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McGair: Plenty of special moments defined 2013

January 1, 2014

No matter how you slice it, head coach T.J. Ciolfi and his North Smithfield boys’ basketball team had a season to remember. The Northmen captured 26 straight games before falling to Classical in the semifinals of the Rhode Island Open State Tournament. In this Feb. 2013 photo, Ciolfi is seen celebrating as North Smithfield gets set to clinch the Division III title at Brown University. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN

Things have a tendency to move pretty quickly around here – almost too quickly to catch up and fully appreciate what has transpired. On a day-to-day basis, we concern ourselves with concrete items such as wins or losses, how many points a team puts up, or whether the season culminates in championship glory. So sometimes it’s easy to overlook the small, but significant individual moments.

Rest assured that it’s not our intent to paint with broad strokes. One day we’re ushering in the winter sports season while the high school Super Bowls have yet to be contested. There’s a non-stop cycle of seasons and sports, and we here at the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call have no choice but to hop aboard the train or be left behind.

Through all the hustle and bustle, once in a while you take the opportunity to catch your breath, to fully understand what you’ve witnessed, before delving into the next series of challenges.

Upon doing just that, this dawns on you: considering the number of communities we circulate in, then the amount of results our three-person sports staff tracks down, it becomes quickly obvious that we have a prodigious sample size to select from when contemplating the top moments of 2013.

So picking and choosing a definitive list, from the abundance of rich moments the area produced over the past 12 months, is a difficult exercise.

But now appears as good a time as any to reflect on what a busy 2013 it was, and hone in on the specific moments that struck a chord and left an indelible impression.

***

One of the toughest assignments in this business is to write a memorial tribute about a beloved figure in the community. Your initial instinct is to provide the proper farewell and convey to readers a strong sense of why this person was unique. You also want to be sensitive to the grieving process, and approach people who have a close association to the departed in a gentle manner, so that the anecdotes and personal remembrances are able to come naturally.

Over the span of several phone interviews, we learned why Wilfred “Skee” Carter was such a beloved figure in Burrillville. The sudden passing of the longtime high-school baseball and cross-country coach came just two days into 2013. The news that Carter had suffered a fatal heart attack shocked everyone.

In my capacity, I knew Carter as a leader of young people, but he was more than that. He was worthy of the moniker “Mr. Burrillville.” His roots in this close-knit community ran so deep that as Broncos cross-country head coach Marty Crowley elegantly put, “His legacy is every kid who has ever played for him at Burrillville High School. He was vested in the town of Burrillville, and his loss is felt throughout the entire community, not by just those who knew him.”

On the same January day that Carter’s wake took place, this newspaper ran two articles that hopefully paid homage to “Mr. Burrillville.” A week or so later, myself and colleague Jon Baker received a note of appreciation from Carter’s son, Chris.

Chris mentioned how people talked about what had appeared in print and online as they waited in the receiving line. He also planned to put a couple of copies aside for the benefit of Skee’s grandson Aidan, who in early April threw out the first pitch to cap off a pre-game memorial ceremony at Eccleston Field.

Hearing from a member of Skee Carter’s family helped provide reassurance that the portrayal of a kind-hearted soul was warmly received.

***

Another tough aspect of this job is standing outside the locker room of a team that you know is suffering from the pangs of defeat. The wounds are fresh and in need of suturing. Fortunately for the North Smithfield boys’ basketball team, one final bonding session awaited courtesy of a roughly hour-long bus ride back from URI’s Ryan Center to 412 Greenville Road.

As we wrote in a column that appeared March 12, “not many high school squads around these parts can lay claim to losing their first game of the season on what turns out was their final game of the season. It’s a crusher of a double whammy that’s tough to shake, even if the task of defying the odds and creating a legacy had been achieved long before North Smithfield fell in the semifinals of the R.I. Open Tournament.”

The Northmen had won 26 straight games prior to bowing to eventual champion Classical. They had morphed from a feel-good story to Cinderella to a team with a honest-to-goodness shot to emerge as the last team standing. It was a fun group to watch.

How to make sense of his team’s season-ending loss to the Purple may have been head coach T.J. Ciolfi’s toughest task all season. Ciolfi remained in the locker room for quite some time afterwards, no doubt trying to console a group of teenage boys who probably wanted no part of hearing what a special season it truly was at that particular moment.

“We had never lost as a group, so the first 15 minutes were like … there was a lot of emotion, there really was,” Ciolfi recalled a few days later.

