin, Innovation, New Britain, Newington, Plainville, Southington on Wednesday, 1 January 2020 21:38. Updated: Wednesday, 1 January 2020 21:40.