Berkshire League dominated Class S boys basketball in the 1990s
Call it a decade of dominance. A 10-year slice of hoop life that saw Berkshire League boys basketball make its home at Central Connecticut State University on the last day of the high school hoop season. In the 60-year history of the BL, the 1990s stand out as special time of BL basketball brilliance.
Seven times BL teams found themselves in the state title game. Six championship banners found their way to gymnasium walls, insuring accomplishment immortality.
The BL came, it played, it conquered. There were repeat champions, individual champions, great performances and shots that became a permanent part of town lore. It was a smorgasbord of awesome.
Thomaston started the ball bouncing with consecutive titles in 1990 and 1991. Four years later in 1995 it was Terryville’s turn. Lewis Mills followed with its crown in 1996 and Gilbert owned the end of the decade with their own championship daily double in 1998 and 1999 after losing in the finals in 1993.
Those big shots we mentioned? Hello Dennis Fowler of Terryville and Matt Kalin of Lewis Mills who both lived the ultimate schoolboys’ hoop dream by sinking outrageous buzzer beaters to send their teams and towns into delirium while permanently etching their names in history.
THOMASTON’S back-to-back brilliance was born of great defense and the emergence of two all-time greats, Brian Mozelak and Ben Mack. Both players would go on to score more than 1,000 points, Mozelak hitting a lofty total of 1,614 while Mack went over 1,100. Complimented nicely by defensive stalwarts Chris Stager and Adam Brutting, centers Craig Morton and Rod Mack and guard Don Testa and nobody was remotely close to the Golden Bears.
Thomaston won its last 17 games of the 1989-1990 season then went 26-0 in 1990-1991. When the streak finally ended the following season the Bears had set a Berkshire League record of 49 wins in a row.
After disposing of Woodstock Academy and Putnam in the first two rounds of the 1989-1990 tournament the third-seeded Bears ran into No. 2 once-beaten Coginchaug, the favorite to win it all in many people’s eyes. Coach Muffy Gomes had said he thought his team was the only team that could beat the Blue Devils.
And so it was. Junior guard Adam Brutting was superb with 14 points as the Bears eeked out a 68-65 victory in a raucous atmosphere.
No. 9 Cromwell stood in the Bears way in their bid for their first state title since 1962. This time Mack stepped forward. He tipped in a missed Mozelak shot with 43 seconds left and Mozelak blocked a shot at the buzzer as the Bears celebrated their first title in almost three decades. It was just the beginning.
With virtually everybody returning for the 1990-1991 season, expectations were high and the performance exceeded the expectations. Sparked by Mozelak, Mack and a savage 32-minute full-court press, the Bears won their games by an average of 29 points, including the tournament and won every game in the season by double digits while stamping themselves as team for all-time.
In the tournament, Gomes’ club beat Old Lyme, 74-61, Coginchaug, 78-64, Portland, 72-49 and easily beat Marianaplis Prep in the final, 74-60.
When all was said and done then CIAC Director Mike Savage called the Bears one of the five best teams in Class S history.
Four years later it was TERRYVILLE’s turn to make the magic. Led by first-year coach Lou Lefevre, the Kangaroos ripped off a 27-1 record, and led by a group of never-say-die players that included Fowler, Tim Mischke, Jesse Griffin and Paul LeClair, the team had a penchant for coming up big when needed especially in the tournament.
After blitzing Old Saybrook in the first round of the tournament, it took a last-minute basket from Griffin to hold off Berkshire League rival Gilbert, 64-62. Close victories over Coginchaug (57-53) and Portland (45-43) followed. However, Fowler saved the best for last.
Against top-ranked and favored Putnam, the Kangaroos trailed most of the game. But with under a minute left, Fowler hit a driving layup to tie the game, 56-56. Then with three seconds to go Mischke drove and passed to Jesse Russell. Fowler rolled around a LeClair pick and took a pass from Russell and from the wing drained a three-point shot as time ran out to insure his name and that Terryville team would forever be remembered.
