The New High School Sports Landscape
In the age of social media, concussion protocol, and the hyper-competitiveness of fans, parents and student-athletes, being an athletic director is no mean feat. Seasons talked with ADs at five public and one private school about how they tackle the challenge
Written by Mike Briotta
Photography by Todd Fairchild
While the world of academia is always changing, student-athletes seem to be impacted more dramatically by shifting cultural trends. The movie Concussion, spotlighting football injuries at the professional level, has encouraged parents to ask more questions about sports safety. When social media gaffes expose the naiveté of certain star athletes, school administrators think rigorously about how their teams communicate on Facebook and Twitter. And each high school or private institution also looks to its unique sports culture, passed down through every graduating class, for answers.
To keep up with the new sports landscape, Seasons interviewed a wide array of Connecticut athletic directors. What we found was that each community has its own narrative, with the greatest success stories reaching up to the Olympics and the elite realm of professional sports.
A Tale of Two Schools
Jason Siegal, West Hartford’s Athletic Director, is the new kid on the block. Although he has notable experience elsewhere, he’s only overseen sports programs at both Conard High School and William H. Hall High School since July.
Siegal came to West Hartford public schools after working for nearly a dozen years at magnet schools. At the University High School of Science and Engineering in Hartford, he taught physical education and health while helping to found the school’s athletic program. He also coached wrestling and softball, and became the school’s dean of students and athletic director.
“I came from a smaller school, where we fostered a family environment,” he says. “I find that the best way to prevent issues from arising is building relationships. It can’t solve everything, but it’s important that student-athletes, coaches, and families know they can bring up their concerns as quickly as possible.”
At his Hall High School office this summer, Siegal was inundated with a steady stream of requests. With renovation projects happening all around him, a string of lights in yellow safety cages occasionally flickered and dimmed. He was unfazed by the chaos.
One hot-button issue for today’s ADs is social media, which can be used for good, say keeping fans abreast of game highlights, or not so good – inappropriate posts by players.
“We do have a social media and technology use policy specific to athletes,” Siegal says. “We do not tolerate any negative use of social media. So that would include drug or alcohol abuse, bullying, hazing, or poor sportsmanship. Our objective is to help educate student-athletes and inform students and families about social media. Students need to realize that, once something’s posted on social media, it’s never gone.”
Siegal spent some of his summer keeping updated on new safety measures. “All football coaches in West Hartford are trained in a concussion re-certification program,” he says. “Every year we have a conversation about the return-to-play protocol following such an injury.” After an athlete’s doctor diagnoses a concussion, the player must pass a five-step program before being allowed back on the field. The regimen progresses from light aerobic activity to contact drills and eventually full games, if the player is deemed ready by the athletic training staff.
A somewhat unusual aspect of West Hartford sports is the duality of having both Hall and Conard high schools. Their teams – the Warriors and Chieftains, respectively – are guaranteed to square off against one another at least once per season in most sports. The teams are in the same league (the CCC) and the same region, Central Region. “That’s a great experience when they play each other,” he says. “There’s so much energy in the air, whether you’re a participant or spectator. But at the end of the day, we’re all West Hartford.”
That’s especially true in the case of the girls’ ice hockey team. Drawing skaters from both schools, the squad is known as the Hall/Conard Warchiefs.
While many student-athletes from his town can look forward to great collegiate careers, Siegal was quick to point out that a Division I full college scholarship for athletics is not guaranteed. “Statistically, less than one percent of all high school kids nationwide will be offered a Division I athletic scholarship,” Siegal says, citing the NCAA website. “Some Division II scholarships are offered, but there are none at the Division III level. So while we encourage all of our athletes to work for that opportunity, they need to have a ‘Plan B.’ There’s just so many great athletes out there.”
In West Hartford, Siegal says, sports have a larger purpose. “First and foremost, we view athletics at the high- school level as educational. We ask ourselves the question: Are they being taught the life skills in athletics that they need to excel here and beyond high school?”
Trish Witkin has fostered a winning environment in her nine years as athletic director in Glastonbury. While she’s reluctant to boast, runners from Glastonbury High School traditionally outpace opponents in cross country as well as track-and-field events. GHS soccer teams repeatedly rank high year after year, with boys’ and girls’ teams frequently facing the best competition in Connecticut for state titles.
For all that success, however, the school also keeps a strong focus on scholastics. Visitors to the school aren’t greeted by sports trophies in the lobby. Rather, the main foyer leads to a grand trophy case full of first-place hardware for robotics competitions. The two hemispheres of the school – its main classrooms and sports annex – are bridged by a hallway.
The role of technology in sports, specifically social media, is also a challenge. “Technology is a wonderful thing – it has enhanced athletic programs. But problems can arise,” says Witkin. “The ability to be anonymous [has emboldened critics]. We’re focused on the possibilities.” We have our own Twitter feed; We’re in the infancy stages of that.” The AD said Glastonbury currently uses Twitter to promote upcoming games and events for its 65 sports; some teams have their own Twitter feeds.