By the time the North Smithfield team pulled into the high school’s parking lot, the pain and disappointment had given way to a realization of what a special journey the season had been.

“I think the long ride was almost a blessing because by the time it ended, the players who aren’t returning were in the back of the bus and we started to put into perspective that there’s no reason for us to hang our heads,” said Ciolfi.

Not in the slightest bit.

***

In certain times, an otherwise simple, kind-hearted gesture can double as a strong and much-needed dose of reassurance that, yes, good people still exist.

And surely that was the case for the Tolman-Newtown high school baseball game that took place Saturday, April 20 at McCoy Stadium – hailed “as a symphony composed in fellowship, compassion and healing.” Those words appeared in the Feb. 4 edition of this paper after a meeting the previous Friday at McCoy Stadium with Tolman head baseball coach Theo Murray, the architect of this special endeavor, school athletic director John Scanlon and Pawtucket Red Sox president Mike Tamburro.

You may recall the actual game took place at the end of what was a long and trying week for all New Englanders. We were shaken by the horrific events that marred the Boston Marathon and watched a manhunt ensue with one of the suspects apprehended in Watertown, Mass. the night before the Newtown players and coaches would serve as the guests of honor of both the City of Pawtucket and the PawSox.

In essence, the timing of this fellowship game was just right. We needed a reason to believe in humanity after such a trying period, and what took place that Saturday in April provided just that.

The weather that day also proved symbolic with threatening clouds giving way to blue sky. Faith restored, indeed.

***

One of my favorite images of the year took place June 8 at North Kingstown’s Lischio Field. The Lincoln baseball nine was looking to stay alive in the Division I playoffs when news the equivalent to a bolt of lightning struck roughly 10 minutes before the 4:30 p.m. first pitch.

It was learned Nick Zammarelli had been chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the 28th round of Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player draft. When the news broke, the Lincoln senior was busy taking pre-game groundballs at shortstop.

Upon returning to the dugout, Zammarelli’s older sister, Tayla, ran over to the chain-link fence to deliver some important information before returning to where parents Nick Jr. and Lisa were standing.

I’m sure there was some thought to waiting until after the game before telling Nick that he had been drafted. It’s not everyday, however, that a local lad is bestowed with such good news, hence why the Zammarelli clan felt comfortable enough with informing their hard-working son/brother before he took the field.

***

As it became apparent that the Red Sox were going to wrap up the World Series in six games, my mind began to race with ideas for the postgame sidebar. Looking to work in some sort of PawSox angle helped simplify the final decision.

Arnie Beyeler was going to be my target. The former Pawtucket manager had gone from winning the 2012 Governors’ Cup title to becoming Boston’s first-base coach. He was about to bask in championship glory for a second straight year.

I had roughly 45 minutes or so following the final out to track down Beyeler, write something and send it to the copy desk. After being unable to locate him on the field, I made my way into the jubilant Red Sox clubhouse. I immediately spotted Beyeler and attempted to maneuver my way over to where he was standing.

Beyeler saw me coming toward him. Holding a “begging to be popped” bottle of champagne, a sly grin formed on his face as he prepared to uncork the bottle.

Seeing that, I quickly drew out my recorder, a gesture that signaled that I was waiving the white flag. I congratulated Beyeler and told him I needed a few minutes. He obliged. I did keep one eye on the bottle just in case, but it remained by Beyeler’s side while we talked.

The search for my story worked out – even if I ended up getting a little wet due to the spraying activity that ensued around us.

***

The story that appeared Nov. 24 about the Woonsocket High football team participating in a mandatory hour-long study hall prior to practice is an example of adults who stand firmly in the corner of today’s youth.

“It was the missing part of a puzzle that made for a successful program,” stated Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, who had a substantial hand in securing the necessary funds to cover transportation costs from Woonsocket High School to Barry Field.

People like Baldelli-Hunt, George Nasuti (Woonsocket High athletic director) and Carnell Henderson (Novans’ head football coach) understand that today’s kids need structure and parameters, hence why the idea of study hall made perfect sense.

“You’re probably tired, but if you’ve done half of your homework already, you have a chance to be good for the night,” said Woonsocket senior fullback/linebacker Francisco Torres about study hall and the definite “leg up” it provided him, a sentiment undoubtedly shared by the vast majority of his teammates.

***

We could probably ramble on, but space dictates we wrap things up. Don’t feel slighted if something wasn’t highlighted. Surely our sports department gave it proper attention when the time was appropriate, and we shall continue to do so when the situation presents itself in 2014.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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