Fairfield Prep teams had the opportunity last Saturday to leave CIAC Championship Day as the top team in the state in three sports. The boys ice hockey team, the defending Division I champions, repeated but the boys basketball team and boys swimming and diving teams did not capture state titles.
Don't say Prep went 1-2. Let's call it 1-1-1.
How so? The swimming team faced Greenwich twice before in 2013-14. On Jan. 11, in a dual meet in Greenwich, the Jesuits lost 116-70, then on March 19, the Cardinals won the Class LL championship by scoring 913 points with Prep runner-up with its 698. No one else was close. On March 22, the scenario repeated with Greenwich claiming the State Open title with 652 points and Prep second with 455.5. Pomperaug was third with 391, not exactly to be mentioned in the same breath as the Cardinals and Jesuits.
The point is that there's 91 teams in Connecticut -- individual schools or co-op teams -- and 89 of them legitimately cannot say they are better than the Jesuits. Only Greenwich can. Prep did no better than it should have at the State Open and no worse than it should have. There's no dishonor in that. Call it a tie.
Prep's stars -- Nicholas Wargo, Bryce Keblish, Brandon Cole, Bjorn Davis, elite swimmers all -- plus its next best line of Matthew Lee, Stuart Stritzel, John Hoin, Andrew McPhee, Robert McCrory, John Kealey and Guido Balderrama could only be matched in talent and ability by Greenwich's top group.
Moving to Ingalls Rink in New Haven, where Prep won its 16th state championship, the Jesuits won on mystique, or aura, as much as it did on hard work and smart, aggressive play. Their back-to-back titles came from traveling different paths. In 2012-13, Prep entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed with its 19-1-0 regular season and by dominating for most of the winter.
That team completed its mission on Championship Day. A year later, after sustaining considerable losses through graduation, Prep went 12-4-3 in the regular season as one of the top four teams in the state throughout the winter, along with Darien, Notre Dame-Fairfield and Notre Dame-West Haven. The Jesuits earned the No. 3 seed and, following a season of growth and gelling together, got hot at the right time.
At times in the tournament, it might have appeared as though Darien would win its first title since 1969 or the Lancers would win it all for the first time since 2006. But on Championship Day last Saturday, Prep played with more poise than Darien. The Blue Wave got the only goal of an evenly played first period. Then Prep outplayed Darien the rest of the way for the 2-1 victory.
Jesuits' senior goaltender Chris Gutierrez faced fewer shots than his Darien counterpart, Michael Colon, but every shot Gutierrez was asked to block -- until Dean Lockery tied it up with 6:11 remaining in the third period -- carried even more weight. Had Darien solved Gutierrez for a 2-0 lead, it would have made Prep's drive to tie then to win that much more difficult. Gutierrez delivered. Then Vincent D'Amore played hero with his low blast through a screen in overtime that returned the championship to Fairfield.
Hours later at the Mohegan Sun, the Prep basketball team couldn't quite close the deal. From Day No. 1 of the season, the Jesuits were the best team in the state. But for one miserable quarter last Saturday, it all unraveled.
Bridgeport Central, which also finished 2013-14 with a 27-1 final record, forced the Jesuits into 11 turnovers in the third quarter and limited Prep to 3 of 10 shooting from the floor. Prep's 47-29 halftime lead turned into a 57-56 deficit heading into the fourth quarter.
It was a nightmare of eight minutes in duration.
Prep regained composure during the fourth quarter but never really regained the upper hand, though it earned several brief and marginal leads.
In the end, Prep was punished for its excellence. It didn't quite play enough tight game at the end to be comfortable and resourceful to find the formula to win when everything it strived for all year was on the line.
The Jesuits had their share of tight spots in going undefeated in the SCC regular season and in winning three games for their first conference title in the SCC playoffs, but most of those sticky spots came before crunch time. It wasn't enough preparation for the bright lights on Championship Night.
Prep's conference tournament games were three victories each by four points. In the regular season, only four of the Jesuits' victories were decided by 10 points or fewer, only two by five points or fewer.
Bridgeport Central didn't have too many more close games than Prep in its drive to the finals, but those eight games within 10 points were more instructive.
In the final minutes of the state final, when either could have asserted itself to escape with the crown, the Hilltoppers played with more confidence.
That's how it appeared.
Prep would have defeated every team in the state in a best-of-seven playoff format -- one with Bridgeport Central likely would have gone seven games, for sure -- but that's not how the CIAC handles the postseason. Only the NBA conducts playoff series. The state title would be determined on balance by the better team for 32 minutes. It took one disastrous quarter by Prep for its dreams to be shattered.