Twenty-four members of the class of 2020 who have committed to continue playing sports in college participated in a signing ceremony on February 10 in the Sabina Cain Family Athletic Center. The strength of the Williston student-athlete experience was well represented in the number and breadth of colleges represented at the signing ceremony. Director of Athletics Mark Conroy spoke to how positively this reflected on the opportunities and support that are available at Williston both in the classroom and on the athletic field. Twenty percent of the senior class far surpasses the national average of 7% of high school students who play in college. As of the close of the school year, Conroy expects that nearly 40 members of the class of 2020 will commit to playing at the NCAA level at all three levels.
Jonathan Toth committed to play baseball for the Muhlenberg Mules in the Centennial Conference. Toth, a middle infielder and short stop, is thrilled to be continuing his baseball career. “I feel extremely excited to be given the opportunity to play at the next level,” he said. “It is has been one of my life goals.”
His coach, Matthew Sawyer, praised Toth’s efforts on the diamond. “Jonathan has been starting in the middle infield for Williston since his freshman year; it is rare for a player to start for four years, and he has played at an all-star level each year,” Sawyer said. “He is a tough ‘out’ as a batter and is a steady fielder. Jonathan possesses a love of the game and a tireless work ethic, a combination that has helped him succeed as a Wildcat and will no doubt serve him well as a Mule too. Not surprisingly, Jonathan will be one of the team’s co-captains for the 2020 season. His all-around excellence will be tough to replace.”
Toth added that as a Wildcat, he’s grown. “I absolutely loved my time here at Williston,” he said. “Over my six years of attendance, I cannot believe the level I have matured, both athletically and academically, with help from all my coaches and teachers.”
Also heading to the collegiate baseball field is Kyle Grabowski, who will be playing in Beverly, MA, for the Endicott College Gulls in the Commonwealth Coast Conference. “Competing in the Western New England Prep Baseball League has given me good exposure to what’s ahead,” Grabowski said. “Endicott has incredible coaches and baseball facilities and I can’t wait to play there.”
Coach Sawyer pointed to Grabowski’s ability to make clutch plays on the field and in the batter’s box. “Kyle has been a positively steady presence who can contribute to team success in many ways,” he said.
Grabowski was selected as both first team all WNEPBL and Player of the Year for the SNE Stealth organization in 2019.
“Williston has helped me prepare for college both academically and athletically,” he said. “The academic curriculum is challenging and I’ve had to develop excellent study skills and utilize time management to navigate the course work and sports programs at Williston.”
It’s not too big a surprise that Caroline O’Connor is headed to Wesleyan to play for the NESCAC-league Cardinals. Her sister has been on the team for the past three years, making it easy for O’Connor to visualize herself on the court in Middletown, CT.
“I could really see my style of play fit in there,” she said. “I’m also excited just to play with my sister again because I think we work very well together. We have that sister connection on the court that allows us to make plays to each other that are hard to match against other players. I grew up playing with her in the driveway so I’ve learned how to play with her and exactly where she likes the ball fed to in the post, so although I only get to be at Wesleyan with her for one year, I think it’s going to work out great for the two of us.”
But sister-connection aside, O’Connor’s credibility on the court at Williston propelled her to this point. Her coach, Liam McMahon, spoke highly of her abilities and effort. “It has been her leadership skills, positive attitude, and desire to be the best version of herself that I have been most impressed with,” he said. “Her passion for the game is contagious and has spread through our team. From the onset of the season, her demeanor and work ethic spoke volumes and it became evident that she really saw her teammates as family. For these reasons, she was appointed a captain. Caroline’s imprint on the program will be felt far beyond her time at Williston has ended.”
O’Connor came to Williston in her senior year, leaving behind her public school, Hampshire Regional High School. Saying good-bye to her friends wasn’t easy, “but I think that as an athlete looking to play at the college level, that this was the best decision I have made for my career in basketball.” She also is a type 1 diabetic, “which overall is definitely the most difficult aspect of my life that I face on a daily basis. There’s things that I have to manage during practices and games to ensure that I can play my best, but it adds a stress that most athletes do not have to deal with. I always keep my coaches aware of how I am feeling. If I need to step away for a bit to drink a juice and fix a low blood sugar, it doesn’t take long for me to be back at it. My diabetes has always been a part of my life, since I was diagnosed as a three-year-old, so I try not to focus on the ways in which it restricts me as an athlete, and instead I just push myself to be the best teammate and player I can be.”
