Griffins Rising

Griffins Rising

Pomfret Athletics is looking up.

When the Battle for Route 44 kicked off, the quest for Pomfret’s third championship in as many years was still in doubt. For the better part of the morning, Pomfret and Millbrook had traded wins and losses in equal measure. But as the hours ticked by and the afternoon scores rolled in, you could feel a sense of anticipation building across campus. Volleyball was the final game of the day, and the standing-room-only crowd inside Lewis Gymnasium was growing larger by the minute. When Rosi Martines ’24 scored the final point, sweeping the Mustangs in three straight sets, the Pomfret fans rushed the court in a spontaneous burst of joy.

It was the culmination of a weeklong celebration. During dinner the night before, Head of School Tim Richards climbed on top of a dining hall table, all six foot four inches of him, and said to the gathered crowd, “I’m a lifelong teacher and believe that you should be learning all the time,” he said. “But there is a famous quote about learning more from losing than you do from winning. And tomorrow, I don’t want you to learn a damn thing!”

Tim Richards victoriously raises the Peck-Pulling Trophy for the third consecutive year. 

Started in 2021, the Battle for Route 44 is a day of competition with our rivals down the road, the Millbrook Mustangs. Now an annual event, it’s one of the biggest days on the Pomfret calendar. The competition takes place on the second Saturday in November, with the host school alternating each year. It’s a winner-takeall format that culminates with the raising of the Peck-Pulling Trophy, named after the founders of the two schools.

In three short years, the Millbrook rivalry has gone from a novelty to one of Pomfret’s most beloved traditions. How did this happen? Well, for one, the day isn’t really about sports; it’s about pride. The pride we take in the long and storied history of our School. The pride we take in punching above our weight. The pride we take in being a Griffin. “Athletics is unique,” says Richards, himself a big sports fan. “Whether it’s a country, or a city, or a school, athletics has the power to bring people together like few things can.”

When William Peck founded Pomfret with his wife Harriet in 1894, they brought with them a love for sport. This commitment was solidified by Pomfret’s second headmaster, William “Bull” Olmsted, who, over the next thirty-three years, transformed Pomfret into an athletic powerhouse. One early pupil of his remembers, “Mr. O could be seen most afternoons charging up and down the sidelines, barking orders.”

In those early days, before manicured fields and artificial turf, the boys played on rough meadows lined with ground chalk. Baseball — known as “the nine” — was technically the first Pomfret sport, but it was football — known as “the eleven” — where Pomfret really excelled. Milton was our chief rival. In 1898, Pomfret beat Milton 53–0, a drubbing for the ages. In the winter, the boys played hockey. Ice permitting, home games were held on Paradise Pond. Eventually, the School dammed a new portion of Wappoquia Brook to create a rink adjacent to where Jahn Rink stands now. The last of the original sports to be introduced at Pomfret was rowing. The first shell, nicknamed Milk Shake, was christened on the Quinebaug River in 1903.

Football is one of Pomfret's oldest sports.

As the decades passed and the list of sports grew longer, so did the roster of legendary Griffin athletes. Perhaps the most notable was William Neely Mallory ’20. Mallory arrived at Pomfret in the fall of 1914 as a lanky first former and went on to become the captain of the Yale Bulldogs, where he played against fellow Pomfret alumnus Chauncey Buell ’18, who captained the Harvard side of the football.

Writing in 1985, Julian G. Buckley ’24 shared this personal memory about Mallory. “On the football field, he was the star halfback and a savage tackler. On the hockey rink, he would dash about taking the puck away from everybody and slamming it into the goal. On the ball field, where he was a catcher, he could peg the ball to second base straight as an arrow about two feet from the ground.” There is no doubt Mallory was one of the greatest Pomfret athletes of all time. Tragically, after leaving Yale, he went on to fight and die in World War II. Today, a plaque bearing his name stands behind the backstop, dedicating Mallory Field in his honor.

Since the 1920s, Pomfret has given birth to many esteemed athletes, including tennis pro Peter Daland ’39; golf coach Wally Goodwin ’45, who discovered Tiger Woods; NFL scout Bobby Vega ’01; Olympic hockey player Sarah Vaillancourt ’04, arguably the best female hockey player to ever lace up skates; NHL standout Brian Flynn ’07; and Olympic rower Felice Mueller ’08. These are just a few of the many, many talented athletes who got their start on the Hilltop.

