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Newtown High Team Coaches And Athletes React To Games And Seasons Halted



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After the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), on March 10, canceled remaining winter sports tournament games, coaches and athletes were understandably upset, but the initial reaction and week-later retrospective view of the situation differ. Concerns of the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) were just starting to gain traction in the local news when the CIAC pulled the plug on its playoffs. Connecticut Association of Schools-CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said, in fact, he believed Connecticut was the first state to make this unpopular decision.

Then came a couple days of follow-the-CIAC leader. More state high school athletics associations canceled the ends of their tournaments. College basketball conferences canned their tourneys — including the Big East doing so late in the game, after a half of St John’s basketball got underway at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and while being ripped by WFAN commentators for even allowing a game to tip off.

At that time, the NCAA was set to allow its basketball tourney games to play out sans arena crowds before the decision was changed to just cancel it — March Madness indeed. The National Basketball Association, after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert became first professional athlete identified with COVID-19, was the first pro league to suspend its season indefinitely.

The National Hockey League and minor leagues, such as the American Hockey League, which includes the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, suspended its seasons with no timetable on when or if games might resume. Major League Baseball initially postponed the start of the regular season (originally set to start March 26) for two weeks and canceled remaining Spring Training games. It was announced on March 17 that MLB will start the season no earlier than the middle of May. The Boston Marathon and Kentucky Derby were both bumped from their regular springtime dates in April and May, respectively, to September.

“It’s a shame. Now I have to fill my time with other things,” said Tim Tallcouch, coach of the NHS boys’ basketball team, adding that he would find some books to read and that his wife “got a half dozen movies lined up for me to watch.”

“These two weeks are usually the greatest weeks of the year in sports, and now we’re home-bound and there’s nothing going on,” said Jeremy O’Connell, coach of the Newtown High School girls’ basketball team and a physical education teacher at NHS.

O’Connell’s disappointment in not having professional or collegiate sports to follow take a back seat to the impact COVID-19 had on his high school team. His Nighthawks advanced all the way to the Class LL state tournament’s semifinal round, but had their Friday, March 13 game axed. Friday the 13th was an unlucky one for this and many other teams this year.

“It’s not a decision I’m happy with at all, but it’s the right one,” said O’Connell, noting that the CIAC took a lot of heat for being the first area sports association to cancel its games.

“I think the CIAC just took everything on and took the hit,” echoed Tallcouch, adding that the CIAC’s decision stemmed from some school districts backing out of playing or hosting games, and it was only a matter of time before more followed suit.

“It affects more than just competitions. There are a lot of people’s livelihoods that are affected by this,” said Tallcouch, referring to stadium workers.

In the days that followed the decision to turn the lights out on the seasons — at least temporarily — there has been some news of team owners and athletes helping support arena workers that would have lost anticipated income.

‘Devastated And Heartbroken’

“We are so devastated and heartbroken but in honesty with everything going on, they made the right decision. At the end of the day, the safety and health of everybody was of the utmost importance,” said O’Connell, who has had the taste of winning a state championship but recognizes his players this year were denied an opportunity to try to get to the pinnacle game.

“We didn’t feel this way until the dominoes started to fall,” added O’Connell, who noted that with school still in session and things seemingly ordinary in Connecticut this initially was not easy news to take last week. “There were a lot of negative feelings toward the way it ended because there was no closure. Even if you lose, there’s closure.”

Tallcouch’s boys’ basketball team never got to participate in a state tourney game since the boys’ bracket was set to begin the night of the CIAC’s announcement.

“The initial reaction was disappointment probably through [March 11],” said Tallcouch, adding that once the news about all of the other leagues shutting down came out it put a new perspective on things. “You started to realize it’s a little bit more than just a basketball game. It’s more about the health and well-being of individuals.”

“It’s obviously tough to end a season like that, especially coming off of a tough loss in SWCs,” said NHS basketball player Jack Mulligan, whose team pushed Immaculate of Danbury hard in a South-West Conference tournament semifinal game defeat. “We felt we had a good draw and wanted to prove ourselves in the state tournament. But it was the right call. It’s easy to say that in hindsight seeing everything that has happened in the last couple of days.”

“Great season for us. When this shock wears off I have so much to be thankful for with this team,” Tallcouch said.

Newtown High School’s cheerleading team did not get to compete in the state’s Team of the Year event but was fortunate enough to get its Class LL state competition in just a few days before remaining competitions were canceled, and the Nighthawks made the most of it by winning the program’s first state title.

“We feel awful for basketball and the other sports that didn’t get to have their state tournaments,” said cheerleader Emi Rosenthal, adding that the team is grateful it had an opportunity to compete in their championship.

“If you live as long as I have and coach as long as I have, you get to see just about everything,” said Tallcouch, who has been a teacher for 33 years and coach for 28 years. “We just have to push forward. Hopefully people stay healthy. That’s the most important part, right?”

Riley Ward dribbles the ball during conference tournament action against Weston this winter. The team missed out on the state playoffs after games were canceled due to the COVID-19 scare. —Bee Photos, Hutchison
Carlie Smith makes a move toward the basket during the state playoffs. Newtown’s run ended in the semifinal round, not because of a loss, but as a result of games being canceled. Pictured are teammates Shea Murphy (No. 23) and Amy Sapenter (No. 3).
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