Many GHS teams also have a Facebook page. “It does present a whole set of challenges,” Witkin says. “If we come across something challenging or questionable, we would address that.”
Many GHS sports stars have gone on to play at Division I colleges during Witkin’s tenure. She said the school averages more than half a dozen such signings per year. “It’s been really exciting to see our student-athletes accomplish that goal,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see them go to college and play the sport they love. It’s exciting when they come back and visit too.” One notable graduate, track-and-field star Donn Cabral, competed in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase finals at the Olympic games in Rio this summer (he finished eighth).
Last fall, Glastonbury hit the sports jackpot when four teams made it to the state finals – three of their contests taking place the same day. “Girls’ cross-country had already won, and we had girls’ and boys’ soccer in addition to field hockey playing their state finals games the same day,” she recalled. “It was the first time I’ve ever experienced that. It seemed like everyone was wearing blue. Tomahawk pride was evident.” Both soccer teams took the state crown, and girls’ cross-country and boys’ soccer were actually “three-peats” as reigning state champions for the last three years.
Though GHS runners and kickers generally get the acclaim, Witkin is proud of the diversity of sports offered. A crew team, which practices on the Connecticut River, is among the athletic options not typically found at many high schools. Tennis, lacrosse, and golf athletes are also well-regarded here. “We’ve had success across so many of our programs,” Witkin says. “It’s been strong across-the-board.” Soccer is undeniably a perennial powerhouse sport here. But Witkin is equally proud of the Tomahawk football program that won a state title in 2008, after a quarter-century drought.
Witkin was an early adopter of a program that addresses athlete concussions. Glastonbury activated the program in 2007. “Certainly the subject of concussions is a big one,” the AD said. GHS takes it one step farther than many schools by using tests of an athlete’s brain, compared by a neurologist to baseline results, to determine if that athlete is allowed to return to play.
In 2015, the school began following new protocols for sudden cardiac arrest. Training included the use of Automatic External Defibrillators, or AEDs. “We wanted everyone to be alert and aware of potential problems,” Witkin said. “Athletic trainers now carry portable AEDs at all times, and they are also installed at the high school gym and pool, as well as the boat house where crew practices.”
Among new initiatives, Witkin is bringing a Student Athlete Leadership Team program this year. The SALT program selects two candidates from each sport to represent the cultural values of the school. “We want our student athletes to have a voice,” says the AD. “This taps into the leadership abilities they already possess, and allows them to have some ownership of their programs.”
Timothy Filon, athletic director for Avon High School, emphasizes depth across all sports. AHS has outgrown its former reputation as simply a soccer powerhouse, and all programs are competitive within the school’s conference.
“The culture here is that we used to be known as a soccer town,” Filon says. “However, other programs have increased over time and now we’re pretty balanced.”
Filon served as interim AD of the school last year; fall 2016 marks his first season in the permanent position. He’s now in his 20th year in the school district, having worked as a physical education teacher and multi-sport coach for many years. “My philosophy was always, the more sports you can play, the better off you are,” he says. “There’s no push to specialize.”
When the school recently transitioned into the CCC, its teams stayed competitive. Last year, Avon won state titles in boys’ soccer, girls’ cross-country, and girls’ track. Though basketball and football have traditionally boasted winning seasons for Avon, up-and-coming sports include field hockey, girls’ lacrosse, and volleyball. The AHS crew team boasts about 100 student athletes. “We’re not struggling, as some schools are, to field our teams,” says Filon. “We don’t plan to cancel any of our programs.”
After graduating from Avon High School, two notable girls’ basketball stars, Lindsay Horbatuck (class of 2008) and Abby Laszewski (class of 2016), went on to Division I scholarships. Last season, Riley Strassner signed with Georgetown to play boys’ soccer, and some gridiron greats from AHS have also joined the ranks of the UConn Huskies football team.
“It’s not the norm to get a Division I scholarship but we do have a good amount of kids playing college sports when they leave here,” Filon says.
As a member of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the school has safety protocols in place to deal with concussions and other injuries. “Each year we review CIAC policies,” Filon says, “and ensure that everyone has safety awareness, for example coaches providing water breaks every 15 minutes and not practicing in full pads if the heat index is too high. The training staff keeps in contact with coaches daily. Player safety is of the utmost importance.”
Field of Dreams
Perhaps the biggest news about Torrington High School sports in the last two years has not been its incredible talent, award-winning teams, or broad base of athletes. Surely it can claim those too; however, visitors to the school grounds will immediately take notice of the Robert H. Frost Athletic Complex, which opened in 2014.
Stone columns and black metal gates flank the entryway to the new sports fields. Atop a bucolic hill sits a gridiron worthy of a Division I college team ringed by a state-of-the-art track. The approximately $3 million total project, containing playing fields and public park space, qualified for Department of Environmental Protection grant money, according to Athletic Director Mike McKenna.
“The project included the football field and track plus new stands, a scoreboard, and press box,” McKenna says. “Before this, the sports facility was in such bad shape we had stopped running track meets on our track.”
Having a top-notch facility has helped spur interest in sports participation. “About half the of the student body participates in sports,” McKenna says. “It seems like the other half is in the band. There is a deep tradition of athletics at Torrington High School.”
