Grit and Gratitude: Wrapping Up the Fall Season in Sports

The fall sports season is officially in the books—and it was one for the books. Rivers was the only NEPSAC school to have five teams qualify for postseason play and the only school with  four quarter-final home games.
Although no Rivers team advanced past the semi-finals, it was a season of collective and individual triumphs, growth, and learning. The fall season coaches were thrilled with the teamwork and resilience that unfolded on the fields.
“The fall season was a memorable one,” said Keith Zalaski, director of athletics. Zalaski was out on parental leave at the start of the year, missing the first six weeks of the season, but, he said, “I was able to stay updated through our coaches, players, and the amazing people in our athletic department. I knew that many seasons were off to a great start, and I was able to truly experience it on my first weekend back, with many of our teams at home against Milton.”
The boys’ soccer team (15-3-2 on the season overall) were ISL champions for the first time since 2012 and solo holders of that title for the first time since 2001. With three seniors heading on to Division I collegiate programs, the team was well-stocked with talent. They won an exciting quarter-final match in penalty kicks against Williston Northampton, only to fall to South Kent, the eventual Class B champions, in the semis.
At the outset of the season, success was not a foregone conclusion, said head coach Steve Schechter. “This year’s team battled through injuries and a tough start,” said Schechter. “With a 13-1-1 record in the ISL, we won the league championship for the first time in many years.  I’m incredibly proud of how hard this group worked towards its goals, and with so much young talent in the group, the future is looking bright.”
Girls’ soccer (10-5-2 overall) also made it to the postseason, dropping its quarter-final match against Suffield Academy, the eventual champions. Head coach Susanna Donahue said that, as on the boys’ side, the girls fought through injuries to put together a winning season. “It was a gift to be able to go to practice each day this fall,” said Donahue. “The players persevered through an abundance of injuries to come together to qualify for the NEPSAC tournament. The new players fit right in, due to the outstanding leadership that our eight seniors provided.”
Football (6-3 overall) had its first real season under Coach Randdy Lindsey (he started in 2020 and oversaw a pandemic-curtailed season last fall). The team had its first bowl-game appearance since 2010, battling Dexter Southfield in the Moose Curtis Bowl. Although they fell in that game, the team had much to celebrate in its winning record and positive attitude. Said Lindsey, “We as a team have embodied the phrase ‘We dictate.’ We allowed ourselves to control what we can control, despite having the deck stacked against us. We were a young team that started only two seniors on both offense and defense, and with that we still had the mentality that we were going to compete with anyone that lined up across from us on the field. I am very proud of what these young men accomplished this past season. Their future is bright and I cannot wait to see what they can do next year.”
Field hockey (12-4-1 overall) also enjoyed a winning season under Coach Janna Holmes. The program has been notably strong for several years, winning ISL and NEPSAC titles in 2019, just before the start of the pandemic. This year, they advanced through the quarter-finals before losing in the semis to Brooks, the eventual conference champions. Holmes is quick to give credit to the team’s student leaders.
“Our field hockey team put together another strong season,” said Holmes. “Our success this fall was in large part due to the leadership of our seven awesome seniors. What I loved most about the team this fall was how widespread our scoring was, finishing the season with 10 different players scoring goals. No surprise that Ellie Todd was an absolute rock star for us in the goal and gave us the opportunity to win every single game. The improvements we made as a team throughout the season makes me excited for the future of this program.”

Volleyball (14-4 overall) is a relatively new sport at Rivers, launched in 2016, but it’s already proven a successful program. The team advanced to the post-season, only to fall to Middlesex in the quarter-finals. Coach Chuck Smerlas, in his first year coaching with Rivers, was pleased with how the season played out: “The team was close knit, competed hard all year, and had a fun and successful season.”

The cross-country teams don’t have playoffs per se, but they do compete at the NEPSTA DIII championships. At the New England championships, the boys finished fifth out of 17 teams, and three runners qualified for all-New England honors. Head coach Steve Paluseo said, “This year’s boys’ cross-country team was a pleasure to coach and be with each day, from first day to last. The boys all worked hard and took pride in their effort and performance. Each one of them strove to improve each week, and it paid off.” Paluseo shared coaching duties with Paul Karasch, who added, “To a man, this year’s cross-country team worked hard each week to be faster runners and a stronger team. It was a great honor to join them this season and a joy to watch their race performances improve from race to race.”

Echoing the sentiments on the girls’ side, Coach Jeff Nisbet, said, “The 2021 girls’ cross-country season was a roaring success because of great senior leadership, intense training, and a collective spirit of ‘I can and I will.’ The team members pushed their limits, built their strength, and discovered new possibilities within the world of distance running. By the end of the season, every racer was running farther, faster—a true testament to their dedication to the program, the school, and themselves.” 

As Zalaski noted, this season’s successes were particularly impressive, following as they did a year in which sports were sidelined by COVID. “I was so happy that this group of kids, who essentially missed out on a season last year, were able to come together to create lasting memories,” he said. “You can’t make up for lost time, but our kids put everything into reclaiming that missed opportunity.”

To view fall sports photos, please visit our SmugMug galleries here