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ECC owes NFA a big 'thanks' for buzz it has created

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published December 04. 2012 4:00AM

East Hartford

It is doubtful that members of our local all-for-none, none-for-all league will fill athletic director Gary Makowicki's inbox with messages of congratulation and appreciation this week.

Nah. Can't have that.

It's NFA. You know. The school with more people than Rhode Island. What, congratulate them for athletic success? Why? All those kids. Isn't this supposed to happen, like, every year?

Too bad, really. Because loyalists of the ECC would have been proud to know that NFA was the talk of the state Monday, creators of the biggest buzz at the high school football luncheon at Rentschler Field honoring Connecticut's eight finalists.

Yes. An ECC school stole the show. And made the rest of the league look better by association. For one day, we weren't a bunch of farmers who play bad football in them thar hills. There was even some casual conversation from people who might not be able to find Bozrah on a map acknowledging that, come to think of it, the ECC does have New London, Fitch, Ledyard and Montville, too. And that maybe it's a better league than we think.

Now it's possible such buzz will be a duller roar in the future. But the road to respect happens by stopping at one Marriott at a time. NFA, whose convincing victories over Newtown and Staples earned it a berth in the finals against state monolith Xavier, is suddenly a respected program from a decent enough league.

And the rest of you people owe The Academy some thanks.

They're making you all look good at the moment.

"We have to accept the position we're in ... the only 'LL' school in eastern Connecticut," Makowicki said after surviving endless speeches from various blatherers at Monday's luncheon who need to study the word "brevity" much harder.

"When we're not doing well we're great to have around," Makowicki said. "But when we step up and have some good years, people look at us differently. There were some comments (at the league level) that we shouldn't be in the league anymore. That's the first time I'd heard that in the 12 years we've had the new ECC."

Maybe this week changes the thinking. Could you evict the state's No. 1 team? Think about it:

What if NFA takes down Xavier, the two-time defending Class LL champs?

What if Windsor defeats Hand, the state's reigning No. 1 team?

That makes it possible for the Wildcats to finish No. 1 in the media and coaches' polls.

(Note: If this happens, the statue to coach Jemal Davis would look good in the school's new atrium.)

Surely, NFA's athletic accomplishments are noteworthy. Bill Scarlata might run the state's best girls' basketball program. Track and cross country are dominant. But in sports that draw greater attention, NFA's statewide success has been limited to the 2003 baseball season for the last several decades.

It was one night in West Haven when a pinch-runner named Mike Boucher scored the winning run on an error. The last inning of the last game. NFA wasn't merely the state Class LL champion, but the state's No. 1 team.

Still, all those kids. And one title in how many decades? It makes NFA an occasional punchline in our corner of the world.

"It doesn't bother me," Makowicki said. "Competing in Class LL is tough. We accept that. I think we do well with what we have. We really relish being in the position of representing the league this week. We've been criticized over the years. Some of it legitimate. We haven't always been a strong football program."

Yet what former coach Steve Robichaud started in the 90s, Davis has improved in the roaring 2000s. NFA owns two undefeated regular seasons in the last three years. But it's more than that. NFA didn't just represent the ECC well Monday. It cast an exemplary image.

The players and coaches wore ties. That matched. If they were sitting down when a media member approached for an interview, they stood up, shook hands and looked their inquisitors in the eye. Do you understand the significance of that? You can pooh pooh the relevance of sports all you want. But NFA did itself proud with all the cameras rolling Monday. Like an infomercial, only better.

"When the football job opened, I never posted it outside the school. We are not obligated to. I knew Jemal was the right guy," Makowicki said. "It's the way he relates to the kids. The way he presents himself as such an ambassador for our program. As a father (Makowicki's son, Steven, is a senior on the team) and his supervisor, I'm so happy for what he's done."

Davis' colleagues should be saying the same today.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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