By John Goralski
With every gulp of air,
clawed a few inches closer to the lead. With every plunge below the surface, her kicks drove her toward the front of the pack. Her injured leg screamed in pain with every stroke. Her lungs burned with every breath, but the Lady Knight senior was focused on just one thing: winning a CCC West swimming title.
Almost four months have passed since that conference race, but Lady Knight swim coach Evan Tuttle can still replay each stroke in his mind.
“She just continued to tough it out the whole race, and Berlin’s top girl was actually seeded higher than Laurel,” he said. “When you’re trailing for three of the four laps, it’s easy to go into that last one thinking that you already had a good run. She went into it knowing that there was no way that she was going to let that other girl get the title.”
Tuttle credits Dean’s willpower as the single motivating factor in the race. He credits her stamina, her stubbornness, and her competitive spirit. Berlin’s swimmer came into the race as the favorite. For three laps, she out-distanced herself from the pack, but nobody told Dean that she didn’t have a chance to win.
On her final lunge at the wall, Dean captured the conference title.
“It’s not just her ability. It’s her work ethic, her attitude, and her character,” said Tuttle. “Laurel’s just an extraordinary athlete.”
Few athletes can compare to Southington’s iron-willed champion, and anybody that dares to try quickly finds that out. For four years Dean has battled in the water, on the grass, or the artificial turf. It didn’t matter where the competition was held, Dean was going to give her all. That race at the conference finals was just one example of Dean’s competitiveness in battle.
“She’s just a beast. She’s fit. She’s strong, and it’s crazy,” said Lady Knight lacrosse coach Jill Pomposi. “Laurel’s just an athlete. She’s on of those girls that, if you’re just starting a lacrosse program, you’d find at a soccer practice. She’d be the one that you’d want to get for your team. She’s just an athlete.”
It didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. From the moment that she showed up for her first practices, both coaches knew that Dean was going to be a superstar. Tuttle said that he recognized her as a future captain by the way that she carried herself at her day of tryouts. But talk about potential soon became a discussion about performance as Dean began to out-distance upperclassmen and seasoned veteran swimmers right off the bat.
In her freshman year, Dean finished in the top 20 at the Class LL finals in two different relays and an individual race. The following year, she clawed herself into the top 10 as a member of two relays and finished 12th in the breaststroke. Then came her junior season when Dean launched herself into the state open, and the records began to fall.
First, she broke the benchmark in the 100 breaststroke. Then, she went on to capture the 100 freestyle record the following year. By the time that she reached her second state open as a senior, Dean was the clear favorite in almost any race that she entered as she clawed her way into the state opens in two different events.
“She’s one of the best that this program has ever had. In my tenure, there’s no other athlete that’s seen as many state open berths or as many school records,” said Tuttle. “She didn’t always have the most conventional of strokes, but she was just so strong it didn’t matter. She was good at everything. Backstroke was probably her weakest stroke, but I’d put her in there and still be confident that she’d win. She was so strong physically and mentally. When she matches up against somebody in the pool, she knows that she’s going to win.”
But Dean wasn’t only focused on herself. Tuttle said that she brushed off the spotlight to focus on her teammates, and as a captain devoted just as much time to her relay teams as she did to her individual events, but it didn’t end when she dried herself off at the edge of the pool.
In the spring Dean immersed herself into Southington’s midfield for lacrosse, and she seemed just as happy outside of the headlines while teammates broke scoring records. Dean was at home in the middle of the field, leading the team in transition or dropping back to defense in order to stifle an opposing scorer.
She seemed to shift seamlessly from lefty to righty as she weaved her way through defenders, and she used her strength to push through double teams and occasional faceoffs.
“She was the one setting up the plays. She was kind of like a guard in basketball. She might not be scoring all the time, but she’s the one making the picks, moving the ball, moving herself, and helping us in transition,” Pomposi said. “She did whatever I asked her to do, but she isn’t the kind of girl that’s only happy taking ridiculous shots. She knew her role was to transition and anchor everybody emotionally, and she was so good at it.”
Her aggressive play at midfield sometimes drew the attention of officials, but that was a role that Dean also embraced. Over four seasons, Dean manhandled, outmuscled, and overwhelmed everyone she faced.
“She was so determined, and the girls really looked up to her,” Pomposi said. “She is usually the aggressive one in any situation, but she plays a lot outside of Southington during the off-season, and you can sometimes get away with calls that you can’t get away with in the CIAC. She was always bigger and stronger than everybody else, and sometimes her size was detrimental.”
Her ability to battle physically was one of the things that drew the attention of college scouts. Even though Dean is known as a swimmer to Southington fans, she will play lacrosse at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) next spring, and Pomposi expects her to hit the ground running.
“She is used to playing against players of that caliber, and her fitness is huge,” said the coach. “She’ll be one of a few freshmen that will be ready for the weight room when they start preseason stuff in September. With her aggressive mentality, she’ll make a difference right away.”
In the Class of 2014, Dean set the standard. She was one of just a few multisport athletes, and she was one of the dominant players in each of her varsity seasons. She worked her way into a captain role on both teams because of her commitment to herself, her teammates, and the program.
For her outstanding athletic achievements, versatility, and leadership, Laurel Dean is The Observer’s 2014 Female
Athlete of the Year, but that’s no surprise to fans and coaches.
“She could have been a good choice for Athlete of the Year this year, last year, or the year before that,” said Tuttle. “She did it the right way. She was at the top of her sport because she worked hard. She had the ability, but she also did everything she could to make sure that she was the best at all times.”
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