The art of the “threepeat” usually involves one charmed sports team winning three major championships in a row. But what if three different teams from one same school win three different state championships, all in the same year? It’s not a 90’s TV show plot-line—it’s Hillhouse High School’s 2016-2017 season.
In December, The Academics won the Class M football state championship, shutting out St. Joseph in the last 24 minutes of the game to win 42-21. In February, The Academics won girls’ indoor track states by breaking a 47-47 tie with their final event, a 4:10.89 4×400 relay. And then finally, on Friday, March 17, in front of a crowd of over 8,000 fans, The Academics won the Class LL men’s basketball state championship, defeating East Hartford 78-58. This lucky confluence of events is a big deal: the first triple-win in recent memory.
On Wednesday afternoon, all three teams are invited to the WYBC office to be honored, on-air, by WYBC’s host Juan Castillo. The basketball team trickles in first, slowly taking formation on the couches at the center of the room with long legs splayed, their numbers dominating the room. Next come a few football players, bulkier, sent here as representatives for the rest of the team—“We couldn’t bring all the boys,” laughs Coach Reggie Lytle. “They wouldn’t all fit.” Also notably absent are the women of track—after the girls won states in the indoor arena and the boys came in fifth, both teams immediately began their outdoor season, and are busy competing in another meet.
Today is not the first time many of these boys have sat in this room. Last year, the basketball team was honored here after winning states the first time in years, triumphing over Weaver-Hartford 94-83 in double-overtime. “The food was better last year,” basketball player Byron Breland III observes, in between bites of barbeque chips. Across from him, teammate Tyler Douglas picks the onions off a deli meat sandwich. “Last year they had fried chicken.” (The football team won states this year for the first time since 2012, so the meal options are fresher.)
All the guys know each other, joking about their shared, newfound success. That’s partly because they attend the same small high school in the same small city, and partly because many of them play sports with multiple teams: Derrick Simms, one of the captains of the football team, also does 55 meter hurdles for track, and other football players are absent because they’re stuck at the outdoor meet.
Of course, the camaraderie fostered between different teams pales in comparison to the bonds these boys share within each group. The basketball team likes to call themselves “House Family.” “The House is for Hillhouse, and the family—it’s cause we’re family,” explains Assistant Coach Paul Henderson. “And we don’t just talk about it. We be about it.” Most of these boys have been playing together for only the three or four years they’ve been in high school, but enduring practice together two hours a day, every day, plus playing home and away games, means that “most of the time, they’re around each other.”
The coaches, too, sit side by side in the WYBC lobby, sharing in celebration. “We talk to each other; feed off each other,” says Lytle of the dynamic between Hillhouse coaches. “We all have very different strategies, but we learn a lot. We all try to keep the train going, and get the kids to buy in.”
Everyone gets quiet all of a sudden. A few basketball players have entered the soundproof recording studio, and their voices are being broadcast into the room. When the team’s banter is replaced by the sound of a Hyundai commercial, football players Sims and Billy Oliver reflect on their own win. “We had a winning mentality, but we never take the games lightly,” Sims says. “It was bittersweet, especially as a senior,” Oliver, an offensive lineman, adds.
For coach Lytle, the Hillhouse family and the collective 2017 wins are also particularly significant. He’s been coaching for seven years, and finishing his fourth as head coach, but he also played on the Hillhouse football team back in 1985. That was the year Hillhouse won their first state final; the year they were the best team in the northeast and ranked eighth in the country. “So this was big for me,” Lytle beams. In a New Haven Register article published earlier this week, he considers broader implications of the win. ““It’s big for the city,” he’s quoted there as saying. “I’m just happy for the city.”
Byron Breland slides next to me on the couch, slouched, arms crossed confidently. “He’s famous now,” his teammate whispers, nodding at Breland. “Ask him. He’s famous.” To be fair, they’re all famous in this city—front page news on the local papers and their voices soon to be broadcast via radio, city-wide— but Breland has become a hero around whom the city has rallied especially enthusiastically. “Tell her,” he prods again.
