ECC enhances its reputation by broadening its horizons

Whether through parochialism or small-mindedness, the Eastern Connecticut Conference has always felt like mid-major in state high school athletics, a compilation of too many schools comfortable scheduling each other and afraid of the deeper end.

But there's a renaissance afoot here in our corner of the world, slowly extracting us from the kiddie table.

Take this past Saturday, for instance. At 3 p.m. in New London, the girls' basketball team, ranked No. 1 in the state at the time, played No. 2 Norwalk at Conway Gym. Casey O'Neill, the play-by-play voice of GameDay, sat in the stands and panned the sizeable crowd, saying it looked like a "who's who" of local sports fans and personalities watching.

At 5:30, the St. Bernard boys played defending Division II state basketball champion Immaculate, a game whose result recalled the old days when visitors left St. Bernard's gym dissatisfied. Nice crowd on The Hill for that one.

The two marquee high school sporting events in the state that day belonged to us. That's because Holly Misto and Mark Jones, the respective coaches, not only understand the necessity of elite competition, but totally lift the perception of the conference doing so.

They're not alone. Several boys' and girls' basketball programs this winter have done a cannonball into the water, leading to a number of fun games and atmospheres. It's also led to an inordinate number of state media folks, whose trips east of the river were barely nominal in recent years, coming here from necessity.

There's more: The ECC is a proud member of the Connecticut High School Football Alliance, a cooperative venture that began with the ECC, Southern Connecticut Conference and South-West Conference, then added the Central Connecticut Conference and Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference this winter. The alliance announced last weekend there would be 99 interconference games involving 84 teams from the five leagues in the fall.

Kind of nice to be in the conversation, no?

East Lyme, Fitch, New London and NFA will each play four interconference games, while 2017 Class M champ Killingly will play two and Griswold and the Capital Region Education Council (CREC) will each play one. CREC, a cooperative program of Civic Leadership (Enfield), Aerospace (Windsor) and Metro Learning (Bloomfield), will join the ECC as a football-only member this fall.

This is a very creative answer to the ECC's longstanding scheduling problems that often resulted in distasteful opt-outs and large school unable to fill schedules. No such problem anymore. Schedules aren't just full, but with schools that often compete for state championships. New London, for instance, plays perennial power New Canaan to open next football season.

Remember, too, that the ECC is the only league in Connecticut that will play its boys' basketball championship game at Mohegan Sun, site of the state championships in March.

ECC coaches, athletic directors and officials should be proud of themselves. They are doing right by their kids and their programs by sending a worldlier message: Yes, life exists beyond our borders. Yes, we can compete.

No longer is the ECC a prisoner to small schools and the narrow, provincial thinking that pined for the old QVC tournament. There's a whole state out there, more media coverage of high school sports than ever and an opportunity for exposure as never before. Happily, the ECC has chosen to become part of the narrative.

And if you haven't noticed, crowds — at least this winter — have been large and engaged, all the way to more than one clever student section.

Athletics, despite perhaps society's warped sense of their importance, are still the best way for schools to sell themselves to the community. It's expanding now across the whole state. And we're part of the revolution.

So to commissioner Gary Makowcki and everyone else helping him: Mad props and bon mots to all of you. We're no longer the bumpkins east of the river anymore.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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