A few weeks ago I wrote in this space about high school enrollment and its relative impact on the competitiveness of our school’s sports teams. I said there were two questions nagging at me – first, shouldn’t Newtown win every game against smaller schools simply because we’re bigger?; and next, because of size disparity among member schools, is the CT conference system obsolete?
One thing at a time.
In this item I will address topic #1: Should Newtown, as one of the bigger schools, dominate smaller schools on a consistent basis regardless of the sport?
An athletic director friend at a rival SWC school concedes that Newtown’s position
as the biggest school in the South-West Conference (SWC) “clearly gives them an
advantage”. But he also goes on to point out that it hardly makes winning a sure thing. “‘Having an advantage’ is one of the most overused phrases in sports”, he says. “It’s like when people talk about an athlete having ‘potential’”.
In other words, just because you should doesn’t mean you will.
There are two approaches to answering my question. One is philosophical, and the other more black and white. Let’s call the latter our “numbers don’t lie” viewpoint.
The numbers say that the five largest schools in the SWC regardless of gender are Newtown, New Milford, Pomperaug, Masuk and Bunnell. Joel Barlow brings in some interesting gender inequities – you’ll have to ask the Redding/Easton census bureau about why that is, but they are sixth largest in girls and tenth in boys – quite a disparity.
So, for boys – the “Little 5” schools are New Fairfield, Bethel, Joel Barlow, Weston and Oxford, and for girls, we’re talking about New Fairfield, Brookfield, Bethel, Weston, and Oxford.
I have not included any of the private SWC schools (Immaculate, Kolbe Cathedral, Notre Dame of Fairfield and Lauralton Hall) in my research. As I’ve said before, they play by different rules and thus shouldn’t be in a conference with public schools anyway.
This fall, in the basic field/team sports (football, soccer, field hockey and volleyball), the 5 "big" schools have a winning percentage of 65% against the 5 smallest public schools. Take out field hockey – where “little” New Fairfield has fueled high school success via a strong feeder program and “big” Bunnell doesn’t even field a team - and it goes to 70%.
I have tried to find and incorporate the results for girls swim/dive and boys/girls cross-country, but to no avail. And adding these sports might make a difference. These sports, like others, have a way of prospering at the smaller schools where a culture and a tradition grows up around them in the community. For instance boy’s lacrosse thrives at Weston, New Fairfield and Barlow, and Weston produces top-flight tennis players and runners of both genders.
In these cases, the size of the school doesn’t matter. They can compete at a higher level because their best athletes have committed to those sports.
Arguably, Newtown's biggest competition should come from the schools that are as big as we are. But whatever “advantage” Newtown has as the biggest school in the SWC seems mixed when it comes to playing our fellow big-boy schools. We don’t have too much of a problem handling the second biggest SWC School, New Milford, in pretty much all sports other than cross-country and wrestling. The third biggest school, Pomperaug, has beaten us head-to-head in enough sports over the past few years to give us a little bit of a complex.
But for years, it’s been all about the #4 school, Masuk. In my 14 years as a Newtown rooter, it’s always been a dogfight for us against Masuk, in almost every sport.
Recently, Masuk had to stop skimming the cream off the top of the student-athlete crop from Prospect, Beacon Falls and Oxford. Kids from those towns were allowed to choose to attend school in Monroe, and many did - many of them specifically because of sports. They were Masuk Panthers by a matter of choice, not geography.
As a result, Masuk consistently fielded some of the best teams in the SWC and the state. But this past fall season was their first as a 100% Monroe proposition. Other than their incredible football team (whose all-world quarterback actually moved from New London three years ago specifically to play football), they have fallen back to earth in every single sport.
And that leads us to the more philosophical approach.
My AD friend encouraged me consider Newtown’s athletic program as a whole, viewing it as a sum of its parts instead of individual teams.
Sure, last spring brought us two more SWC championships in boys and girls lacrosse. It was the boys’ second in three years and (ho-hum) the girls’ seventh in a row. But more importantly, Newtown made both the SWC and CIAC playoffs in every sport that has a playoff system. This fall, Nighthawk teams once again made the SWC and CIAC playoffs in every sport and finished either first or second in the SWC in six of the eight sports the conference offers. Our football team has appeared in the SWC championship game in three of the last four years and is currently preparing for its Class LL semifinal game on Saturday. Our girls’ volleyball team won the Class LL title this fall and has dominated the SWC for the past three years.
Our outstanding student-athletes have acheived as teams and as individuals. In addition to the expected all-conference and all-state picks, in the past 12 months we’ve had a Nighthawk named as Gatorade CT athlete of the year, we’ve had athletes named All-New England, and several athletic and academic All-Americans.
Many of our Newtown athletes extend their sports experience into college and the NCAA. We have legions of Nighthawks playing at the Division I, II and III levels, making their presence felt both in the classroom and on playing fields across the country.
That's a freshly positive viewpoint, and it appeals to me. For some, winning may be “the only thing” as Vince Lombardi said, but I prefer the Pierre de Coubertin approach (Who? Just the guy who invented a little thing called the modern Olympic Games).
Okay, I realize that it may be heresy to put the philosophy of some Eurostyle brie-eater over that of an American football coaching legend. But when it comes to our kids – most of whom are not going pro or getting full scholarships to Division I schools, by the way - I think this really hits the mark and should remind ourselves and our children of it every time we have the chance:
The most important thing is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.
And that's how the small schools do it - they take part and they fight well. And just like the big schools, some days they win and some days they lose. And regardless of the size of the school or the outcome of the game, they are all the better for it.
And just maybe, so are we.