It’s not that Breland is a phenomenal athlete, even though he is—Breland has been playing basketball since first grade, and is now ranked first in the state of Connecticut. No: Breland didn’t score even one basket in the championship final. The star was banned from playing after receiving two technical fouls and being ejected from the semifinal game the previous Wednesday. He wasn’t even allowed to sit on the bench, instead watching from a hotel room television, cheering his team on from afar as they scored 78 points in rapid succession.
He shows me the video of his first foul, when an opposing player jumps up on him and falls to the ground. It’s not clear from the video who’s at fault, but when the referee gets involved, Breland says he got heated and yelled back at him. “I learned my lesson,” he says, nodding his head.
While Breland’s absence could have resulted in fewer baskets, it ended up turning into a rallying point for the rest of the team. They emblazoned the words “Not Me, Not Tonight” on the fronts of their warmup jerseys, reaffirming their commitment to focusing on the game. The backs of their shirts bore Breland’s number, 22. “The kids really came together: it made them stronger, more committed,” says Head Coach Renard Sutton. “We’d already played missing guys, so they were familiar on how to make the adjustments.”
Senior Joe Casperzyk, also called “a star” by the coaches, described the day as quiet; focused. “We knew what we had to do,” he says. Others share his calm confidence. “Well, our plan was to win,” teammate Douglas says, raising his eyebrows. “We were thrown into the fire,” a junior teammate across the room adds. “That prepared us to win.”
Breland is also only a junior, so while missing the final game was a blow, the team can look forward to having him back on the court next year. Maybe by then people will forget the fouls, and focus on his lay-ups. “He has a mix-tape of his shots,” Coach Henderson says. “It’s like hip-hop: his dunks are like a mixture of everything.”
After much convincing, Breland pulls out his phone to show me the infamous highlights reel. Two balls of fire slash across the screen, and then the video fades into Breland dribbling down the court, laying up, swishing. We watch in silence for a minute. He stops and rewinds, last year’s ring glinting a little under the fluorescent lights.
“See? Famous,” his teammate smiles.
When Basketball coach Tyrese Sullivan sits on the couch, sandwiched between a Hillhouse junior and senior, you can barely tell them apart. Sullivan is a young coach, who played for Hillhouse himself before going to the University of Rhode Island on a basketball scholarship. Immediately after graduation, Sullivan returned to New Haven to coach the team on which he got his start. “I bleed blue and white,” he says, shrugging. “Hillhouse means everything to me.”
It’s that same spirit—the compulsion to give something back to the community that shaped you—that Sullivan tries to foster in his players today. In 2014, he started the Sullivan Academy, a summer camp for New Haven children (around 250 boys and girls, ages 5-16) that teaches them basketball skills and life lessons. Everyone on the basketball team works there as counselors over the summer, offering mentorship and support to the next generation of New Haven ballers. “I want them to know that you’re never too big to give back,” Sullivan says.
He means big in both senses of the word. To celebrate their win, the Academics have had photo shoots and radio spots; done interviews for city papers, TV news shows, and Yale publications who herald their success; and will be getting shiny new rings for their fingers. But in the next few weeks, what Coach Henderson is most excited about is their upcoming visit to Lincoln Bassett Middle School. “It’s not a pep rally, it’s a ‘Prep Rally,’” he explains.
Lincoln Bassett students got the highest grades in the state last year, and to recognize their success, the whole basketball team will pay a visit, offer congratulations and help with more test prep and mentorship. “The complaints [in the city] are often that kids aren’t learning. But these kids are learning, and that should be recognized,” Henderson says. “It’ll be the Academics meeting the academics.”
When the last group of players shuffles out of the interview room, and the door shuts behind them, they share high fives, and murmurs of support. And then, together, each team of Academics stands up and huddles in for a group picture.
All three winning teams are done with their respective school seasons, but they’re all looking towards the future: juniors will continue to court and be courted by recruiters, seniors will secure scholarships and solidify college choices. And come fall, the next generation of Hillhouse High School teams will keep practicing hard, keen to defend their legacy.
Coach Sutton doesn’t want to jinx anything, but he’s hopeful for another season of good basketball. “We just play one game at a time,” he says, shaking his head superstitiously at the mention of a possible personal threepeat. “But we’ve got a strong group of kids coming back.”
Assistant Coach Henderson surveys the group of athletes scattered around the room, glowing. “This is their city,” he declares. And today—this year—it is.