A final celebration for Lancer Nation

None of the students knew about it 15 minutes before it began. Full disclosure: Not even Greg Gwudz, the coach, also The Man right now at Waterford High, was sure how many students would make their way to the fieldhouse for an impromptu net-cutting ceremony, honoring the brand new Class M state basketball champs Wednesday morning.

Gene Ryan, an assistant principal, told the student body via morning announcements that anyone who wanted to partake could do so during their "advisory period," an everyday occurrence in Lancerville, during which members of the staff and faculty meet with 12 students apiece to converse and counsel.

"It was optional," athletic director Dave Sousa said, scanning his gym to discover a butt affixed to every seat. "Look at this."

Indeed. Lancer Nation, the school's clever, thunderous and more-loyal-than-Lassie student section, showed up en masse and in full throat. Note to the townsfolk of Waterford: Be proud you live in a town where the kids remain so steadfastly invested in their friends, teams and institution. It's not like this everywhere else.

And reason No. 1 is that nowhere else has Billy Sullivan, Lancer Nation's spiritual leader. The kid is a hoot. You could find Billy at every game, wearing his blue wig. Not only did Sullivan make the state title game better - he was the guy holding up the "999" sign when his pal Nolan Long had 999 career points - but Sullivan made Gwudz laugh out loud long after the game ended.

And to think Gwudz was probably convinced it just couldn't get any better. Imagine: celebrating the state title no one saw coming with a steak at Michael Jordan's Sports Café at Mohegan Sun, surrounded by his wife, Megan, and many friends. Gwudz interrupted his chewing with an occasional, "did that really happen?" and "I should retire right now."

Then he checked his phone to see a text from Sullivan, requesting the wig be retired in the trophy case.

Gwudz roared.

"I got the wig from (classmate) Kierstyn Smith and made a wreck of it," Sullivan said. "I've been coming (to the games) since the eighth grade. I remember (former Nation leader) Dan Spangler. They let him do anything. … I should be the sixth person of the year."

No arguments from this corner, Billy.

"He's the heart of Lancer Nation," senior Cory Murallo said.

Sousa, by the way, confirmed the wig will be part of the trophy case.

Sullivan and hundreds of his comrades watched the ceremony Wednesday, cheering along. Most of the players addressed The Nation with the best possible speeches - short - before the net came down, one snip at a time.

Murallo looked particularly happy, if for no other reason than he earned a huge roar for his turn on the ladder. And maybe because wearing Lancer blue means more to him than anyone else. He is the third member of his family to wear the uniform, after dad (Rick) and brother (Trevor).

"The name I really want to mention is Mr. Sweeney," Murallo said, talking about retired coach and athletic director Francis X. Sweeney, the patriarch of Waterford sports. "Playing here has been very important to my family. My dad and brother were known for shooting the ball. People looked at me and said, "a Murallo who passes?'"

Senior Mike Martin got the first snip and Gwudz the last. The coach held the net for all to see to the last official roar in the gym until the fall.

"We didn't get a chance to experience (a net-cutting) at Mohegan Sun," Sousa said, alluding to how no teams did so for the sake of expediency. "But it's kind of neat. You see this on TV."

Lancer Nation might not be retired for the season, although it's hard to rally the troops for spring sports, especially if the weather doesn't cooperate. But they were as much a part of the basketball history as the players and coaches. They made it more fun, from the "start your tractors" chant to close a Ledyard game to scissors and a ladder on Wednesday.

It's a fun place, that Waterford High.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.


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