By Dave Ruden
My annual year-end columns are assured of one thing: if I re-read them days later, I will inevitably realize leaving someone or something off the list.
The athletes, coaches and games that stood out the most resonate in my mind, so this compilation is done without the aid or poring over old stories and strictly off the top of my head.
Here, then, is what I will remember most about 2013:
*Perhaps the most-talked-about subject during the just-completed high school football season was the New Canaan defense, and rightfully so. Michael Root, Cole Harris, Connor Buck, Zach Allen and Michael DiCosmo — five players from one team, let alone one unit, named All-State is almost unheard of — are a coach’s dream.
When you have that kind of talent, coaches get overlooked because the belief is you just throw it out on the field, sit back and watch.
Which is why many people don’t know the name Bill Kurtz, unless you remember him back from his days as the head coach at Westhill.
Kurtz is now the Rams’ defensive coordinator. He devised the schemes to maximize the skill of his players, made sure heads didn’t get swelled with the flood of press clippings. The best coaches put their players in a position to succeed.
There may be coaches who watch more game film than Kurtz, I just don’t know of any.
Coordinators receive little acclaim, but a very respected long-time coach close to the program said that the job Kurtz did this season was as good as any he has seen.
It is hard to disagree.
*While we are on New Canaan, and good coaching jobs, lets set our way-back machines six months. The school is known for lacrosse in the spring. And tennis. And golf.
Baseball and softball are not two sports that come to mind in the town. Yet, two weeks apart, Danielle Simoneau led the softball team to its first-ever FCIAC title, and then Mitch Hoffman guided the baseball team to its first state title since 1950.
Both programs have strong foundations and are getting greater support. The guess here is the future will bring more success, and 2013 will not be viewed as aberrations.
*Segueing on the softball front, unselfishness this past year was best embodied by Tori Ceballos, a pitcher for the St. Joseph softball team. A junior and returning starter, Ceballos ended up splitting time with Nicole Williams, a highly touted freshman.
Ceballos said all the right things, but lets face it, no one likes losing a starting job. If you do, you probably shouldn’t be competing in the first place.
Ceballos could have pouted and become disruptive. Or, in a more practiced method in the current era, her parents would have marched into coach Jeff Babineau’s office demanding restitution.
Instead, Ceballos worked hard and spent more time in the batting cage. She pitched well, but most impressively earned both All-FCIAC and All-State honors by being clutch at the plate, in a sense reinventing herself.
Ceballos in the process served as a role model for how to turn a perceived negative into a positive.
*Case Matheis is impossible to root against. The Darien graduate was one of the best lacrosse players in state history. He is an even better person.
Thus, it was particularly satisfying to see Matheis, in his freshman season at Duke, score both the game-tying and -winning goals in the second overtime to help the Blue Devils advance in the quarterfinals against Loyola, propelling them to an eventual national championship.
It is always gratifying to see local athletes have success on the national stage. Matheis is destined for a great career.
*Staying on Darien lacrosse graduates, and from a personal standpoint, I couldn’t be happier for Sam Stevenson. I got to know her and her family well working on a long story several years ago.
During her freshman year at Richmond, Sam was good enough to write on my blog for the Stamford Advocate charting her first year as a collegiate student-athlete.
Sam admittedly had self-confident issues early in her career. After sustaining a torn meniscus playing for the Blue Wave, she suffered another torn meniscus and ACL midway through her sophomore season.
It was all enough to sink a weaker-spirited person. Instead, Sam came back more determined than ever. After a strong junior year, she finished 10th in the nation this past year with an average of 3.18 goals per game (her 54 goals were tied for 17th, a figure that would have been higher but Richmond failed to qualify for postseason play).
Stevenson played her senior season not knowing she has a golf-ball-sized chip in her cartilage that will require another operation.
It was fun to have a front-row seat watching an athlete will herself to excellence. Sam Stevenson did herself proud.
*Rashamel Jones. Craig Austrie. Dave McClure. Torey Thomas. John Smyth. The Trinity Catholic boys basketball program has been a model of excellence for two decades, a pipeline for sending players to the nation’s top college teams.
Yet no player at the school has had a better individual season than Schadrac Casimir did. He had a 50-point game and carried the Crusaders, who started with more modest expectations, to appearances in both the FCIAC and state championship games.
Casimir did it all within the framework of team play. He made his teammates better, the mark of a great player.
Casimir earned the right to have his name mentioned with Trinity’s best.
*Olivia Hompe’s career with the New Canaan girls lacrosse team ended in the only way fitting: finishing with 4 goals and 2 assists in a state final victory.
Hompe is of FCIAC Hall of Fame stock with a bit of an interesting twist. She is now playing the sport at Princeton.
But Hompe’s high school years will likely best be remembered as a hockey player. She is the state’s all-time leading scorer, with 236 goals and 384 points.
Hompe is a sportswriter’s dream, at the top of the scale in terms of ability and able to offer insightful analysis after games.
There have been a handful of athletes able to tackle interviews as well, but none better.
In terms of accomplishments, the list is even shorter.
*Track is not a sport I have written about much during my professional career, but that changed this past year.
It had to.
Henry Wynne and Hannah DeBalsi at Staples. Claire Howlett at Westhill. Ellie Gravitte at Ridgefield. I don’t remember so many nationally ranked FCIAC athletes in the sport at one time.
*Speaking of Gravitte, there was no story I had more fun working on than a profile of Gravitte and her twin brother, Sam. Accomplished athletes, students, thriving in the arts. The best way to describe them is siblings excellent at being excellent.
*No story was more important than the one on Trumbull third baseman Casey Mack. Without telling anyone, he used his own money to buy two new bats for each of Bridgeport’s three FCIAC schools. Not even Mack’s coach, Phil Pacelli, knew of the charitable act until it was revealed when the league coaches met to vote for the All-Conference team.
There will now be a Casey Mack Sportsmanship award given out annually. Mack’s story made its way to St. Louis, where he was honored last month with a prestigious Stan Musial award.
Mack represents all we want out of sports, even if the goal often exceeds the reach. We need more people like him.
*Finally, 2013 for me will be recalled as the year I took the big leap and left the Stamford Advocate, where I was employed for 20 years, to start The Ruden Report.
I still get petrified at times, but fear of failure is a great motivator.
More so, I am having a lot of fun trying something different. A major redesign is coming next month — the new color scheme will prove popular at Stamford High and Ridgefield — as well as new features and the attempt to try different ways to cover local sports in the digital age.
If the next 365 days are like the previous, there will be no shortage of stories.
Happy New Year!