Carpenter Loved Watching His Seniors Grow
Goalkeeper Xavior Cognata helped the North Branford boys’ lacrosse squad claim its first Shoreline Conference title last year and was ready to lead the team as a senior captain this spring. (File photo by Susan Lambert/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain Jesse Gargano has been a stalwart on defense for the T-Birds during the past several seasons. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
When the North Branford boys’ lacrosse team won its first Shoreline Conference title last year, the Thunderbirds did so with 26 athletes on their roster. As the T-Birds got ready to begin the 2020 campaign, Head Coach Dave Carpenter was expecting to have 38 athletes in his program this spring. However, despite those growing numbers, North Branford’s 38 players were unable to take the field due to COVID-19.
In early March, Coach Carpenter had 31 of his 38 athletes out on the track, going through conditioning. He told them about the potential cancellation of a season and warned them to be “ready for the worst.” Two months later, when the CIAC made the decision to cancel the spring season, Carpenter had to inform his players that the worst had come.
“The hardest part was talking to the team and having to deliver the message of, ‘Your season is over.’ That took a toll on me to get it out there,” said Carpenter. “I reached out to my seniors and my captains and had to tell them, ‘This is it. This season is over.’ It was tough—kids not just losing their season, but their prom, their graduation. It’s heartbreaking for these seniors.”
Despite the cancellation, the T-Birds did everything they could to stay connected, including communicating through Zoom meetings. They also took part in the Wall Ball Challenge, in which teams from around the country posted 20-second videos of themselves trying to get as many touches as possible. Coach Carpenter said that North Branford totaled about 340 touches for an event that allowed his athletes to stay active and “keep the competitive juices flowing.”
The 2020 edition of the Thunderbirds was set to be led by two senior captains in defender Jesse Gargano and goalie Xavior Cognata. Gargano earned a starting spot on defense for North Branford in his sophomore year. Coach Carpenter said that Gargano was always pushing to get better on both the field and in the classroom and that “you couldn’t ask more of a student-athlete.”
Carpenter called Cognata, who was also a captain on the North Branford football squad, “a great leader” and someone who always wore his heart on his sleeve. Carpenter said that Cognata would do whatever it took for his teammates on the field.
Aside from the two captains, North Branford’s roster also featured fellow seniors Nathaniel Raymond and Attilio Avallone, who played the midfielder and attacker positions, respectively. Raymond saw varsity time as a freshman and played on the T-Birds’ top line the last two years. Carpenter said that Raymond would have been “the horse we called on” in the midfield this year.
Carpenter also felt that big things were in store for Avallone, who was going to be one of North Branford’s starting attackers. Carpenter said that Avallone was typically the first one to show up at practice and often the last one to leave.
In addition to coaching the T-Birds, Carpenter is also a coach in North Branford’s Youth Lacrosse program and a physical education teacher at Totoket Valley Elementary School. Carpenter first worked with his seniors when they were eight years old and has seen then mature as both athletes and people since then.
“I taught them in 3rd through 5th grade, didn’t see them in 6th and 7th, and then coached them from 8th grade all the way to senior year. I’ve seen them grow from 8 years old to 18 years old,” Carpenter said. “How far they have come in becoming men and going off to college. It’s a surreal experience for a coach to see. It’s amazing. I love to see that growth.”
Along with his four seniors, Coach Carpenter was expecting to see a leap from many of his juniors this year. Carpenter calls attacker Tyler DiNapoli an “absolute stud” of an athlete and said that he is the best player on the field no matter who North Branford faces. Fellow junior Jamison O’Brien, a defender, has been starting since his freshman year. Carpenter said that O’Brien has stepped up in terms of leadership and was looking to have a big season this spring. Carpenter added that defender Dylan DiMeo is another junior who has stepped up vocally.
Whether it’s the senior class or the junior class, Coach Carpenter said that every athlete on North Branford’s roster played with passion and played for one another all the way until the last whistle of the season blew. Carpenter believes everyone’s positive attitude toward the game helped foster a winning culture in his program. He said it’s a culture that’s been prevalent in North Branford athletics throughout the past several years.
“It starts with a culture and, honestly, I can’t take credit for that. We started in 2014. The 2016 team I had were a ton of hockey players that had been to the state championship twice. They knew how to win,” Carpenter said. “That attitude got passed down from class to class. It’s what is expected. From the hockey teams, the two [state finalist] football teams—the kids just knew the extra work they had to put in the win. They couldn’t get by with the minimum. Having a relationship with hockey and football built the North Branford lacrosse program.”
The T-Birds will be striving to defend their Shoreline Conference title when the 2021 campaign finally gets underway. Coach Carpenter will be looking for this year’s juniors to continue stepping up as leaders when they take the field for their senior seasons. With his connection to the youth program, Carpenter feels confident that the next wave of North Branford lacrosse players will be ready to fill the shoes of the people who came before them.
“Just like this class that is leaving, who were hungry and wanted it, I already see it from this freshman class,” said Carpenter. “I have now coached this freshman class for the past two years. They’re hungry. They do all the right things. Honestly, I don’t think we are going to lose a step. I’ve got 7th- and 8th-graders that are coming to me for private lessons for the summer. We are working now, before we even get into the season.”