After six years at Williston, Oscar DeFrancis is leaving for Middlebury College to play for the NESCAC-league Panthers, a team he said he hopes will motivate him to be a better runner. “I’m very excited to be able to continue to pursue one of my passions at an even higher level,” he said. His coach, Christa Talbot Syfu ’98 saw his passion develop over the six years he’s been at Williston. “Oscar is a dedicated runner, who just loves to train and compete,” she said. “I’ve loved working with him over the past six years and seeing him become a fierce competitor and passionate runner.”
DeFrancis has posted some impressive times on the scoreboard, but he describes one race when the he learned something important about himself. “My proudest moment on the track was anchoring our 4×400 meter relay at the NEPSAC New England championships,” he said. “This was not my fastest race or biggest win, but because the 400 is not an event I run, being put out of my comfort zone and still helping my team place felt really good.”
He continued to describe his time at the school as helping shape his character. “Williston has really allowed me to be a student-athlete,” he said. “Both my teachers and coaches have taught me a lot about leadership, work ethic, and overall citizenship. Without the connections I’ve made with adults here, I would not be the same person I am today.”
Four-year senior and center forward Aidan Bourbonnais is headed to play field hockey for the Springfield College Pride, part of the NEWMAC league. Her coach, Kate Garrity, said her contribution to the Wildcats will be missed. “Aidan has been an invaluable asset to our program for four years,” Garrity noted. “Her love of, and knowledge about, the game makes her such a great mentor for her teammates, not to mention her speed and skill up on the forward line. We will absolutely miss having Aidan on the field with us next year, but are thrilled she’ll be playing close by so we can go cheer her on!”
A slew of football players are headed to play college ball. Offensive lineman Zachary Mills is enrolling at Columbia University to join several former Wildcats while he suits up for the Lions in the Ivy League. Coach Tommy Beaton is thrilled for Mills, and will miss his skill on the gridiron next year. “Zach had an outstanding season for us this year and was named Honorable Mention All NEPSAC. As one of the best offensive lineman in New England, he was an invaluable member of our team.”
Mills is unambiguous about his goals for the future. “My goal has always been to be the best to have ever played, in a football sense,” he said. “I want to become a legend.”
Fellow offensive lineman Dominik Behrens is taking a short trip to play for the Minutemen at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the FBS Independent league. A native of Germany, Behrens is excited to play at the college level. “In college I want to learn how to be my best self at all times, on the field and in the classroom,” he said. His coach, Beaton, doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“Dom is truly one of the most improved athletes I have ever worked with,” he said. “Coming in as a junior, we weren’t sure what we had with him but he worked himself into a phenomenal football player and will be playing at the highest level for the next four years.”
Henri Bourque has had also had a tremendous career at Williston, according to Beaton. “Not only was he named Most Valuable Player and All NEPSAC, but in my opinion he was the best quarterback in the league,” he said. “Henri is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around and his future is incredibly bright.” Bourque is headed to Merrimack to play for the Warriors in the Northeast Conference—a dream he’s had since he was a child. As for his time at Williston, he said he found it a privilege to attend, “and it is something I certainly don’t take for granted.”
Defenseman Jesse Griggs takes his chops to Bates to play for the NESCAC league Bobcats. Beaton said Griggs, “was the backbone of our defense this year and we greatly missed his presence in the time that he was hurt. He has a nose for the ball and a relentless motor.”
Fellow future NESCAC player Cal Messina heads to Trinity to suit up for the Bantams, fulfilling a goal he’s had since he first picked up a football. As a Bantam, Messina hopes “to be able to give some of their current running-back records a run for their money.” Coach Beaton thinks he’s got a shot. “Cal got off to one of the hottest starts a Williston running back has ever had rushing for an average of over 100 yards and a touchdown each game,” he said. “Unfortunately he got hurt in our fourth game, but his passion and leadership never wavered.”
Gabe Liu will be heading to Tulane, to play for the Green Wave in the uber-competitive American Athletic Conference. “Gabe is a relentless worker and competitor,” Beaton said. “It is because of these attributes that he will be playing FBS football for the next four years.”
The signing is the culmination of years of preparation for Liu. “It’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of mine to play Division 1 football,” he said. “Once I get to college, I know the staff at Tulane has high expectations for the team’s success, so I hope that I can come in and help the team in any way I can. I hope I can just come in with a positive mindset and improve myself and help contribute.”
Liu came to Williston as a junior, and when he arrived, he also picked up a new position. “I played safety for my entire football career before I came to Williston, so the task of settling into a new situation in terms of school and football was a tough experience,” he said. “Through the help of my coaches and such a friendly environment at Williston, I was able to persevere through the tough, uncomfortable moments and make some amazing ones, too.”
