Great moments from a shortened sports year

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Kyle Brennan

Time is inescapable, incomprehensible and inexplicable. Time can drag in a slog; time can vanish in a flash.

These last 3 1/2 months have been some combination of all those things. On one hand, it seems like the surreal onset of coronavirus lockdowns wasn’t that long ago. On the other hand, it’s hard to remember what it feels like to be at a game.

We’re all sick and heartbroken over the raw deal handed to our local student-athletes — especially those seniors — with the cancellations of the boys basketball state tournament and the entire spring season.

Over these past few months, we’ve tried to give some what-if credit to those athletes who were robbed of the opportunities they deserved. We’ll never know the championship potential held by the Naugatuck basketball team, the Woodland softball team, and plenty of other talented groups — and who knows what this upcoming school year will bring (or withhold).

On the bright side, we did get some great moments on the local fields, courts, tracks and pools in the 6 1/2 months before society went haywire, and we don’t want those memories to be overshadowed by a sour ending. Here are some of the highlights from the shortened year that was.

Tearing through the trails: The Woodland girls and Naugatuck boys dominated the Naugatuck Valley League cross country championships in October at Veterans Park in Watertown. The Hawks and Greyhounds both placed seven runners among the top 20, including top finishers Emma Slavin and Brendon Soubannarath (both in third place). It was Woodland’s second straight title on the trails and Naugy’s first since 2016.

Woodland swimmers celebrate after it was announced that they won the Naugatuck Valley League title during the NVL girls swimming championship Nov. 8 at Kennedy High School in Waterbury. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Woodland wins NVL swim title by razor-thin margin: A dominant diving performance and deep team efforts lifted the Woodland girls to their second NVL girls swimming title in the last three seasons, edging Seymour by just two points. Kayleigh Theroux and Ella Bernegger went one-two in the diving competition to help push the Hawks over the top. Kyla Behrle won silver and bronze medals in individual events, too, and Woodland finished second in all three relays.

Naugy tops Hawks in boys soccer rivalry: The growing rivalry on the pitch between Naugatuck and Woodland continued this fall as the Greyhounds exacted a bit of revenge by defeating the Hawks for their 17th NVL boys championship. Lucas Silva netted the game-winner from Ahmed Aljamal midway through the first half of a 2-1 victory. A year prior, Woodland bounced Naugy in the league semifinals. Both teams reached the quarterfinals of their state tournaments — a program record for Woodland.

Naugatuck’s Brielle Behuniak (6) and her teammates, from left, Yahna Ancheta (17), Jordyn Hunt (35), Hailey Russell (4), Alyssa Roberts (37) and Kaylee Jackson (12) celebrate after scoring a point against Seymour in the Naugatuck Valley League championship game Nov. 6 at Kennedy High School in Waterbury. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

First title for Naugy spikers in two decades: “Insane” was the only way NVL tournament MVP Brielle Behuniak could describe the Greyhounds’ thrilling, 3-2 win over eventual state champion Seymour in the league final Nov. 6. Behuniak’s 10th and final kill of the match gave the ‘Hounds their first NVL title since 1998. The match’s fifth game was perhaps the most thrilling championship action of the year, a back-and-forth affair that saw the eventual Class M state champion Wildcats hold a lead as late as 12-11. Hailey Russell and Kaylee Jackson helped break a 13-all tie to set up match point.

Woodland football returns to playoffs: The Hawks made it back-to-back nine-win seasons and Class S quarterfinal berths with another successful year led by a diverse offense and a strong defense. The most memorable effort of the year came in a 26-20 loss to Ansonia that will go down as arguably the NVL’s best game of the decade. In a battle of unbeatens, Woodland held a surprising 14-12 halftime lead and refused to go away in the second half. Tied at 20 with 30 seconds left, Ansonia blocked a punt inside the Woodland 10 to set up the game-winning score. The Hawks fell to eventual Class S champion Sheehan in the state quarterfinals.

‘Hounds, Hawks claim indoor track crowns: Individual event victories and depth brought the NVL indoor track championships back to the area. The Naugy boys won their first league title since 2015 thanks in part to victories by Jonny Volpe (1000 meters) and Tyvias Dippelhofer (shot put), as well as a host of top-six finishes. The Woodland girls won an unprecedented ninth straight league title by cruising past the field. Emma Slavin (3200), Jaden Young (1000), Hailey Bernier (pole vault), Jasmine Michie (shot put) and the 4×400 relay team all earned gold medals. Young and Naugatuck’s Allison Murphy went on to earn All-State honors.

The Naugatuck boys basketball team poses for a photo with the championship banner after defeating Holy Cross to win the Naugatuck Valley League boys basketball championship March 4 at Wilby High School in Waterbury. -BILL SHETTLE/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Naugy wins first NVL boys hoops title in 51 years: It’s hard to find an equivalent for the excitement generated by the Naugatuck boys basketball team this year. The Greyhounds’ only defeat came late in the regular season in a memorable battle of unbeatens against Sacred Heart, but Naugy recovered to tear through the NVL tournament. The ‘Hounds crushed Holy Cross, 73-54, to win their first NVL title since 1969. Avery Hinnant (19 points), Robert Sanders (19), Derrick Jagello (12) and Keywan Garris (10) all finished in double figures, and Hinnant won the tournament MVP award. Naugy was the No. 2 seed in the Division II state tournament before it was canceled.