By MICHAEL LETENDRE
So, when choosing the 2015-16 Bristol Observer Male Athlete of the Year, would it be fair to choose an entire team for the award?
Or should it be awarded as an individual honor?
Again, with all the great scholastic athletes from the Mum City – especially from a talented senior class – the decision was not an easy choice this time around.
During the scholastic year, several different athletes helped to rewrite the history books as awards and state championships came flying Bristol’s way – especially during the spring campaign.
And before I announce the winner, let’s look at an individual athlete worthy of the award and then find an example of an entire team.
How could Bristol Central track superstar Jevon Smith not be the perfect candidate for the award as he re-wrote the Rams’ 110 hurdle records several times?
Sure, there are several challenging events during a track and field meet but the short distance hurdles could be the toughest individual challenge during competition.
But Smith excelled in the 110 hurdles and left Central as the top athlete ever in the event.
Just take a look at what the 2016 Class L, 110 meter hurdles state champion accomplished this past season for a quick minute.
He placed no lower than third in every CCC South or Invitational meet but towards the end of his final season, he saved his best for last.
At the Class L boys track and field championships from Middletown high school on May 31, the Rams took fifth place overall as a team but in the 110 hurdles, the day belonged to Smith.
He won the Class L championship behind a finish of 15.14 seconds.
And then at the CIAC State Open challenge, he set the school standard once again, taking third in the event and setting a career best of 15.03 seconds.
Off outstanding showing at the Connecticut State Open level, Smith was able to punch his ticket to New England championship level and was able to showcase his talents even further.
Overall, Smith placed ninth in the 110 hurdles event at the New England Championship on June 11 from Willow Brook Park in New Britain and participated at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals from North Carolina on June 17.
Throughout the season, he was a member of the 4×100 meter relay team, dabbled a bit in the 300 meter hurdles (41.50 seconds), and showed a little style in the triple jump (41’ 4.00).
And during the indoor season, Smith was outstanding in the 55 meter hurdles (7.81 seconds, second place at the CIAC Open on February 20), also took part in the high jump, and was a member of the 4×200 and 4×400 relay squads during the winter months.
He earned All-Conference recognition in both sports and Smith was an outstanding individual athlete and representative of the Bristol Central community.
Who represented Bristol athletics on an individual front than Smith this past year?
That senior closed out 2016 with a championship and so did the baseball team from St. Paul Catholic high school – also, a senior dominated class.
And when your squad ends its campaign with a Class S championship – the program’s first since 1972 – there’s no better send off for those players in their final year with the program.
Loaded with a talented senior core that could hit the ball and play a stellar brand of defense, the 2016 team was looking for an even deeper run into the state tournament from the previous season.
And, perhaps, a little revenge.
St. Paul did exactly that, avenging a 5-3 loss to Morgan in 2015 to beat the very same squad, 4-2, to gain the title from Palmer Field in Middletown on June 12.
The team proved it didn’t have to win the Naugatuck Valley League title to show it was a state championship contender.
And it took a couple lumps along the way to get that needed grit, to pull together as a team and when Class S tournament time came around, St. Paul was ready to make a charge to a championship.
On a local level, the sense was the Falcon program – under newly minted coach Vic Rinaldi – was going to be very good once again.
It was the second consecutive back-to-back 20-win campaign for the baseball unit and the 15-5 regular season finish was good for the fourth overall seed in Class S postseason play.
And each loss along the trail provided an invaluable lesson.
Plus, with the likes of Holy Cross, Oxford and Sacred Heart to contend with all season long, the squad was more than ready for a postseason push.
Again, senior leadership was a huge part of this title run.
“I love it for the school and I love it for the seniors that are leaving because they were a great bunch of seniors,” said St. Paul head coach Vic Rinaldi after the championship win. “I’ll never forget them and they’ll never forget this day.”
Southern New Hampshire University bound Connor Crean (I hope they don’t stick you in Washington Hall up in Manchester. Good luck with that…) won the final two games of the season for the team, racking up 20 strikeouts during those final showdowns and showed the guile of what a Class S Tournament MVP was all about.
He could have been bounced out of the game midway through things as Lahey was warming up. But Crean got himself out of trouble in the third inning, and the same thing happened during the fourth inning and from there, the senior never caved in – going the distance to help his squad win it all.
“[It was a] gutsy performance,” said Rinaldi of his pitching ace. “That’s been the story for him all year. He throws hard, 91, 92 miles per hour. A lot of high school players aren’t used to seeing that a lot. We knew that we would have the advantage with him on the mound.”
“Big” Chadd Richardson was a steady presence behind the plate for Crean and that excellent pitching staff – also consisting of juniors Wes Lahey and Andrew Owsianko – and late in tournament play, teams were avoiding throwing to him at the plate, putting the pressure on Mike Dombrowski instead who always made something happen during those clutch appearances.
And then leadoff hitter Jackson Hines got it done at the plate and played outstanding defense from center field and was also a solid reliever in tournament play.
Ben Mazzone was a steady glove at shortstop who also thrived in pressure situations on the field.
Contributions also came from seniors Wayne Sharp, Jarod Deegan, Joe Ricciuti (along with sophomores Nick Morell, Ryan Greene and juniors Tommy Houle and Zach Bator).
And when No. 4 ranked team in the Class S field had to battle the odds throughout tournament play, the team passed every postseason test.
After defeating Coginchaug (15-6) and Notre Dame-Fairfield (4-0) in the early rounds, the road got tougher but the Falcons persevered as a team even more so.
St. Paul Catholic then held on to defeat pesky Portland 6-5, defeated a better than advertised Old Lyme squad (5-2) and won it all on championship Sunday against Morgan by two runs.
“Again, I can’t say enough about the seniors in this group,” said Rinaldi. “They just came and were ready to play. They really did a great job.”
Both Smith and those seniors on the St. Paul Catholic baseball squad would make excellent Bristol Observer Athlete(s) of the Year candidates(s).
So, what’s the final verdict? Who is the Bristol Observer Athlete(s) of the Year?
Make it the pair.
Congratulations to both Jevon Smith and the St. Paul Catholic baseball team for winning state championships and representing yourselves as outstanding student athletes for the town, the schools and – most importantly – for yourselves.
Jevon Smith – Awards and Honors
CCC South, All-Conference, Boys Indoor Track – 2014-15, 2015-16
CCC South, All-Conference, Boys Outdoor Track – 2015
CIAC Outdoor Boys Track Class L State Championship
from Middletown High school
Jevon Smith – 1st – 15.14 seconds
CIAC State Open Championship
from Willow Brook Park, New Britain – Monday, June 6
Jevon Smith – 3rd – 15.03 seconds
St. Paul Catholic High School Baseball
Class S 2016 Champions
15-5 regular season record
2016 Naugatuck Valley League Tournament Participant
State Tournament Bracket – The Falcons were ranked fourth
Round One: 15-6 win over No. 29 Coginchaug on May 31
Round Two: 4-0 victory over No. 13 Notre Dame-Fairfield on June 1
Quarterfinal Round: 6-5 win over No. 12 Portland on June 4
Semifinal Round: 5-2 victory over No. 24 Old Lyme on June 7
Finals: 4-2 win over No. 3 Morgan from Palmer Field in Middletown on June 12