The 2013-14 sports season in town, for all four high schools, was full of strong, competitive teams fueled by an even greater number of accomplished and driven athletes. And the coaches involved, for the most part, were instrumental in bringing them along through their direction and the nurturing -- delicate or otherwise -- that makes high school sports different from and often more rewarding than college and professional competition.
Each week during the season, this publication selected Athletes of The Week, both male and female. Now it is time to name Athletes of The Year, but not just one for each gender. Some athletes specialized in one sport, or played two or three but excelled in one. Others were major contributors and all-stars for two or three seasons. So the Fairfield Citizen will recognize the multi-sport or multi-discipline stars for one award and those who were dominant on the field/court/pool/rink/gym in one season, or in one discipline, for another honor.
Three or four athletes really stood out at each of the four schools in town -- Fairfield Warde, Fairfield Ludlowe, Fairfield Prep and Notre Dame-Fairfield. We're going to go with one winner from each high school. These were difficult choices to make. Be it good or bad, agree or disagree depending on whatever criteria is chosen, here they are:
Fairfield Warde senior football lineman Ahmed Hourani helped the Mustangs at both ends of the line of scrimmage in the fall. And he was named first-team All-FCIAC defense on the line. It could be argued that he was borderline great in football. But there was nothing on the fence at all about his prowess in the winter on the wrestling mat.
Hourani finished as runner-up at heavyweight (285 pounds) at the New England Championships in March, losing to the ninth-ranked wrestler in the country.
Before that, he was unstoppable against Connecticut wrestlers, unbeaten, in fact, often barely challenged, probably feared by some. He went 46-1 in the winter. His 2-and-a-half-year career record -- his first varsity match came in his sophomore year in 2011-12 -- was a nifty 105-6 for a winning percentage of 94.6.
Hourani was heavyweight champion at the FCIAC Championships, named the Most Outstanding Wrestler, and CIAC Class L Championships in February prior to winning the State Open in early March. In his junior year, he won Class L before placing third at the State Open. Hourani played a pivotal role in the Mustangs finishing as runners-up as a team at the FCIAC and Class L meets and reaching a third-place standing at the State Open and 10th place at the New Englands. Junior Dan Ebert (126 pounds), freshman Tim Kane (113) and senior Dylan Bender (138), among others, gave Warde the depth to excel as a team, but Hourani was the focal point.
He combined skill, strength and stamina, along with grit, determination and commitment to reach his status as one of the premier wrestlers in the state. Hourani, who will play football at Southern Connecticut State next year, but not wrestle, set the Mustangs' single-season record for pins (34), which stood for 13 years, and career pins (74).
"Ahmed was one of the most dominant wrestlers I have ever coached," said Warde coach Jason Shaughnessy.
"He pinned everyone this year except one in a New Hampshire tournament and his loss in the New England finals. You could always count on a pin for Ahmed. Ahmed was one of the most athletic and powerful heavyweights I have seen as a coach. By his senior year, he had learned to wrestle using moves common for the lightweight wrestlers."
Cross country, track
Fairfield Prep senior Christian Alvarado was the best distance runner in the state. And that covered races from September through June, including competiton in cross country, indoor track and field in the winter and outdoor track in the spring. He won four of the five distance running titles possible in State Open championship meets, finishing first in cross country, the 3,200 (metric two-mile) in indoor track and the 1,600 and 3,200 in outdoor track.
Alvarado, of Fairfield, was runner-up in the State Open 1,600 indoors in the winter by 0.94 of a second, losing by a few meters. Alvarado won the 2-mile race at the New England Championships indoors, setting a meet record with a time of 9:00.29, breaking a longstanding state record.
Alvarado, who will run all three seasons at Georgetown University in 2014-15, swept the five titles in the SCC and in Class LL. He finished 20th in the national cross country championship race in San Diego in December, after placing second at the Northeast Championships in the Bronx, N.Y. in late November. The first time he was defeated in cross country was when he placed fourth at the New Englands.
On Sunday in Greensboro, N.C., Alvarado put an exclamation point on his senior year. He won the mile at the New Balance Nationals Outdoors, finishing in 4:06.88, the 11th fastest time in the nation this spring, according to DyeStat.com, and the first Jesuits' runner to break the 4:10 barrier.
The top six runners at the New Balance meet earned All-America status.
"No runner of ours has ever worked harder. He always did everything we asked and seemed to thrive on difficult practices," said Bob Ford, an assistant coach for Prep runners for all three season, who has assisted his son, Bob Ford Jr., the Jesuits head coach in cross country, for 25 years.
Fairfield Ludlowe senior third baseman Brenna Martini earned first-team All-FCIAC for a third straight year, after receiving honorable mention honors as a freshman in 2011. She hit for average and power, fielded nearly flawlessly and had an accurate and strong arm with a quick release, and did so for four years. Martini will play at Adelphi University next school year. She became the Falcons' first ever first-team All-State player in softball.
Martini paced Ludlowe in many offensive categories -- runs scored, with 25, hits (31), walks (11, 5 intentional) and batting average (.517), by going 31-for-60. She struck out once as a senior; she belted 27 home runs in her career. Martini tied for the team lead in home runs with four this spring, and she drove in 17 runs. Her on-base percentage was a team-best .592. Martini smacked five doubles and three triples and stole two bases. She drilled a game-winning home run in the 10th inning against Trumbull.
"Brenna is a true leader on and off the field," Ludlowe coach Shari Paci said. "Her bat brings power and a threat to every game. She loves the game and works hard every day to become better than she was the day before.
"Coaches only get the privilege to coach a player like Brenna Martini once in a career. Brenna will excel at the college level and beyond," Paci said.
After being named All-Patriot Division of the SWC in girls basketball as a junior in 2012-13, Notre Dame-Fairfield captain Briana Mann, of Norwalk, was a first-team all-conference selection this winter. She was named third team All-State by a daily newspaper outside of Fairfield County. In the fall, after moving from outside hitter to middle hitter, she was honorable mention All-SWC in volleyball, which she has been playing for fewer years than hoops.
On the basketball court, the senior forward averaged 12 points and eight rebounds per game this winter, and she was rarely blank on the stat sheet in the categories of blocked shots, steals and assists. Though she did not make the official All-State team, she was selected to play in the Connecticut High School Coaches Association all-star game. Mann was captain of both teams, each of which had few upperclassmen, and was a shining example of leadership, said her coaches -- Jon Mercado, in volleyball, and Eric DeMarco, in basketball. Her nickname on both teams was Mama. Not only was she respected as the leader, she was held in reverence.
She recently accepted a full scholarship to play basketball at the College of Central Florida, though she had considered schools in which she'd be playing volleyball only.
"She's definitely an emotional leader," Mercado said of the Lancers' leader in kills.
"She has an ability to talk to the athletes candidly. She lets them know exactly what needs to be fixed, but she does it with a positive and loving air. Athletically, she is outstanding, but she's still learning the technical skills."
"Briana has left a legacy of competitiveness within our program," DeMarco said of Mann. "She rarely missed any practice, camp or league that we were involved in over four years and she wanted the team always to be the best that it could be."
Next week: A look at a three-sport captain with remarkable motivational skills.