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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    Little ol’ Old Lyme is the biggest thing in the state in girls’ athletics

    Old Lyme — Nobody else is doing this. Nobody else is close. Not even the Gold Coasters, the Dariens, the New Canaans, whose high school athletic programs seemingly win everything, every year, every time.

    No, the most successful spring athletic program of 2024 in Connecticut belongs to little ol’ Old Lyme, where the concept of Girl Power sustains the words of Helen Reddy: They are women, hear them roar; in forces too big to ignore.

    The spring of their content in the 06371 has already produced three state champions in the girls’ sports of rowing, tennis and track. There are two more opportunities this week with lacrosse and softball in the state semifinals.

    This comes on the heels of cross country’s Chase Gilbert, the two-time defending Class S champion; wrestler Hoshena Gemme, the Girls’ State Open 132-pound champion; the boys’ basketball team’s first state championship in March and the overall historical excellence of the school’s girls’ soccer and basketball programs.

    “We’re having a good time, that’s for sure,” Hildie Heck was saying over the weekend.

    Heck, the young, smart and tolerate-no-fools athletic director, was quick to deflect any praise coming her way for these championships, championships everywhere. Just make no mistake: This athletic program is an H.H.P. (Hildie Heck Production).

    “Well,” she said, “we have amazing coaches. Start there. I was driving (Saturday) morning thinking about how fortunate we are to have such great people here. It gets me emotional.”

    Warning to Heck: What follows could make you emotional.

    You want great people? Try this: The boys’ soccer coach is a woman, Ally Gleason, the former girls’ assistant to her dad, Paul, who won multiple state titles and is the single greatest quote in the history of The Day sports section. The former girls’ soccer coach, Don Desautels (perhaps the second greatest quote), who also won a title, still hasn’t left school, a frequent scoreboard operator/ticket taker/public address announcer, illustrating the byproduct of all positive environments: when leaving is harder than losing.

    The girls’ tennis team has won four straight Class S titles, a tribute to coach Lauren Rahr, who successfully navigated the unthinkable this season. Her team actually lost a match, after winning 78 straight.

    The two men who have won girls’ basketball state titles, Tim Gavin and Don Bugbee, are still coaching, except it’s another sport: softball. The Wildcats play Coventry in the state semifinals this week. Rowing? Check out the walls of Old Lyme’s gym, where the national championship banners exist and there’s the former Olympian, Austin Hack.

    Speaking of Olympians, there’s another on property. The woman who led the girls’ track team to the Class S title is Jan Merrill-Morin, a former Olympic finalist in the 1,500 meters at the 1976 Games in Montreal. Then there’s lacrosse and Emily Macione — her team is in the semis as well this week — who was rather entertaining last week narrating her way through the quarterfinals. Why? It means that much.

    Brady Sheffield, the boys’ basketball coach, recently authored the first state championship in program history. Brady Sheffield: 21 years old. Imagine his surprise that after the thrill of history, his phone rang a few days later. On the other end: Jim Calhoun – yes, THAT Jim Calhoun – offering his congratulations. Calhoun’s first coaching job in his Hall of Fame career was in Old Lyme in the early 70s.

    And to think this is happening in a school with 370 students. Consider there is another high school in Connecticut nearly 10 times the size: Danbury with 3,590 kids.

    “Great people,” Heck kept saying.

    Right. And not to belabor the obvious, but this is what happens when you hire them. Makes you wonder all these years later now how many women have been denied opportunities to coach and administrate. Old Lyme got it right with Hildie Heck, who has gotten it right with so many of her hires, too.

    “When I got the job, I thought girls’ sports here needed to be promoted a little more,” Heck said. “And as a woman, why wouldn’t I? Girls’ sports, relatively speaking, haven’t really been around that long. So every time a female accomplishes something, she’s making history. I don’t think the kids always realize that.”

    Just as boards of education don’t always realize that the right hire can be a woman just as often as it can be a man.

    “As a female AD, there are challenges,” Heck said. “There just aren’t that many of us in Connecticut and across the nation.”

    Heck originally wowed yours truly by showing up to a frigid state tournament girls’ soccer game a few years back with a battery powered, heated vest. Who knew? The only piece of clothing she’s ever seen, she said, that can “keep you warm and charge your phone at the same time.”

    All this and a sense of humor, too.

    So as the school year of 2023-24 ends, raise a glass to this remarkable band of coaches, kids and administrators in this town generally known for the arts. They’ve turned sports into an art as well.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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