Today, the Pomfret Athletic Department offers twenty-five varsity team options across seventeen unique sports. Our varsity squads routinely compete against the best teams in New England, and in recent years, our volleyball and hockey teams have taken home NEPSAC trophies. On average, Pomfret produces thirty New England Preparatory School Athletic Council honorees each year. Fifteen are recruited NCAA players. But it wasn’t always so.

Back in 2016, football was in trouble. Dwindling interest and a string of disappointing seasons had killed morale and put the program under a microscope. So much so that when the team’s captain, Aidan McGannon, delivered his Commencement address in 2016, he began the speech this way: “I am deeply honored by the trust placed in me to deliver this graduation speech... I don’t think I can do much worse than the football team this year, so I’ll be alright.” Everyone chuckled, but it was far from a laughing matter. Pomfret Football, a cornerstone of the School’s athletic program since 1894, was about to be eliminated.

“It looked pretty bleak,” said then-Athletic Director Jon Sheehan. “We had two options. Cut the program, or join an eight-man league.” By the start of the 2017–2018 season, four pioneering prep schools had signed on to play in the new league: Forman, The Gunnery (now the Frederick Gunn School), Millbrook, and, of course, Pomfret. Eight-man shares the same rules, procedures, and structure as the traditional eleven-man game, but there are some key differences. Eight-man is played on a narrower field, typically 80 yards by 40 yards. Offenses usually eliminate two linemen and a fullback or tight end. Defenses tend to drop two defensive backs and a lineman. With fewer players and more room to run, the games are faster and the scores higher. An average scoring game can reach fifty points or more.

For whatever reason, the new format clicked: On a chilly afternoon in November, Pomfret defeated Millbrook 44-20 in the championship game, capping a perfect season. Seven wins, zero losses. It was the School’s first undefeated season since 1958 and its first championship in twenty-four years.

Mo Gaitán became the first woman to lead Pomfret Athletics.

In the summer of 2022, Pomfret hired Marcela “Mo” Gaitán as athletic director, the first woman to lead Pomfret Athletics. She follows in the footsteps of such legendary ADs as Dutch Brown, for whom the original Brown Rink is named, and Manny Mansfield H ’48, who was Pomfret’s longest-serving athletic director.

A native Minnesotan with almost two decades of coaching and administrative experience, Gaitán came to Pomfret after a stint as the associate director of athletics and co-curricular activities at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Prior to that, she was the program director for women’s lacrosse at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota. “One thing I love about high school athletics is that our student-athletes get to work out all of the world’s tough problems without the real-world stakes,” says Gaitán. “It’s an important part of a Pomfret education.”

No stranger to the world of competitive sports, she is a former member of the Columbia Lacrosse Women’s National Team, most recently competing in the 2022 World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship. At Pomfret, Gaitán is ably supported by Assistant Athletic Director Billy Harrington, Head Athletic Trainer Lauren Jarominski, Assistant Athletic Trainer Mike Waller, and Operations Coordinator Amber Wildes.

“Her work as a prep and college coach, her accomplishments as an international athlete, and her proven track record as an athletics and co-curricular administrator really set her apart from many other talented candidates,” said Head of School Tim Richards in a statement at the time. “We are thrilled Mo is coming to Pomfret.”

Now in her second year, Gaitán has injected fresh new energy into the program, bringing with her a vision for the future of Pomfret Athletics built on three key tenets. The first tenet is a winning mindset, the second is an increased emphasis on athletic recruitment and coaching, and the third is the boosting of athletic pride through sports marketing and event promotions. “Every day is an opportunity for Pomfret Athletics to hone in on these tenets. We have made great strides in two years and will continue to elevate year after year.”

Over the last couple of years, Pomfret has made significant investments in its coaches, players, programs, and facilities. “It really began with my predecessor, Jon Sheehan,” Gaitán says. “He was the one who restored track and field. He was also a member of the group that brought 8-person football to New England,” after three heads of school — Peter Becker from The Frederick Gunn School, Drew Casertano from Millbrook School, and Tim Richards from Pomfret School — first originated the idea.

Last winter, Gaitán announced the girls ice hockey team would join the newest conference in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC). The league, called the Vaillancourt Conference, is named in honor of Pomfret alumna Sarah Vaillancourt ’04, a two-time Olympic Gold medalist and the pride of Canada. After graduating from Pomfret, Vaillancourt played NCAA Division I hockey for the Harvard Crimson, where she was one of the top players in the nation.

