Best and brightest: The Day honors athletes Sefransky and Mooney, coaches Rahr and deCastro
North Stonington — Athletes in 26 high school sports were celebrated Tuesday night at Lake of Isles, as The Day held its second Athlete of the Year Awards Banquet three years after the first due to the pandemic.
In addition, The Day named Fitch High School senior three-sport athlete Rita Sefransky — who plays volleyball, basketball and lacrosse, earning all-state honors in two — as the All-Area Girls' Athlete of the Year for her overall excellence and tabbed Stonington junior Josh Mooney, the state decathlon champion this spring, as the All-Area Boys' Athlete of the Year.
Old Lyme girls' tennis coach Lauren Rahr, who led her team to a second straight Class S state championship and is 43-0 in her career, was honored as the All-Area Coach of the Year for girls' sports. Stonington's Paul deCastro, who led the Bears to their second straight Class M boys' soccer state championship, one before the pandemic and one after, earned the Coach of the Year mantle on the boys' side.
"When we held our inaugural Athlete of the Year Awards Banquet in 2019, the last thing we expected was having to take an immediate two-year pause," The Day's sports editor, Chuck Banning, said. "COVID-19, however, turned our world upside down, which made tonight's gathering even more special as we honored our 26 athletes of the year and were inspired by the reflections of our major award winners."
Sefransky, Fitch's setter, was a Class L all-state selection and a member of The Day's All-Area team during volleyball season, finishing with 580 assists. She had a serving percentage of .891 with 52 aces and added 158 digs. During the basketball season, Sefransky was the Falcons' point guard and earned All-Eastern Connecticut Conference honorable mention honors.
This spring, Sefransky had 80 goals and 38 assists for a total of 118 points and 107 draw controls in 234 attempts (.457) for Fitch, which reached the quarterfinals of the Class M state tournament.
She was named to the Class M all-state team, the academic all-state team and earned distinction as a USA Lacrosse Academic All-American. She will continue her lacrosse career at Division II Adelphi University in Long Island.
"I think she just has a competitiveness in her that really shines through in a really good way," Fitch coach Michael Luethy said of Sefransky. "She dials it in and takes it to another level with her own effort. She always brings a certain level of intensity and expectation for herself, leading by her example.
"She has helped our program, throughout the years, reach a different level."
Luethy remembers coaching a youth lacrosse tournament when Sefransky was in the seventh grade. The younger players had enough savvy to kill six minutes at the end of a game to earn the victory.
"Already at that level, the lacrosse IQ was very high at a very young age," said Luethy, who has started Sefransky since she was a freshman. "The sheer athleticism she showed as a draw specialist ... having possession of the ball was just about everything; over the course of the years, having Rita helping the team keep possession was a major factor."
Mooney helped lift Stonington to team state championships in indoor and outdoor track during the 2021-22 school year, in addition to playing football for the Bears in the fall.
Mooney won the ECC Division II 55 meters and 55-meter hurdle titles in a four-minute span during indoor track season. He went on to win the Class S title in the hurdles, place second in the dash and finish fifth in the 300. He finished the indoor season with a second-place finish in the emerging elite division of the 60-meter hurdles at the Nike National Championship in Staten Island.
During the outdoor season, Mooney won the ECC Division III-IV championship in the 110 hurdles and the javelin. The Bears won the Class M state championship for the first time since 1999, with Mooney first in the javelin and second in the 110 hurdles, and Mooney followed that with a State Open championship in the 110 hurdles in a personal-best 14.37 seconds. He was second in New England in 14.28.
A grueling two days followed as Mooney won the decathlon that same week at New Britain's Willow Brook Park, capturing the title with a school record 6,331 points. He is the 11th-ranked high school decathlete in the nation, making him a prime Division I recruiting target as he enters his senior year.
"For him, (the All-Area Athlete of the Year honor) is validating for all the work he puts in, for all the respect he gives," Stonington boys' track coach Ben Bowne said. "He doesn't think he's too big for anybody. He's a great teammate. He's a great reflection of our best, the best of the best.
"You take away how good he is and all the State Open titles, going to nationals and stuff, I'd still be proud of the effort he puts in and how he treats people."
There were four state championships at Stonington this year, including the indoor and outdoor track teams, the girls' tennis team and the boys' soccer team — "pretty much a historic year," Stonington athletic director Bryan Morrone said.
DeCastro, a 1992 Stonington graduate and a member of the school's Athletic Hall of Fame who was hired to coach at his alma mater prior to the 2008 season, led the boys' soccer team to a 3-1 victory over Ellington to capture the state title on Nov. 20 last year. DeCastro then resigned his post, choosing to go out with his 11 triumphant seniors, including his son, Billy.
"When I hired him, we knew way back then it was going to take awhile," Morrone said. "Billy was 5 years old at the time. Paul said, 'We're not talking about the current teams, but there's some parents I know at my son's level and we can get the (town's) soccer club back to prominence. ... He built something in the Stonington community with soccer."
"Maybe not when I was 4 or 5, but I remember when I was 7 or 8 going to all the practices all the time, riding the bus with all the guys, having all the guys scream my name when they see me," said Billy deCastro, who will play beginning in the fall for Endicott College.
Billy deCastro calls it "crazy to think about" how the Bears started under his father's tutelage and how they finished, with two straight titles and a third potential championship season canceled due to COVID.
"We played in this indoor league one time and we literally went winless. We went 0-11," Billy deCastro said. "That same group of kids finished the way we did. ... Him being my role model as a coach, a parent, kind of everything, he's definitely super impressive."
Rahr was the Shoreline Conference Coach of the Year in girls' tennis and also was named the winner of the Mildred Sanford Outstanding Educator Award at Old Lyme's commencement ceremony. Rahr is a 2015 graduate of Waterford High School who went on to play tennis at Endicott College. She is a math teacher at Old Lyme and has said often that this coaching role is a dream of hers.
"During her interview she said her dream job was to teach math in a small town and coach tennis," Old Lyme athletic director Hildie Heck said. "We were able to make her dreams come true pretty quickly. She is a role model as a teacher, as a coach, in so many different ways."
Old Lyme edged Westbrook 4-3 for the state championship June 4 at Wesleyan. The Wildcats finished the season 23-0, despite scheduling a few matches outside the conference, such as one against Rahr's former ECC rival, Stonington, which went on to win the Class M state championship. Old Lyme topped Stonington during the regular season for the Bears' only loss.
"We sat down at the end of last year and talked about the schedule for this year," Heck said. "She wanted to make it harder. We did the same thing this year, we talked about next year's schedule."
Said Old Lyme senior Fiona Hufford of Rahr earlier in the season: "Amazing person, amazing teacher, amazing coach. I think that's why we're so excited to be playing every day."