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'Neighborhood' feel at Hartford stretches to our corner of the world

To many folks here in Connecticut, the frame of reference to college sports translates roughly into "UConn, UConn, UConn." And there is good reason, what with Jim, Geno, the banners and the almost patriotic tug that State U has on its citizens.

This is a source of pride to many ... and resentment to others. UConn gets the attention, leaving mere breadcrumbs for the rest of the cattle. That's not going to change. Except this is a story about a school that has taken its breadcrumb and — this week, anyway — has spun it into chicken parm.

All hail "The Neighborhood," otherwise known as the University of Hartford, whose men's basketball program made history Saturday with a conference championship and its first trip to the NCAA tournament. The coach, John Gallagher, whose energy could give Con Edison a run, calls UHar "the neighborhood," for its culture of community.

Our corner of the world has sent its share of athletes to The Neighborhood, many of whom rejoiced over the weekend in their school's newfound renown. The unofficial list includes Courtney Gomez, Jeff Joyce, Ken Turner, Connor Lewis, Allison Reyes, Keyokah Mars-Garrick, Todd Wheeler, Brian Apperson, Dave Deshefy, Josh Yuhas, Olivia Gianakos, Jared Burrows, Laura Guigli, Bob Nenna, Brandon Handfield, Lynn Valentine and Jada Lucas. (Apologies to those unintentionally omitted.)

"I just started texting all my old teammates during the game," said Joyce, an English teacher at NFA and former pitcher at UHar. "Soon, we had this huge string going. We hadn't all communicated like that in years. It really brought us back. The cameras panned to the big set of bleachers behind one of the baskets and we all laughed because we remembered running those things at 5 a.m."

Gianakos, a Waterford graduate in her freshman year playing women's lacrosse, knows whereof Gallagher speaks with the "neighborhood" thing.

"We all friends with each other, especially the athletes," Gianakos said. "When one team wins, we all win. It's definitely a close community. Even though we lost (Saturday in lacrosse) when we found out the guys won, we were all really happy."

Reyes, an assistant principal at Wheeler and a Stonington grad, played women's basketball for Jennifer Rizzotti at UHar. She remembered her old coach Saturday.

"I don't know how many texts I started getting," Reyes said. "Then I got on my phone and was reading about the game. I started to think about when I was a grad assistant in 2001. I remember the last game and losing at Vermont. Jen Rizzotti gave most intense postgame speech ever heard I my life. I definitely agree with the idea of small-time community feel. Especially the athletes. We were really close, rooting for each other."

Lewis was among the most noteworthy athletes in Waterford history. He hit buzzer-beaters in two state basketball tournament games one year apart, pitched a no-hitter and then went 7-for-8 in a Legion doubleheader the day after his dad died. "Connor Clutch" brought some perspective to Hartford baseball. He delivers it here, too.

"We don't have football, so the athletes at Hartford kind of rely on each other to boost the athletic program," Lewis said. "College basketball is so unique. There is something pure about it that you don't get with NBA. A low D-1 is even purer. You don't have guys focused on the next level. It's about what you're doing right now. The success of the collective unit. Seeing a small school have success, especially my school, is so cool to see. That's one of memories I got to have in college. They'll have that memory forever."

Lewis and the Hawks won the America East in his junior year and got to play in a regional at Stetson.

"The memories of individual games, the strikeouts, your good outings/bad outings fade," Lewis said. "Being with the team on the field and celebrating, those stay with you forever. The basketball guys will always have that."

UHar's story, while plenty uplifting, also provides a cautionary tale the next time somebody from academia (or anywhere else) harrumphs about the significance of sports on campus. Any campus. Here is one basketball game whose energies ran like a current to all the alums, who for one afternoon, were back with their friends telling all the fish stories again, as if they'd never left.

Turns out that Mr. Rogers' old question — "Who are the people in your neighborhood?" — got answered all over the country Saturday by a euphoric bunch of old Hartford Hawks. And we learn all over again that sports are the one campus entity that just won't allow you to graduate.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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