Best of the best: The Day honors Commander, Johnson, Bassett and Gleason
New London — The Day held its inaugural High School Athlete of the Year Awards Banquet on Wednesday night at Port 'N Starboard, recognizing All-Area Players of the Year in 25 sports.
Also for the first time, the newspaper honored overall players of the year in boys' and girls' sports, encompassing the entire school year, as well as overall coaches of the year. More than 160 people attended the event.
As voted on by the sports staff, Old Lyme High School girls' soccer player Mya Johnson was named The Day's 2018-19 All-Area Girls' Athlete of the Year and New London's Jacob Commander, who excelled in football and wrestling, was honored as the All-Area Boys' Athlete of the Year.
Old Lyme girls' soccer coach Paul Gleason was named The Day's 2018-19 All-Area Coach of the Year for girls' sports and Waterford boys' basketball coach Bill Bassett earned the distinction for boys' sports, with both leading their teams to state championships.
"The Day began selecting its All-Area teams in 1983, but this is the first time we've gathered to celebrate the exceptional achievements of these student-athletes," sports editor Chuck Banning said. "I hope the night was as special for them, their families, coaches and teammates as it was for us to recognize some special young men and women."
Heather Buck, who was named The Day's Player of the Year three times during her basketball career at Stonington High School before attending UConn, where she was part of three national championships, was the guest speaker.
Video highlights and photographs from the event will be available for purchase by Friday at www.theday.com
Johnson, who teamed with Gleason to win four straight Class S state championships, will go on to play at Division III Connecticut College. Johnson leaves as Old Lyme's all-time leading scorer with 101 goals. She was a three-time all-state pick, named The Day's All-Area Girls' Soccer Player of the Year three times and was a two-time All-New England selection.
Johnson scored all five goals for the Wildcats in the state tournament semifinals and championship game, eventually lifting Old Lyme to a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Immaculate for the title.
"I feel that I have been spoiled to have Paul and Mya the last four years," Old Lyme athletic director Hildie Heck said. "It's not only been fun to watch them and the team, but to have them representing what Lyme-Old Lyme is all about makes you feel good."
"Pretty heady times," Gleason said of the four years he spent coaching Johnson. "We're pretty proud of her here in little Old Lyme. She's kind of a special kid. People have brought it up, what it would be like not having Mya this next year. It's like when (Robert E.) Lee was told that (Stonewall) Jackson was wounded and lost his left arm (in the Civil War) and Lee said, 'Jackson may have lost his left arm, but I've lost my right arm.'"
Old Lyme tied Notre Dame of Fairfield 2-2 in double overtime for the Class S title in 2015, then won the program's first outright title with a 1-0 victory over Old Saybrook in 2016. Johnson came through with the game-winning goal in double overtime in a 2-1 win over Holy Cross in 2017 before scoring this year's game-winner against Immaculate with 7 minutes, 53 seconds remaining.
Gleason enters his eighth season coaching at Old Lyme. He is known as a person whose postgame talks include everything from the Kauri trees of New Zealand (he compares his defenders to them) to, yes, Stonewall Jackson.
"The best part about having Mr. Gleason as a coach was that he was so much more than just a regular high school coach," Johnson said. "He cared so much about all his players and not just if we were winning and losing. He cared about our futures, our families, our school life. … It didn't take Mr. Gleason long to become family.
"I know I can call him at any time whether I have a problem or maybe I just want to learn about something that no one else in the world knows."
Commander highlighted his senior season at New London by being named The Day's All-Area Football Player of the Year in the fall and the All-Area Wrestler of the Year over the winter. He will continue competing in both at Division II American International College in Springfield, Mass.
Commander rushed for 1,307 yards on 186 carries for the football team, scoring 10 touchdowns, filled in at quarterback, punted and was a Class L all-state pick at linebacker.
He then wrestled for the Whalers at 182 pounds, winning his third career Eastern Connecticut Conference title and leading New London to a second straight ECC divisional title. Commander won his second straight Class L title, pinning all four of his opponents in the tournament, and went on to finish third in the State Open and third in New England.
New London football coach Johnny Burns was a youth coach in Norwich when he first saw Commander. Burns, as a New London alumnus, then watched as a fan of Commander's before he got to coach him for the first time this past season.
"I had the opportunity to watch Jacob grow from things he was doing at the youth level," Burns said. "Obviously, my first year at the high school, I got front row seats to his senior year. He did it the right way. He didn’t run from the hard work.
"He's one of those players where you love it when your best player is winning the wind sprints. He regularly was the hardest worker at practice on top of being the best player on the team. When that's the case, you know you have somebody special."
The Waterford boys' basketball team, coached by Bassett, won its second straight state championship, claiming the Division II title before 6,878 fans at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Lancers, also the ECC Division I tournament champions, defeated New Britain 63-56 for the state title despite losing the program's all-time leading scorer from the year before in Mikey Buscetto.
"Watching as a fan is much different than playing, but it was amazing to see them come together as a team and get another championship for our community," Buscetto said. "What they accomplished does not happen too often, but it just shows you the amount of effort that was put forward by the players and the coaching staff."
Said Waterford athletic director Chris Landry of Bassett, who will enter his fifth season on the Lancers' sideline: "You cannot measure a high school coach's success solely by championship banners on the wall. However, back-to-back state championships is pretty good!"