The Raiders sports culture was started by Connie Donahue in the 1930s, according to McKenna. Donahue compiled more than 800 wins at THS in football, basketball and baseball, played football at UConn, and was also a “mover and shaker” in the Connecticut sports world and a co-founder of the Naugatuck Valley League.
In the modern era, the Red Raiders haven’t specialized in any particular sport. “Across the board, it’s pretty even keel,” McKenna says of participation numbers. “We’ve had our ups and downs over the years. Right now, our softball team has been very strong. We’re also traditionally strong in swimming. We get about 90-110 athletes turning out for boys’ and girls’ track teams, 80 for indoor. There’s not one team that has taken a lead role.”
To complement the football and track renovations, a new softball field is expected to be ready for the spring season. That team has arguably been the strongest program for Torrington recently. Raiders softball made it to the state semifinals last year.
While he’s not personally much interested in social media, McKenna says his coaches and players stay updated with technology trends. “I don’t have Facebook or Twitter,” says McKenna. “I’m a dinosaur; my kids laugh at me. But the coaches [are plugged in], and I know that parents and athletes can follow their Twitter account.” He adds, “Once in a while, a kid will make some kind of inappropriate comment heading into a big game. It happens rarely, though.”
Some noteworthy athletes to come out of Torrington include swimmer Ray Cswerko, who went on to capture the national Division II championship with Southern Connecticut State University; Sydney Matzko, a softball pitcher who earned a scholarship to University of North Carolina in 2014; and Matt Traub, a 2015 graduate who earned a scholarship to swim at Boston University.
Safety is also paramount for the Red Raiders. This year the sports budget was increased to allow for a trainer on-site every day, at all practices and games. “Each year, we [as a society overall] seem to be gaining a better understanding of injury prevention,” McKenna says. “Unfortunately, a lot of people were head-in-the-sand in regard to injuries such as concussions or sudden cardiac arrest. There’s more trainers in high schools now. It’s a better, safer landscape for the high school athlete.”
Flight of the Martlets
Tim Joncas started with Westminster School in 2004 as a hockey coach, became head coach in 2007, and took on the additional responsibilities of athletic director in 2012. He continues to oversee all athletics while serving as hockey coach. “That’s how it works in the boarding school environment, you take on many roles,” he says. “It keeps me on my toes.”
He’s most proud of the sports participation numbers at Westminster. While those statistics are somewhat bolstered by an athletic requirement for first and second-year students, the results are still impressive. “We’re seeing that 93 percent of our student body has competed in at least two seasons of sports,” Joncas says. “We have an afternoon program requirement [for various activities], but they are choosing to play sports.” The school houses some 390 students.
“We have a pretty strong interscholastic competition culture,” he continues. “Even though more and more kids are being pushed into specialization in sports nationwide, we continue to have balanced programs.” The Westminster football team went to their league’s bowl game for the past two years, and the schools’ soccer, hockey, field hockey, and lacrosse teams are frequent competitors in the New England Championships for private schools.
Westminster’s hallmark program is most likely the hockey squad, if the judging criteria is famous alumni. Ben Smith, a 2006 Westminster graduate, now plays with the Colorado Avalanche in the National Hockey League. He brought the Stanley Cup back to school in 2013 after winning it with the Chicago Blackhawks. Tommy Cross, class of 2008, recently re-signed with the Boston Bruins. He’s played with their AHL affiliate in Providence for the past four years. Meanwhile, the girls’ hockey team won three New England Championships between 2010 and 2014.
“Each year, our hockey team has NHL scouts that do come out to games,” says Joncas. “However, it’s typically colleges coming to scout us.” Plenty of great skaters have worn the logo of the Westminster mascot, a mythical bird called a Martlet.
Joncas is proud of the hockey talent he’s ushered into the NHL, but it doesn’t take his attention away from other sports. “Our softball program is one of the most successful in all of New England,” Joncas says, noting that it won Western New England Class A Championships seven times between 2008 and 2015. His teams compete in the highest level of “classes,” rather than divisions, in the Founder’s League. Relatively new sports to Westminster include a girls’ golf program that began last spring.
Technology has come home to roost with the Martlets too. “Parents always want as much access as they can get with their kids,” Joncas says. “We do have a director of social media at our school, and we post as much as we can on our school website, team sites, and Twitter.”
Joncas said Westminster has also been at the forefront of concussion detection and treatment. “In dealing with concussions, we’ve always been ahead of the curve,” he says. “We were doing baseline tests years before a lot of schools. We would never compromise the health of a kid to win a game. That just doesn’t happen.”
Mike Briotta is a freelance writer who has interviewed basketball stars Ray Allen and Marcus Camby, hockey goalie Jonathan Quick, and professional golfer J.J. Henry. He’s been lucky enough to practice with the Hartford Wolf Pack, and once ate ice cream out of the Stanley Cup.
Todd Fairchild, of West Hartford, is a longtime contributor to Seasons. For more about Todd, go to shutterbugct.com.