When Will Strout thinks back through his best memories of high school ball, one of the finest was blocking a punt during the Wildcat’s first home game during his junior year, in front of a packed house. Strout heads to Bentley University, where he will be a Falcon and play in the Northeast Conference. When Beaton thinks back over Strout’s career as a Wildcat, he sees hard work paying off. “Will has grown so much in his three years at Williston,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of the way he turned himself into a college football player after not receiving much playing time as a junior. He worked incredibly hard in the off season to get to where he is today.”
For Strout, football is one way to earn a degree he’s proud of. “The biggest challenge for me is balancing football and school, making sure I get all my studies done and then concentrating on football.”
Wide receiver and defensive back Junior Laham has spent just one year at Williston, but he’s found people here that support him. “The entire community wants you to succeed and that’s a big help when being a student athlete,” he said. One of his earliest supporters was his grandfather, who coached him early on. “Being able to learn and play the game from my hero was my favorite part of football,” he said.
When Laham was a freshman, he tore his ACL. He wasn’t sure he would be able to come back to the sport. “Junior has overcome so much to be the player and person he is today,” said Beaton. “It is crazy to think that he had eight catches as a senior in high school and eight touchdowns as a post graduate here at Williston. This growth is a direct result of the work that he has put in over the past year.” Laham committed to play for the Holy Cross Crusaders in the Patriot League.
In a change from the more traditional path, both academically and athletically, Connor Cavanagh will attend The United States Military Academy at West Point, where he’ll compete on the gymnastics team. Continuing his already illustrious gymnastics career was “definitely a goal” he always had, he said, and when he set foot on the West Point campus, his path after Williston became clear.
“Seeing West Point and what it stands for—it will make me a better man in the future,” Connor said.
Girls Ice Hockey
Riley Roche, from Chelmsford, Mass., said she’s finally able, with the official event over, to relax and put the stress of the recruiting process behind her. Riley, a left wing, committed to play ice hockey this fall at Colby.
Syd Ewell, from Montague, Mass., will head to Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., where she’ll play hockey. Syd said that when she was growing up, she never could have predicted where she ended up. “I didn’t play until I was eight,” and even then I didn’t think I could actually do something with this.”
Kevin Talbot is heading to Wesleyan to play lacrosse next year. Kevin remembers that when he was younger, he thought the recruitment process would be easier. “Not until I was in high school and playing against top competition did I realize how hard it was going to be.”
Kevin is confident that playing lacrosse at the next level will help him form close relationships right off the bat. “Playing a sport forces you to interact and get to know your teammates quickly.”
Kevin’s teammate, Joe Rees, said he had never picked up a lacrosse stick until he was in eighth grade. “In the spring of my sophomore year, my only goal lacrosse wise was to simply make the varsity team at Williston. I did not expect that a little over a year later, I would be receiving phone calls from college coaches asking me to come visit campus.” Joe will attend Clarkson next year, where he, too, said being part of a team “immediately upon arriving to campus next year will place me into a tight knit group from the start.”
Blake Leveston will take up the stick at Franklin and Marshall College, playing for the Centennial league Diplomats. While at Williston for a postgraduate year, Leveston also picked up playing guitar, investing in the stock market, and a new weight-lifting regimen. He said he wasn’t thinking about college sports until he was sidelined by an injury during his junior year.
“I decided to use the rehab and recovery as motivation for me to come back and achieve something,” he said.
Fellow soccer player Noah Brooks will be a Colby Mule in the NESCAC league. Brooks reflected on his time at Williston as immensely positive. “Looking back, I can only feel immense gratitude to then people who helped me reach this point,” he said.
Nick Heafey, a day student from Northampton, celebrated the continuation of his athletic career; next year he’ll be playing soccer at Brandeis.
Nick said he felt relieved to finally be done with the process, even if the end result isn’t what he originally had in mind.
“I always thought growing up I’d play baseball in college,” Nick said. “Soccer kind of came out of nowhere.”
Nick’s teammate Guillermo Castaneda Chang will tie on cleats to play soccer for the Hobart and William Smith Statesmen for the Liberty League.
Julia Farnham plays soccer, basketball, and tennis for Williston; she’ll take soccer to the next level at Vassar next year. Unlike some of her classmates, this signing event was a lifetime dream realized: she wanted to be a professional soccer player when she was little, she said.
“It’s still the dream,” she added, laughingly acknowledging that she’s ok if that doesn’t pan out. “I’m happy with college.”
Though she’s known her college plans since December, Julia said signing the letter at the ceremony, with her family, coaches, and teammates in attendance, was “cooler than I thought it’d be.”
Tri-sport varsity athlete Dylan Fulcher-Melendy, who will be playing volleyball at Williams College, felt a similar sense of relief. She especially appreciated having her whole family at the signing as well as the coaches of all three of her sports – volleyball, water polo, and squash. “They all shaped me,” she said.