The scene has been a familiar one for decades. The hill, overlooking the football field at Trinity Catholic, is often filled on autumn Saturday afternoons. At first glance, the scene is not unique, but look closer and one sees what has defined this tiny school that made a giant impact on athletics over the years.
Gathered in groups sitting in camping chairs or on blankets on the hill were the living embodiment of what made the school special for so long.
Generations of families, all with ties to the school that first opened in 1958 as Stamford Catholic, watching modern teams play, often with another familial link on the field.
When asked what made the school unique, each response included one word: family.
“It was a family atmosphere and it always felt like home,” former football coach and Trinity graduate Donny Panapada said. “My earliest memories are sitting at the old grass field watching my cousins play, or having Tracy Nichols chasing me off the basketball court when I was a kid and I would try to sneak in a few shots at halftime. There are so many great memories.”
Trinity Catholic has closed, its final graduation this past week, and with it one of the richest traditions in Fairfield County sports is no more.
The little school on Newfield Avenue left its mark not just on Stamford and Fairfield County, but leaves behind a legacy that rings out statewide.
While those inside the walls knew the school not just for sports but as a place of education, mentorship and lifelong bonds, to those around Connecticut, it was the athletic programs of the school that were the envy of many.
Panapada would coach the last team to play on the grass of Alumni Field in 2015.
Appropriately, that was the last Trinity football team to make the state tournament when the Crusaders reached the Class S semifinals, losing to Ansonia 31-22.
On that team was tight end Johnny Somers, who was greeted after the last game at Alumni Field by his cousins Timmy and Johnny and his uncle, longtime Trinity Catholic fixture Red O’Leary.
Drew Scanlan graduated in 2015 after playing football, hockey and lacrosse at Trinity.
His brother, Connor, graduated in 2017, ending a nearly 50-year stretch of his family attending the school and being involved in sports.
In total, 14 family members related to the Scanlans played or coached at the school, including FCIAC Hall of Famer Rosemarie Carlucci (Class of 1967, field hockey); Dominic Carlucci (1968, went on to play football and baseball at UConn); Jason Scanlan (1993, All-State hockey); John “Doc” Meehan, who coached JV baseball for 19 years; and Jeanne Meehan Scanlan (1988) who was a cheerleader and came back to coach the cheerleading team.
“There is a lot of pride and a lot of tradition at that school,” Drew Scanlan said. “So many members of our family went to Catholic High. I had some of the same teachers as my father. My brother and I wore the same number as family members. There is so much school pride and pride in being part of the Catholic High community.”
The Meehan/Scanlan/Carlucci clan, the Panapadas, the O’Learys and many others grew up in the Stamford/Trinity Catholic culture, but the family atmosphere extended to those new to the community, as well.
Rashamel Jones came to then-Stamford Catholic in 1991, leaving the comfort of his tight-knit family in Port Chester to ride the train to Stamford every morning so he could attend class.
Jones helped lead Trinity Catholic over Fairfield in the 1993 FCIAC boys basketball championship game, the first title for coach Mike Walsh.
Despite leaving as a school legend and going on to win the 1999 NCAA national championship at UConn, Jones started as a nervous freshman riding the train to enter a school where he did not know a soul.
“From day one they made me feel like I was a part of Trinity Catholic,” Jones said. “There were only a handful of African Americans in the school then. I was coming from Mt. Vernon/Port Chester which is 90 percent African American. They made me feel at home right away and I could just be myself. Just being able to be me made it so comfortable there.”
Jones’ relationship with the school did not end upon his graduation.
He still stays in touch with coaches and teachers he had at Trinity and he always remembers the lessons he learned there.
“As a 15-year-old you don’t understand what’s going on as you’re living it. It all came into view later in life,” Jones said. “Trinity Catholic prepared me for the real world. It was God’s work they did there, believing in young kids and understanding that all kids don’t come from the same walk of life and have different cultures and values. I was able to become who I became because of the relationships I built at Trinity.”
