By MIKE SYPHER
Chronicle Sports Editor
For the past 12 weeks we have featured a number of talented and driven high school student/athletes who have excelled on the soccer pitch, on the football gridiron, on the volleyball court or in the pool.
The vast majority of them were introduced to their respective sport at a very early age, perhaps with a nudge from Mom and Dad, maybe after just interacting with the neighborhood kids.
But Alana Hruska, this weekâ€™s choice as the Chronicleâ€™s female athlete of the week, followed quite a different path en route to success with her RHAM High Sachems on the volleyball court.
Letâ€™s let her coach, Tim Guernsey, tell the story, shall we? â€¦
â€śShe stepped on the floor her freshman year a very tall and lanky basketball kid,â€ť Guernsey said of Hruska. â€śShe had not been exposed to volleyball at that point. She started as a sophomore as an outside hitter for the varsity team and was extremely successful. She was one of our go-to players on a very young and athletic team.
â€śShe decided to play club volleyball that [winter] season and I think it was a huge boost for her physically and mentally as a player.â€ť
How much of a boost? Enough to help Hruska become Connecticutâ€™s Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior last year as her Sachems collected the programâ€™s sixth state championship.
The 6-2 Hruska wrapped up that junior campaign with a total of 550 kills with just 81 errors on 882 attempts at the net. Her 58 aces and 109 total blocks also helped stamp her as the stateâ€™s best of the best as RHAM punctuated its season with a 4-game victory over Farmington in the CIAC Class L state title match with Hruska named the MVP.
So how do you follow up a shining season that included a state title and a host of individual honors? You work harder, play just as well â€” or better â€” alongside your talented teammates and â€” repeat after me â€” bring home another title and more honors â€¦
Hruska contributed 18 kills and a pair of blocks as RHAM repeated as Class L state champions following a 3-game sweep of Woodstock Academy in last monthâ€™s CIAC title match.
Hruskaâ€™s teammate, Anna Barry, a fellow senior, earned MVP honors in the title match with a memorable 23-kill, 2-block performance as the Sachems wrapped up a perfect 26-0 season and collected the programâ€™s seventh state championship.
â€śFinals MVP went to Anna Barry and Alana was so happy and excited for her,â€ť recalled Guernsey. â€śThis is the type of kid she is. She wants others to do well and gives credit where credit is deserved.
â€śNormally she serves and I had another kid serve for her during the final and she was cheering on the bench for Lexi Massey, who was in her place. Just speaks volumes when a kid can step back and understand the team is most important and that it truly does not matter who gets the credit. We we win, we all win.â€ť
Hruska is a candidate to repeat as Connecticutâ€™s Gatorade Player of the Year after a season in which she amassed 600 kills, breaking the program record she established last season. She leaves RHAM as the programâ€™s all-time leader in kills (1,476), third in games played (307) and the all-time leader in points (blocks, aces, kills) with 1,767.
This fall, her Sachems earned a No. 19 national ranking following a 35-1-1 overall record (including tournaments) in a season where RHAM did not drop a single game in its 26 CIAC matches.
â€śShe had one of the greatest single seasons as a junior,â€ť said Guernsey. â€śWe talked about the difficulty of repeating that year as a senior but she stuck to the grind, she kept working hard and improving and she is up for Gatorade Player of the Year again. She was honored as the CT High School Coaches Association Player of the Year.
â€śAlana is an extremely humble individual who is still adjusting to all the attention that she is receiving because of what she has been able to do on the court. She has the ability to take a game over at the net with her blocking ability and is one of the best offensive players to ever come through this program.
â€śI know this is only the beginning of great things to come for Alana,â€ť Guernsey continued. â€śShe has only been playing four years. She is at the beginning of her career and Iâ€™m just so happy for her. She has created some pretty big shoes to fill. The sky is the limit.â€ť
Shaun Oâ€™Connell, a student at Windham Tech who plays a little football for the Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton/Lyman Memorial cooperative program, was sky-high following a perfect 10-0 run through the regular season with his Patriots.
Oâ€™Connell stamped himself as our choice for the Chronicleâ€™s final male athlete of the week honor of the fall season with a terrific performance in his squadâ€™s CIAC Class M first-round state tournament game a week ago against Sports Medical Science Academy/University/Classical Magnet at the Larry A. Pietrantonio Athletic Complex.
SMSA would advance to the Class M semifinals with a 32-29 victory over the Patriots but not before Oâ€™Connell finished with 138 rushing yards on 28 carries, gaining all but 16 of Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton/Lyman Memorialâ€™s total yards on the ground.
The 6-2, 240-pound Oâ€™Connell staked his Patriots to a 7-6 halftime lead with a 2-yard TD run at the 4:55 mark of the first quarter before his 5-yard touchdown scamper bumped the Patriotsâ€™ advantage up to 15-6 just 3:26 into the second half.
SMSA rallied to take an 18-15 lead into the fourth quarter but Oâ€™Connell changed his squadâ€™s lights on the scoreboard once again with his third and final TD of the game, a 1-yard run on the first play of the final quarter that put Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton/Lyman Memorial ahead for the final time, 22-18.
Oâ€™Connell wrapped up his senior season with 1,070 rushing yards on 191 attempts, including 11 trips into the end zone. He also surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau in his junior campaign while collecting 1,015 yards on 176 carries, including 10 touchdowns, after bursting onto the scene at Coventry with 68 rushes for 318 yards and a pair of scores as a sophomore.
â€śShaun is a great kid and player,â€ť Coventry /Windham Tech/Bolton/Lyman Memorial coach Tony Bonito said of Oâ€™Connell. â€śHe has really grown up a lot over the last four years. He never misses practice and does a great job while heâ€™s there. He is a true leader on our team and Western Connecticut, Westfield State and Southern Connecticut have all shown interest in him.â€ť