Local teams are starting to punch their tickets to the state tournament in various sports, thanks to both improving underclassmen and established upperclassmen stepping up to ensure that their team’s seasons won’t end after the final regular season game.
New Britain’s Chris Gibbs and Innovation’s Aaliyah Walker are our Athletes of the Week for helping their respective team, or themselves, secure postseason berths with strong performances against some of the best competition in the area.
After a 0-4 start to the season, the New Britain baseball team is heading to the state tournament thanks to a vastly improved roster that has made the most of its continued experience at the varsity level. One of the Hurricanes’ youngsters to help lead the team to the postseason is Gibbs, a sophomore who was thrust into a regular varsity role, and has begun to thrive after a rough start against tougher competition.
“Early on in the season we struggled, but we’ve improved as the games have gone on,” head coach Roberto Mercado said. “Our guys have gained some experience, including Chris. He’s been competing all year and has gotten better as the season progressed.”
Gibbs has improved in two major facets of the game, both on the mound and at the plate. Both have been on display in recent weeks, most notably an electric performance against Berlin last Friday evening. The Redcoats, ranked among the top teams in the state, were stymied by Gibbs before scratching across a run in the fourth inning to win a tight 1-0 contest. Gibbs battled Berlin’s ace Adam Bilinksi pitch-for-pitch, showcasing his growth and veteran poise that has been an overall reflection of New Britain’s improvement so far this season.
Of course, that has only been half the story for Gibbs this season. At the plate, Gibbs went 3-for-4 against another top-tier team in Newington last week, putting the Hurricanes in position to win before the Indians used a seventh inning rally to win in walk-off fashion.
Gibbs’ improvement in the field and at the plate hasn’t come as a surprise to him, as the sophomore has seen his confidence grow with each passing at-bat at the varsity level.
“At the beginning of the year I knew we might struggle,” Gibbs said. “But I feel like I’ve improved from seeing more varsity pitching.”
Despite the loss to Newington last week, Mercado was encouraged with the improved play of his underclassmen, including Gibbs. His encouragement was awarded the following game against Goodwin Tech, which New Britain won to secure its trip to the state tournament, thanks in large part to blossoming young contributors like Gibbs.
“He’s been outstanding on the mound and working on his hitting,” Mercado said of Gibbs. “He’s getting better and he’ll just continue to improve.”
Innovation girls outdoor track has also produced athletes that will move on to compete at the state level, including Walker, who won three events at the CRAL championships this past weekend, including the 300 meter hurdles, the long jump and the triple jump. The latter event saw Walker finish with a jump of 36 feet, 2.5 inches, which set a new school record and is the new furthest jump in Class M this season.
“She's been doing well at everything to be honest,” coach Matt Lance said. “That's why she participated in heptathlon, and will do so again this year. Looking at her events this year, the triple [jump] has kind of turned into her strength.”
Walker, who just missed out on the State Open last year in the triple jump, will look to redeem herself this season, which Lance believes has helped her become a better and more determined competitor.
“I think getting a taste of getting close to State Open last year in the triple jump, I think just that has motivated her and she wants to get back there,” Lance said.
Walker’s determination has been apparent in her work ethic this season, as the senior and CCSU commit is putting together a solid farewell tour with the Ravens, once that is far from over.
“She’s just been getting better and better every meet as the season has gone along,” Lance said. “This season especially, she's embraced putting in the extra work and focusing on technique and getting stronger. We're excited for her because she's been putting in the necessary work, so it's good that she sees the products of her hard work.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or email@example.com