By BRIAN JENNINGS
The Blue Knight soccer team got off to a pretty good start during the 2015 fall season in West Hartford where it’s always a tough road game on NW Catholic’s postage stamp field. The Knights already had a target on their back after tying Farmington and beating Simsbury.
NWC took an early lead, but Ryan Burrill singlehandedly turned the tide. After the Knights got on the board, the lone senior captain scored the tying and game-winning goals.
“That win was really important for us,” said Blue Knight soccer coach Dave Yanosy. “If we had given one back there, it could have maybe put us on a little bit of a tailspin. The season could have got away from us and turned into something that was not as successful. But in that moment where we needed him the most, he really came through.”
For four years, Ryan Burrill anchored Yanosy’s team as a varsity player. As a senior, Burrill led the Knights to one of the most successful—and surprising—seasons in program history. Yanosy said that he predicted Burrill’s rise long before his freshman season.
“He was definitely a kid who was on our radar,” said the coach. “He’s grown quite a bit over the last four years. In terms of his physicality, he’s changed quite a bit.”
Burrill’s maturity was hammered out through hard work. The hours spent on the practice field racked up. The limbs began to ache, but Burrill’s will to win never died.
“He’s an extremely hard worker,” said Yanosy. “He bought into the conditioning and weight training that we started to implement over the last couple of years. A big part of his game was free kicks, and he worked tirelessly on those in practice.”
The work paid off by his junior season when Burrill was named all-conference as a center midfielder, but Yanosy had different plans for the star athlete as a senior. Yanosy needed defense, so he shifted Burrill to the backfield. The move anchored the storied run last fall.
“A lot of kids would have balked at that and would have had a hard time, especially with the success he had at center midfield,” Yanosy said. “But he took it in stride because it was good for the team.”
If Burrill was unhappy, he never said a word. Instead, he worked his way into an all-conference and all-state selection. He paced the Knights to one of their best regular season records and into the second round of the Class LL tournament. For his efforts, Burrill earned a spot in the Coaches’ Association Senior Bowl.
“I give him a ton of credit for that,” said Yanosy. “He was extremely unselfish about it and knew that it was good for the team. He bought into it and accepted his new role, really just excelling in a new position. He was a key ingredient in why we had so much success this year.”
With Burrill’s help, the defense held opponents to just 15 goals in 18 games, including six shutouts. Even the offense began with Burrill. The senior captain finished with five goals as a defender.
“He’s got some versatility,” the coach said. “He’s extremely technically skilled. He understands and reads the game well, so he has that tactical component.”
In his 15 years with the Knights, Yanosy said that Burrill’s quality of leadership is truly rare.
“I’ve had some really good captains in the past,” said Yanosy, “but what he brought to the table, in terms of providing leadership, he just did it all. He truly was like a second coach on the field.”
No job was too small. No request was brushed off. Burrill made sure that teammates were ready to go when they stepped off the bus. Coaches never had to lift a finger.
“When I say that he would get the water, he actually would get the water, which is what you don’t really see too much out of your senior captain,” said Yanosy. “He was always a step ahead. He took care of all those little things that go along with having a successful season.”
It’s no surprise that Burrill carried that success into the spring as the Blue Knight golf team seemed to raise the bar every match.
Southington coach Jim DiNello remembers waiting for Burrill at the top of the hill at Rockledge Golf Club in West Hartford during the team’s last match of the regular season against Hall. Burrill had saved his best for last, but his coach couldn’t tell by his expression.
“How’d you play,” the coach asked.
“I played alright,” Burrill said with a hint of a smile.
“He handed me his scorecard, and it’s one of those things that I’ll always remember,” said DiNello. “I looked at him and just said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And that’s just the way he is. He’s just so humble.”
Burrill led the Blue Knights for most of the spring season, but he also led the team when they needed him most. At the Division I championship, Burrill battled flu-like symptoms when he trekked across the fairways of Tallwood Country Club. But he attacked the course like a soccer defender and scratched his way to the top 20 with a 76 (4-over-par). The effort earned him all-state honors in golf.
“He approaches golf a lot like how he approaches a contact sport like soccer,” said DiNello. “He gives no quarter. He is out there to compete on every single hole and match. And he’s not just competing against the other team. He competes against himself, too. He always wants to be better than he was the day before. He strives for excellence.”
Burrill’s performance in the state tournament was no surprise. He also led the Knights during the regular season, shooting in the 30s in 15 out of 16 matches. DiNello credits his fundamentals and his approach. Burrill taught himself the golf swing, and he’s able to make adjustments easily when things go wrong on the course. His success was no accident.
“He has stayed incredibly consistent and has been excellent from day one,” said DiNello. “For him, nothing has changed and it has just been business as usual. That’s what has really led to his success. If there was anything that I needed to say to him over the course of this year about anything regarding his golf game, he would listen and try things. But in his case, there wasn’t a lot of conversation. He’s that good.”
As his strength improved, his distance grew. As a freshman, he attacked the course. As a senior, he overpowered it. And his short game improved every step of the way.
DiNello credits Burrill’s ability to live in the moment, which is what sets him apart from most.
“He doesn’t worry about what happened on the last shot or what could happen in the next round,” the coach said. “And in golf, probably more than any other sport, that’s incredibly important. Ryan’s personality is conducive to excellence.”
For his outstanding athletic achievements, versatility, and leadership, Ryan Burrill is The Observer’s 2016 Male Athlete of the Year.