Trinity Catholic had the smallest student body in the FCIAC, an enrollment that became smaller each year as the school approached its end.
From the beginning, the sports programs were a big source of pride at the school.
Defeating Rippowam in the 1966 FCIAC championship game in front of 11,000 at Boyle Stadium solidified the school’s place in the city sports world.
The tradition continued with countless FCIAC and 32 state championships, but it is not only champions who will be remembered at Trinity.
It continued to this past season, as the boys hockey team inspired the state hockey world with their gritty season, all while knowing the school was closing a few months after the final horn.
Playing with a roster of 10 players, six of whom saw the bulk of the ice time, the team won five games and qualified for one last state tournament.
Injuries and illnesses came into play at times, with as few as six skaters and a goalie dressing for several games.
For their outstanding efforts, Trinity was named the 2019-20 CHSCA Team of the Year.
“These kids could have left. It had been a few tough years at Trinity and these kids were watching friends disappear from the school and watching the hockey team get smaller and smaller,” Trinity hockey coach Pete Pinto said. “The only reason we had a team this season was because the kids wanted to finish what they started at Trinity Catholic. They represented the spirit of the school better than any team I could imagine.”
The day the hockey team lost, March 9, the boys basketball team defeated Notre Dame-Fairfield in the first round of the CIAC Division I tournament.
The tournament was canceled before Trinity could play again. The school’s final athletic contest resulted in a win.
Operating with a tighter athletic budget and with fewer resources than its larger public school competitors in the FCIAC, including two in the same city, Trinity Catholic still flourished on the playing fields for decades.
Though basketball, softball, baseball, football and hockey got much of the attention over the years, smaller programs like track, golf and tennis also did well..
One of the most consistent programs over the years was cross country headed up by Ray Lapinski. In his 19 years coaching the team, the girls cross country teams won four state titles.
The school also produced individual champions in track, golf and tennis, often with athletes who competed in other sports.
Chris Gerwig was an all-state hockey player for Mickey Lione, but what many may not know is he was also an all-state tennis player, winning the 1986 CIAC Class S doubles championship with his partner, Mark D’Agostini.
Gerwig also played two years of varsity soccer.
“It was the culture there to play multiple sports,” Gerwig said. “It was a small school and everyone knew each other and everyone felt an easiness to try out for different sports. It just rubbed off on me because I had so many friends there who were great athletes.”
Years later, Gerwig returned and coached the golf team, which won the 2009 CIAC Class IV state championship, and the ice hockey team, which he led to state semifinals in back-to-back years (2008 in Division 2, 2009 in Division 1).
The 2009 golf team was led by Peter Ballo, who was all-state in both golf and hockey.
“I’m so sad to talk about it, to be honest,” Gerwig said. “That school gave so many people so many opportunities.”
Gerwig was the perfect example of a Trinity athlete, shining in a sport other than his primary one.
“We don’t have a tennis program if not for kids like that,” longtime athletic director Tracy Nichols said. “We had a lot of kids playing multiple sports. Mickey Lione was a big proponent of that. Not having kids specialize in one sport but instead have kids in competitive situations outside of their main sport. It was one of the things that made our sports programs so successful.”
That was Stamford/Trinity Catholic in the athletic arena.
Multi-sport athletes, family and tradition.
This fall will be the first time since 1958 that the Green and Gold will not be on the fields of Stamford.
Emily (Robustelli) Kaufman, possibly the best softball player to ever suit up for the Crusaders, was part of another family with deep ties to the school.
For her and hundreds like her, the school closing is akin to losing a family member.
“Trinity Catholic had a tremendous impact on my life and to say that I am heartbroken over its closing is an understatement,” Robustelli Kaufman said. “ I am thankful for all the friendships I made with teammates, coaches, faculty and alumni and truly enjoyed being part of the Trinity Catholic family. I will miss watching TCHS games but will always cherish the memories. Once a Crusader, always a Crusader.”
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