By Mike Madera
Special to the Voice
With plenty of choices of where to go for a high school education, several former West Haven High student athletes returned to the scene of where they called home during their holiday break from college. What these and other student athletes did not realize was their college year and sports season was going to be cut short due to COVID-19.
Prior to their return home to West Haven for safety reasons, some former West Haven High School student athletes had a chance to talk about what the high school, its administrators and teachers, and coaches meant to them.
Added to the hard work of the staff and coaches will be a new feel to the school for the upcoming school year when it eventually begins due to COVID-19.
With the state-of-the-art high school project continuing, not only will the academics portion be upgraded with new state of the art amenities and a fresh feel, but the athletic portion will as well.
Along with one of the best athletic complexes in the state, there will be a new gym area, and a state of the art system for the student athletes to work with, including weight room, and a system to video practices and games to promote the student-athlete. Among the list of state of the art upgrades, this system will also allow student-athletes to study film on their own.
There will be team rooms, meeting rooms, and an all-purpose room to help prepare each sport for their seasons and contests. The batting cage will also be state of the art for both baseball and softball, while the basketball court may well have the best design seen in this area.
When talking about West Haven, the city and the school, each cited several different reasons why West Haven High was the answer.
For Mario Kiaunis, Sean Jefferson, Lorenzo Davis, Michael Vitolo, Juan Contreras, Tylen Jennette, and Mekhi Geter, their paths were different, but the way to collegiate success was aided the same.
“I felt a real connection here,” Jefferson said of West Haven High. “The teachers are willing to spend the time and teach you. They are willing to help you. As far as the coaches, they put a lot of time in. The coaches care about you on and off the field. They care about your grades. They make sure you are doing well in school. You want to play for them.”
“They care about you here,” Vitolo said on his break from Westfield State University where he was to play baseball. “It is more than just about sports. They care about you in classes. They make sure you are doing well, especially the coaches.”
While West Haven is a big school, the student athletes felt they never got lost in the shuffle. From the athletic department, to the coaches in the sports they played, to the teachers, and administrators, this returning group says, as a whole, their time at the high school and the guidance they were given has helped shape the start of the rest of their lives.
“I put a lot of personal time in with (coach) Tommy Unger and (coach) Ron Luneau,” Geter, a defensive lineman at UMASS-Dartmouth, said. “They watch you closely with your grades and with sports. They bring you to visits. They check on you. They bring you food. There is a lot that goes on here because they care about you as a person.”
“When I was here, I saw how the teachers were willing to spend time with you,” Davis, a senior pitcher at Lasell College, said. “I learned so much from this school.”
The group as a whole praised how hard you are pushed in athletics as well.
Most stated the perception from those not attending the high school was the student athletes at West Haven were not pushed or worked hard. Each took issue with that perception.
According to Jennette, a freshman strong safety at Wilkes University, that could not have been farther from the truth in the classroom and in athletics.
“They really pushed you,” Jennette said. “In the moment, you may be down by them pushing you, but it helped in the long run. You practiced hard so the game was easier.”
“I felt we had a better work ethic than anyone,” Vitolo said. “They worked you hard here. They put you through the ringer. There were times we had to run after games, but that made us better. We had that work ethic.”
“We worked so hard,” Kiaunis, a junior second baseman at Lasell College, said. “The way they work you is second to none.”
The student athletes raved about the school system and the coaches. While the academics were thoroughly taken care of by teachers and advisors, there were coaches who went the extra mile and really stood out.
The former student athletes also pointed out how some recent graduates had returned to help their alma mater because of how they loved the system and wanted to give back.
According to those who returned on their break, and based by the sports they played, coaches like Ed McCarthy, Rich Boshea, Ron Luneau and Tom Unger made the world of difference.
The group also pointed to all sports at the high school and how each coach cares, not just about the athlete but as a student and person first.
“Me personally, I did not know what I was going to do after high school,” Kiaunis said. “If I played (baseball), I played. But Coach (Luneau) called me and said this is what we are going to do. He went out of his way to help me with visits. If I did not have a ride, he took me.”
“I did not know if I was going to play college baseball,” Davis said. “The offers were not coming in. Coach Luneau helped me find a school where academics and baseball were a match.”
“I told him (Luneau) what I wanted to study, and he went out of his way to help me,” Jennette said. “When there were times I did not know what to do, he went out of his way to help me.”
“Coach Luneau is crazy,” Geter said with a laugh. “Him, Bo (coach Rich Boshea), Coach Mac (Ed McCarthy), they got you ready. They worked you. They are coaches you wanted to play for.”
For Unger, the formula and reasons for success were simple.
“We wanted to prepare them to play in college,” Unger said. “There are times that get tough. But, it is so much beyond sports. You have to get them in the weight room and teach them how to do it properly. It is not just about the lifting. It is about commitment and doing it the right way. That made me the person I am. We want to make them better young men, not just athletes.”
Luneau loves his job. He loves his players. With all that, the West Haven assistant football coach and head baseball coach feels a big responsibility when it comes to students and athletes who cross his path.
“Here’s how I feel,” Luneau said. “The kids put out 100%. As a coach, you owe them something. At the end of the day, there are a lot of coaches who help these kids and want to make sure they are successful in life, not just sports. I get a lot of former players texting me to check in. That’s a great feeling.”
For Contreras, a freshman outfielder at Chesapeake College, going to West Haven and playing athletics took a back seat to his personal experience. Not speaking any English, Contreras felt out of place. That was quickly resolved.
“When I first came here, I did not speak any English,” Contreras said. “They made me feel like family here. The guys on the team taught me so much. They were a family to me.”
Kiaunis summed it up best.
“I have so much pride in this school,” Kiaunis said. “It will always be like that. When you come here, you will always love that.”
Said Vitolo, “I am proud to tell people I am from here. I am proud of the system I came from. It helped me become a better person. It helped me be ready for life after high school.”
The student-athletes are not just focused on athletics as they have carved their career paths as well. Kiaunis is a science major, Jefferson, who plays baseball at Albertus Magnus College, is studying history, Davis and Jennette are both studying sports management, Vitolo and Contreras are both studying business management, and Geter is studying criminal justice.
Luneau was quick to praise all who visited for their hard work as well as the many other student athletes from West Haven who have worked hard and are enjoying success academically and athletically on the collegiate level.
“I am so proud of all of the kids,” Luneau said. “They are working hard and are successful in college. They are preparing for the rest of their lives. Nothing was given to them. That work ethic is going to help them and they will be better for it.”