“When we were approached with this opportunity, we knew it was something that would greatly benefit our girls hockey program and the young ladies who train day in and day out,” says Gaitán. “The addition of these league games will give us an opportunity to create parity across our schedule, even as we remain committed to the majority of our annual opponents. This change will be a welcome challenge for our program.”

The six conference teams are Austin Preparatory School (MA), Kents Hill School (ME), Northfield-Mount Hermon School (MA), North Yarmouth Academy (ME), and Worcester Academy (MA). For the first time since joining the NEPSAC ranks, the Pomfret girls team are eligible for conference postseason play and conference awards.

Joining the new league is just one in a series of positive developments for the Pomfret hockey program. In 2021, the School invested $3.8 million in renovations to Jahn Rink, including a new state-of-the-art mechanical room, brand-new ice-making equipment, and a new dehumidification system, which has made it possible for Pomfret to keep the rink open to players for most of the school year, from September 1 through April 1. “The new ice on its worst day is better than the old ice on its best day,” said one happy Pomfret hockey player.

Dave Peltz (back row, center) became the head coach of the girls hockey team.

And just this year, Pomfret hired Dave Peltz to lead the girls varsity hockey program. Dave is a Level 4 coach (USA Hockey) with twenty-five years of coaching experience behind the bench at both the Junior and Tier 1 AAA youth hockey levels. Coach Peltz has won a USA Hockey National Championship and has had three Junior Hockey National appearances with several regional and state championships. Throughout Dave’s coaching career, he has led his teams to the AYHL, NEGHL, EHF, and CHC Championships / appearances. Dave has coached New England area teams successfully, earning him a loyal following among hockey families who have now seen numerous players matriculate to Professional, Division 1, and Division 3 college hockey programs. In his first full year with the School, Peltz has already recruited eleven hockey players to join the program.

Pomfret also made waves recently when it announced it would add swimming to its burgeoning roster of programs. Pomfret does not have an aquatic center, but through a new partnership with the local YMCA, Pomfret students now have access to their pool. In the near future, there is a very real possibility that a Pomfret team, or co-op team with Marianapolis Prep, could compete in the New England Prep School Swimming and Diving Association League against other independent schools.

And just this spring, the Pomfret Athletic Department launched its newest sport, Ultimate Disc. One of the fastest-growing sports in North America, Ultimate combines elements of basketball, soccer, and football with significant amounts of running, cutting, and passing. Seven team members playing both offense and defense must move down the field into their opponent’s end zone to score a point. It is a non-contact, self-referred sport that encourages teamwork, sportsmanship, and fair play.

Pomfret added ultimate this past spring. Photo credit: Sasha Green ’24.

While Ultimate is new to Pomfret, it is not new to New England prep schools. The New England Prep School Ultimate League (NEPSUL) was founded in 2001. The Griffin team will play against JV teams in the NEPSUL, including Choate Rosemary Hall and Williston Northampton, as well as some public school teams in the Connecticut High School Ultimate League (CTUL). With a dozen games on the team’s schedule, they have their eye on the CTUL Division II tournament in May. “We are intentionally starting small,” says Dylan Ernst Schäfer, who has previously coached Ultimate at other prep schools. In both swimming and Ultimate, students travel to compete and earn a letter.

Despite these efforts, the School still faces stiff competition from club teams and other top prep schools as more and more students choose to specialize in a particular sport.

Citing market research that shows a competitive athletic program is critical to the recruitment, retention, and overall satisfaction of many independent school families, Gaitán recently chaired a task force charged with developing a vision for the future of Griffin Athletics. The group has been meeting regularly since October, and — though the conversation is ongoing — several priorities have risen to the top, including an increased emphasis on player recruitment, coaching, athletic facilities, and athletic marketing.

This winter, the Athletics Task Force notched its first major win when the Pomfret Board of Trustees unanimously approved adding an athletic goal to the School’s strategic plan, Change Makers and Problem Solvers, affirming the board’s commitment to athletics as a sustained, long-term priority. “Athletics consistently ranks near the very top of student satisfaction,” says Gaitán. “So it’s not surprising that many of our students consider athletics a highlight — if not the highlight — of their Pomfret careers.”

This story first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Pomfret Magazine.

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