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The Day's Top 10 sports local stories: COVID still dominated landscape in 2021

It's a basic undertaking. Normally, anyway. Figure out everywhere we went and everything we covered in the last year and rank the top stories.

This presupposes that there were places to go and events to attend. But in the age of COVID, the menu for The Day's sports staff wasn't as thin in 2021 as 2020, but still not nearly like the old days.

Here nonetheless are the top 10 local stories of 2021 as voted by the staff: Chuck Banning, Dave Davis, Vickie Fulkerson, Gavin Keefe, Ned Griffen and yours truly.

They go in descending order, meaning you'll have to keep reading to find No. 1.

No. 10: Tennis, anyone? (Certainly in Old Lyme)

Lauren Wallace and Alexis Fenton, soccer teammates in the fall at Old Lyme, teamed to win the Class S doubles title in June (in all of 32 minute), lifting the team to the Class S state championship.

The Wildcats, who defeated Litchfield in the finals, finished the season 20-0 and won the first girls' tennis state championship in school history.

No. 9: Once, twice, three times at Lyman

Tournament Most Valuable Player and eventual Connecticut High School Coaches Association Player of the Year Callie Nanos led Lyman Memorial to the Class S state volleyball title over Coventry in November.

It was the third straight state title for the Bulldogs and fourth overall state championship for Lyman, the most by an Eastern Connecticut Conference program. The Bulldogs finished 22-3.

No. 8: UConn't keep them down

It was a memorable season for the UConn men, if for no other reason than they returned to the Big East and the NCAA tournament.

The Huskies won a game at the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden before losing to Creighton in the semifinals. They qualified for the NCAA tournament but lost to Maryland. Still, by all counts, coach Dan Hurley restored the roar to the four-time national championship program, evidenced by the sellouts at Gampel and the XL Center to begin this season.

No. 7: Here comes (and then there goes) the Sun

The Connecticut Sun had a dominant regular season, highlighted by WNBA Most Valuable Player honors to center Jonquel Jones.

The Sun entered the playoffs as the presumptive favorite but fell to the surging Chicago Sky — the eventual WNBA champions.

Jones also earned her first All-WNBA First Team honor (the only unanimous selection), averaging 19.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.26 blocked shots and 1.26 steals to help the Sun to their most successful regular season in franchise history. They finished with the highest winning percentage in franchise history (.813), the fewest losses in franchise history (a 26-6 record) and had a franchise-record 14-game winning streak, the fourth longest in league history.

No. 6: Now you see him ...

UConn football coach Randy Edsall began the week of Sept. 6 announcing that he would retire at season's end, following a 10-point loss to Holy Cross.

One day later, Edsall left the program, finishing 6-32 since he returned to the Huskies for a second stint as coach in 2017. Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos replaced Edsall on an interim basis and finished a one-win season (over Yale).

The school hired former UCLA and Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora in November as its next head coach.

No. 5: Tokyo roses

Three athletes from the region competed in the 2021 (postponed from 2020) Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

New London's India Pagan (women's basketball — Puerto Rico) and Old Lyme's Liam Corrigan and Austin Hack (rowing — United States) gave the region represented Olympic exposure.

Pagan, who led New London to the 2017 state title and played collegiately at Stony Brook, helped Puerto Rico finish 12th overall in women's basketball. Meanwhile, the United States men's eight rowing team barely missed a medal, placing fourth behind Hack and Corrigan.

No. 4: The Camels were smokin'

Most – if not all other previous athletes at Connecticut College – could sing arias about the difficulty of winning a conference championship in the competitive New England Small College Athletic Conference.

But a Div. III national championship? Ha. Good one.

Until now. The men's soccer team did the seemingly impossible, traveling to Greensboro and won the school's first national championship, defeating NESCAC rival Amherst on penalty kicks.

Freshman goalkeeper Peter Silvester, who had played in only four games this season, replaced starter Sam Maidenberg in goal for the shootout and made two diving saves for the Camels and coach Reuben Burk.

No. 3: Here's to old Stonington

It ended just as a storybook would have: The kids who began kicking soccer balls at 8 won a state championship their senior year.

Stonington won its second straight Class M title, defeating Ellington at Dillon Stadium, sending coach Paul deCastro into retirement victoriously. Providence-bound senior Sam Montalto scored twice for the No. 1 ranked (at the end) Bears, who won their last 21 games after losing the season opener to Ledyard.

Montalto joined fellow seniors Will Sawin, John Cannella, Wynn Hammond, DeVoe, Drew Johnson, Billy deCastro, Nate Huynh, Ryan Orr, Dominic Morrone and Jesse Pacheco in celebration.

No. 2: Wounded knee

UConn women's basketball, the gold standard in the game, suffered a loss to Arizona at the Final Four.

And then the Huskies lost leading scorer Paige Bueckers, the consensus national player of the year as a freshman in 2020-21, to a knee injury when the ensuing season resumed.

The Bueckers-less Huskies, battling COVID and injury issues, lost a game to unranked Georgia Tech in December, the program's first loss to an unranked team in 240 games and nearly 10 years.

No. 1: COVID, schmovid

In the "sad but true" department: The entire Day staff voted COVID as the top local sports story, illustrating the virus' continued influence.

COVID was responsible for empty gyms last year for high school basketball and a postponed wrestling season. High school athletes are still wearing masks to play indoor events. The UConn women and men are in COVID protocols, unsure of whether some games already postponed will be played again.

Here's to a COVID free 2022.

m.dimauro@theday.com

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