Yes, they did it again ... with a huge lift from 'Oak'
Mohegan — He was part of the same experience — the euphoric championship pile in the middle of the floor at Mohegan Sun Arena — but he really wasn't part of it. Bench player. The kid with the promise of potential.
"I told Payton (teammate and classmate Payton Sutman) right after that game that nobody will believe in us next year," Ryan O'Connell was saying — yelling, actually above the jubilant postgame din — Sunday night. "No one would think we could do this."
Except they did it again, the Lancers did, adding another banner to the crowded walls of the Francis X. Sweeney Fieldhouse. Waterford High, once the basketball punchline, is the state champion again, holding off New Britain, 63-56, before 6,878 fans in Neon Uncasville.
And the Lancers wouldn't have been hoisting the hardware toward the heavens without O'Connell, the kid they call "Oak," on whose oak beam shoulders Waterford rode throughout the tournament, but particularly Sunday.
O'Connell, a 6-foot-5 junior, finished with 14 points, 15 rebounds and one notable dunk that nearly sent Lancer Nation careening out of the arena and into the gaming area.
"An absolute horse," Waterford coach Bill Bassett said.
"The last two games? Oak was incredible," senior Liam Spellman said. "I didn't even have to rebound. He did it all. I loved it."
O'Connell is also Exhibit A for anybody who believes in the power of playing more than one sport in high school. Nearly 7,000 people saw the kid own the lane and throw down Sunday night. But this sporting renaissance for him actually began last baseball season.
He didn't pitch much through the regular season, but appeared in the Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament championship game. He did well enough to earn a relief appearance in the state tournament, too. Baseball coach Art Peluso thought enough of O'Connell's mettle that it was this slender, 6 o'clock-shaped sophomore suddenly out there in extra innings of the second round game.
Kid pitched great, too.
O'Connell was also the winning pitcher in the Babe Ruth state championship game, helping coach Dave Laffey and the boys into the regionals.
The rhythms of pitching — everyone is looking at you and it's your butt, basically — are every bit as pressure filled as an arena full of screaming basketball fans.
"There's no doubt baseball helped me," O'Connell said. "I don't know if I would have been as ready for all this if I didn't have that experience last year."
And so all those parents who think their kids need to specialize in one sport ought to go watch the kid pitch in the spring and lead the basketball team — could they actually win a third next year? — come December.
"Oak was just unbelievable for us," Bassett said. "He loves this. A bench player last year. What he's done for us defensively, I mean, he was really something."
O'Connell was part of a joyous celebration Sunday night. Note the word: joyous. This was not mere relief. Because it was hard.
The Lancers won last season with Mikey The Maestro, otherwise known as the great Mikey Buscetto, in Division III, drilling Avon in the finals. The CIAC decided that a public school with 428 boys belonged in Division II this year, forcing the Lancers to play LL schools Manchester and New Britain, among others, in the playoffs.
New Britain has more than 1,200 boys.
Waterford beat 'em anyway.
And maybe you go back to O'Connell's assertion that nobody believed this was possible. But with Kenny Hill's wonderful story of persistence and coming home, JJ Brennan's everlasting scoring, Sutman's emergence, Spellman the Everyman, O'Connell and invaluable help from Dylan Eckhart, Nate Landon and Cadin Maynard ...
Here came the third state championship in eight years and the 41st win in the last 42 games.
It's like a video game here.
Only it's not.
O'Connell, meanwhile, will be pitching again soon, freezing his ascot off in our lovely spring weather. No matter what happens, though, Oak will always have this night at Mohegan.
"There is nothing," he said, "better than dunking in front of Lancer Nation."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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