Waterford - The morning after has arrived for Greg Gwudz, basketball coach at Waterford High, author of the greatest symbolical Never Say Never narrative in the history of high school sports around here.
Seriously. Most of us would have assigned better odds of seeing Elvis eating a bowl of Corn Flakes in Section 15 of Mohegan Sun Arena than seeing the Lancers celebrate a boys' basketball state championship on its floor. Ever.
And yet it was nine months ago on St. Patty's Day that the unthinkable suddenly played to "We Are The Champions" in Neon Uncasville:
The first hoop title in the 55-year history of 20 Rope Ferry Road.
It made for quite the offseason, too. Bows and hosannas. They were even in a parade float. Jokes about how Gwudz single-handedly hijacked the town's estimable baseball and softball traditions. A basketball town now.
But tomorrow, as is its habit, has arrived. The glory has been replaced by the gory: All five starters gone. As Dave Willox, this year's captain, called them: "the big five." And a league awaiting to exact nightly revenge on the feel-good story of 2012. It begins tonight next door in East Lyme.
"Big shoes to fill," Willox said.
Indeed. Geary McLeod, the jet guard. Nolan Long, the big fella. Cory Murallo, Ron Baude and Mike Martin, too. They'll always leave the light on for "the big five." But they're past tense now.
"I've tried to make sure to tell these kids they're not going to be held to last year's standard," Gwudz was saying earlier this week after practice. "I'm not going to point to that banner saying 'why aren't you doing this?' and 'why aren't you doing that?' I learned that very early this season. They'll hold themselves to their own standard. They'll be their own team and be accountable to each other."
One thing they learned quickly on the summer basketball circuit: There's still not much respect out there for the program.
"I have a lot of friends in New London, Ledyard, Fitch ? and they all say what we did was a big fluke," Willox said. "Wasn't supposed to happen."
Gwudz, too, has heard that his coaching acumen will be determined only now upon the departure of two all-state starters.
Funny how the great social commentators among us determine good coaching now. The guy that goes .500 with what they perceive as no talent is a truly terrific mind, doing more with less. The guy who goes 24-2 and wins a state title is a simpleton because "anybody could win with that talent."
This just in: Anybody didn't.
And as we start this season, there are exactly three active boys' basketball coaches in the ECC who have won state championships: Craig Parker, Tony Falzarano, Greg Gwudz. That means when they had a team - or in Parker's case teams - talented enough to win, they won.
It's so much harder than you know.
"I talked to the kids about it," Gwudz said. "I don't care what they say about me. It's not about me. But I'll use it as motivation for the kids. If I'm David, Danny (Martin), I'm mad. Plus, people are telling them now that they're going to be horrible. That's a slap in the face."
Besides, no matter what is said of last season's accomplishment, the banner isn't any smaller. It'll hang in the fieldhouse forever, lasting that as long as the memories do.
"Coach (Francis X.) Sweeney and Mr. (Wayne) Lawrence built this program," Gwudz said. "Mr. (Gerry) Rousseau and Jack (O'Keefe) were legends here. I'm a teacher who gets to coach here and likes to be part of it all. That's enough for me."
And who knows about 2013? You play the games for a reason.
"This is a young, energetic, coachable, funny group," Gwudz said. "They make it fun. It's a big challenge to see how they progress. I want to win for David for the other seniors. I want to see if what we're doing is working."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.