In spite of defeat, Misto has found joy with these Whalers

New London's head coach Holly Misto talks to her team during a timeout in Monday's CIAC Class LL quarterfinal game against Enfield at New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
New London's head coach Holly Misto talks to her team during a timeout in Monday's CIAC Class LL quarterfinal game against Enfield at New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

New London — In a month or so, New London girls' basketball coach Holly Misto will receive the 2017 high school coach of the year award from the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance.

First, a little irony, not with the coach of the year component — there's honestly no one more deserving — but with the sports writing part. Misto, it seems, is not a fan of hearing herself talk to reporters, unless it's regarding her cat or the proper construction of a steak sandwich. Then it's all good.

That's what made Misto's words resonate on such a grand scale late Monday night, the final day of New London's season after what had been 33 straight victories, including the 2017 Class LL state championship.

To eighth-seeded Enfield, which pulled off a 69-61 victory over the Whalers in the Class LL quarterfinals, there was poetry.

To No. 1 New London, hoping for a repeat, there was only sorrow. The players lingered in the team room, trying to find some consolation amid tears. Misto sat in the far corner, senior co-captain Cora Sawyer by her side, the last to empty out of the room.

And then Misto spoke to two reporters, one familiar face, one having just made her acquaintance.

“I'm sad for them,” Misto said. “But it's hard to be sad when I'm just so proud of them. These four seniors, they brought my joy back for coaching basketball when I had lost it for a while. They feel like my kids. It's hard to see them hurting. They've had a lot of joy over their four years.”

Misto, for the win.

“After the game, she told us how when she saw the group that are now seniors, as freshmen in a fall league game, that she knew she would have to return to coaching,” said Sawyer of Misto, who resigned as head coach at Westerly High in March of 2014 before being named to the position at New London the following season.

“She knew from the first time she watched us that we were a group of girls that loved the sport and would give our all in any situation. And she was right.”

The seniors took their final bows Monday: Sawyer, who embodies a little bit of the spirit of Misto, no pretense, win now, talk later; the dynamic co-captain Rosi Nicholson, the Whalers' engine; valuable sixth-man Leilani McClellan, who ignited Conway Gymnasium one final time with a last-ditch 3-point barrage that brought New London within four of Enfield late; and Madison Keefe, hobbled with injuries during her career yet always a full-time Whaler.

The four seniors, the first class to play their entire careers under Misto, went 98-9 with two Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament titles, two state championship berths and one coveted state championship coronation.

“We laugh at everything,” McClellan said, smiling and crying simultaneously. “It's hard to get through practice sometimes (without laughing). I'm going to miss them.”

“I've developed a family love for all the girls on the team,” Sawyer said. “One could believe it is because I spent more time with the team than my actual family during the season. … The one thing I think I will miss the most is simply being a Whaler.”

You only have to look as far as last season's state championship celebration, with Misto wrapped in a heartfelt group hug with assistant coaches and friends Arianna Dolock and Missy Parker, or to the season-ending banquet when Misto warmly took over reading the speech from outgoing captain India Pagan when Pagan became overcome with emotion, to know that Misto is a Whaler, too.

It's more than 98-9. It's the joy that comes with it.

It's good to know Misto found that here.

Now, about that sandwich ...

This is the opinion of Day Scholastic Sports Editor Vickie Fulkerson.

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