Mischke led the Kangaroos with 20 points including the 1,000th of his career. Fowler drained a quartet of three-pointers and finished with 17 points and some local immortality.
Matt Kalin of LEWIS MILLS must have been watching Fowler because one year later he duplicated the feat and the Berkshire League continued to own the tournament and dramatics.
The top-seeded Spartans (25-2) had a difficult road to the title opening up with a 76-69 win over Haddam-Killingworth and then squeezing past Somers, 82-78. In the semifinals they managed to hold off Avon, 54-49.
No. 2 Portland (22-4) was the obstacle in the championship game played in front of 3,080 fans at Central Connecticut State University. Portland had decimated Gilbert, 93-52, in the semifinals. With eight seconds left and the score tied, 49-49, Mills inbounded the ball.
Kalin (16 points) passed to Chad Lavinio who returned the pass to Kalin near midcourt. Kalin took a couple of dribbles and launched a 32-footer that hit nothing but the bottom of the net earning his permanent spot in Spartan lore while giving the BL its fourth state title in seven seasons.
After a one-year absence, GILBERT picked up the championship baton. The Yellowjackets had knocked on the championship door in the decade with a loss to Marianapolis Prep in 1993 and a semifinal loss in 1996. This time they would walk through the door.
Like Thomaston at the beginning of the decade, the Yellowjackets were powered by superb coaching in Jim Welcome and top-notch stars that included 1,000-point scorers Billy Rea and Joe White. Add Bob Nardi, Chris Bunel, Ryan Rea and Donny Crossman to the list and it was a powerhouse program.
The Yellowjackets of 1997-1998 ripped through the season with less than a handful of close games and then powered their way through the first three games of the state tournament, 68-46 over Bolton, 69-35 over Wheeler and 64-40 over Wamogo a team that had barely lost to them, 62-58, in the BL Tournament.
No. 11 Tolland was slightly feistier in the Class S championship game but the Yellowjackets completed a 27-0 season with a 48-43 triumph. Welcome’s squad wasn’t perfect the following season but only slightly less so.
There was a regular season loss to Litchfield and to Wamogo in the BL Tournament. But come state tournament time, Gilbert roared again. After a bye, Old Saybrook was handled, 73-52, and revenge against Litchfield was achieved, 57-51. In the semifinals, Weston was overpowered, 59-37.
The top-ranked Yellowjackets were in first gear in the championship game and disposed of No. 2 Hyde Leadership, 55-40, for their second straight state championship.
And so the finest decade in BL history came to a close. Since then the BL has made only two championship finals and both times it has been Wamogo. The Warriors lost to Cromwell in the Division V final in 2018 and to Old Saybrook in 2005 in the Division IV final.
In the 1990s if you had tickets to the state championship games at Central Connecticut State University’s Kaiser Hall, there was a pretty good chance you were going to see the Berkshire League there and only once did you not go home happy. It was one heck of a run for the little league in the northwest corner of the state.
NOTE: The Berkshire League also did itself proud in the 1960s placing six teams in the championship game. If it wasn’t for Cromwell, a great decade could have been a glorious decade. Thomaston won the crown in 1962 and Litchfield in 1965.
After Woodbury lost to LaSalette Seminary in 1964, Cromwell proceeded to knock of Litchfield in 1967 and 1968 and then Lewis Mills in 1969 (we cheated a bit here, Mills was not in the BL then).
In you expand the period a bit to go from 1958-1971, nine BL teams made it to the finals with three winners. Woodbury lost to New Canaan in 1958 and Litchfield beat Ellsworth in 1959. Wamogo lost to Cromwell in 1970 and Woodbury lost to Cromwell, 40-39, at the buzzer on Al Weston’s jumper in 1971. Cromwell won five straight titles from 1967 through 1971 beating four BL teams and Mills.