NEWTOWN -- It was back in March when Jeremy O'Connell last stared down an impossible comeback.
O'Connell's bid for a banner second season as coach of the Newtown High girls basketball team was sputtering in the semifinals of the state tournament, the Nighthawks playing an admirable David but trailing their Goliath by 15 entering the fourth quarter. Then, as if "shot out of a cannon," as athletic director Gregg Simon later gushed, All-State point guard Riley Wurtz and company erased their deficit with an astonishing 28-8 run to secure a berth in the state final.
No one had ever seen such resolve, such a sudden 180 of fate.
It's sports hyperbole of the highest order, to be sure. But the emotions that flowed from a community a week later -- when the Nighthawks took the title by a bucket, rising again when it looked as though they might fall -- those were as real as it gets.
Wednesday night, O'Connell's bunch hosted Masuk to become the first Newtown High team to compete since 20 first-graders and six adults were slain in a mass shooting last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where many young athletes first dream of wearing Nighthawk blue and gold.
Twenty-six is not a deficit that can be erased. The comeback will be slow, the healing gradual. Wednesday, with 26 Sandy Hook green-and-white balloons -- six green, 20 white -- floating on the baseline under a banner that read, "Newtown Strong," the Nighthawks began the process.
"The thing that we do here is we come together. You saw in the last couple years how this community rallied around us, how they've rallied around every athletic program, every band competition, every school play -- that's the kind of community this is," said O'Connell, who wore a green and white checked shirt and a dark green tie. "This was an opportunity for us to give back to the community, however small and insignificant that may be."
Shortly after Masuk, of neighboring Monroe, was introduced as the Nighthawks' rivals, Newtown High principal Charles Dumais took the microphone to offer an opening statement, calling the night "a tiny piece of normal."
"Rivals is an interesting term," Dumais said. "I don't know if Newtown and Monroe could ever be called rivals after their gracious act of giving us a new elementary school," he added, referring to Monroe's Chalk Hill Elementary School, which hasn't been used since June of 2011 but will serve as the temporary home of Sandy Hook students beginning in January.
Administrators opted for a simple and elegant ceremony, which included a 26-second moment of silence for the victims and a presenting of the colors by the Edson division of the U.S. Naval sea cadets from New Haven.
"(We wanted) a simple ceremony that would honor those students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but also allow us to begin to move forward," said Simon, who politely declined 12 to 15 media requests Monday, including one from ESPN. "It's going to be done in very small increments, and this was kind of just the Step One."
Only the home bleachers were full, where Wurtz, a freshman at New York University, sat with other college students home for the holidays. Her old coach, the fiery O'Connell, completed his ensemble with a pair of lightly worn green and white Nikes he had forgotten about, which got their usual mileage hopping and stomping alongside the Nighthawks' bench for every minute of a 64-44 victory in which they never trailed.
"(The girls basketball players) embody everything that we want in our student-athletes," Simon said. "To have them be the first game, in front of a really great crowd ... it's hard to know exactly how we feel tonight. But I'm very happy that we took the first step."
No tickets were sold for the game. Instead, donations totaling over $2,200 were accepted on behalf of the Sandy Hook victims. One group of Masuk parents pledged a dollar for every point scored.
As fans shuffled out, Dumais handed out small white cards with green type bearing the message: "Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example to the rest of the world."
On Wednesday, Newtown showed the world Step One.
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