Mike Sypher: Positive energy drives this tandem

·6 min read

Oct. 13—Windham High football coach Randall Prose was up against it and the fifthyear mentor of the Whippets knew it.

One of his starting ball- carriers was sidelined by the lingering symptoms of a concussion. Another starting halfback and main threat on offense was slowed by an ankle injury.

Their absence or limited impact on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage as well was going to impact Windham's chances of competing with East Lyme on the road back on Oct 1.

What would Prose do? Why, simply sell his gritty Whips on a 'next man up' approach before they took to the field against the Vikings.

And what approach would third- year coach Diane Vampatella of the E. O. Smith volleyball squad take this fall when looking for leaders to take her Panthers to new heights on the court?

Thankfully, proven leaders emerged and made Vampatella's decision an easy one when naming captains of her squad this fall.

And that's why Windham's 'next man up' — junior Victor Mejia — and one of E. O. Smith's leaders — senior Natalie Villanueva — are featured today as the Chronicle's athletes of the week.

" Natalie is an allaround valuable player on both offense and defense," Vampatella said of Villanueva, a captain along with fellow seniors Savannah Tellier and Ashley Lewis for the Panthers. " From the start, some of Natalie's most significant contributions do not always end up in the box score.

" Aside from all the tangible plusses she brings to the team, she also brings intangibles. She's a true leader, both in words and by example, and gives our younger players in the program someone to look up to. She leads off the court as a senior captain but also on the court as a total player who helps us in every single aspect of the game."

Villanueva's court presence produced seven aces, 16 kills and 17 digs in E.O. Smith's 25-19, 25-21, 25- 23 Central Connecticut Conference Patriot East Division sweep of host Manchester on Friday night, a victory that bumped the Panthers to a 10- 1 overall record, including a spotless 6- 0 run in the league.

" As an outside hitter and defensive specialist, I think some of my strengths are bringing energy on and off the court and also having a good knowledge of where to put the ball and where not to," said Villanueva, who took up the sport as a sixth- grader after attending camps and watching her cousins succeed at volleyball.

Villanueva's knowledge of where to put the ball and where not to has produced some eye- popping statistical numbers this season for the Panthers after following a well- charted path to achieving success throughout her career.

" Natalie was a sophomore during my first season two years ago but I had seen her play a bit with the jayvee squad her freshman year when my daughter was a senior in the program," recalled Vampatella. " Natalie was invited to be part of the post-season varsity roster as a freshman, something you rarely see.

" At the start of her sophomore year, we had a very young team with only two returning varsity players but it was abundantly clear during tryouts that Natalie already had a solid skill set and understanding game play so she started as a middle hitter all season."

"As a junior, she moved over to play outside hitter for us and led the team in serving percentage and serve receive accuracy," Vampatella continued.

" As a senior, Natalie continues to hit outside for us as well as anchor our passing and serve/ receive, leading the team in both categories. She leads the team in digs as well, making her an invaluable defensive player."

Villanueva's numbers include a 92.6 percent accuracy rate on service, including a team- high 43 aces, a team- high total of 67 digs and 42 kills at the net, thirdbest on the squad.

Mejia's numbers through Windham's first three games hinted at his potential on offense, numbers which included a 20- yard catch-and-run touchdown reception on a short pass from quarterback Zachary Robinson Smey in a 27-24 loss at Waterford and a 5-carry, 62-yard, 1-TD effort on the ground in a 40- 20 setback against Tolland.

But it was Mejia's breakout effort in Windham's 26- 23 victory at East Lyme 12 days ago that stamped the 5-10, 190-pounder as a Whippet to watch.

" He did a great job, he didn't panic, he stayed inside the seams and waited for the holes to open up," Prose said of Mejia's success while lugging the ball on half (27) of Windham's 54 total running plays and accounting for more than half ( 161) of the total 319 rushing yards by the Whips that helped them eat up 31:53 of the 48 minutes of playing time in their first win of the season.

" He let the holes develop and then he bounced it. We kept telling him that it might not look like it's there at the beginning but just stay patient and they're going to open it up for you."

Victor's parents — Michelle Rivera and Victor Mejia — encouraged their son to strap on a helmet and head to the gridiron when he was 7-years-old. Windham youth football coaches, as well as his future varsity coach, quickly noticed his abilities.

" Victor has been a Windham player ever since he could put a helmet on," said Prose. "He was a halfback all through this year but then he shot up and became a strong young man, quite an athletic fullback.

" He doesn't succumb to the pressure. Coaches call him a gamer and I think his strength is his vision. He plows ahead three or four yards and then he uses his vision. He sees the whole field like a natural running back."

Mejia felt most comfortable in the end zone with 7: 21 left in the game at East Lyme when he took a fourth-and-1 handoff from Robinson Smey and rumbled 16 yards for a touchdown that bumped Windham's lead to 26- 16 over the Vikings once kicker Chase Collins booted the PAT through the uprights.

" Freshman year, I played right halfback and outside linebacker and my sophomore year we had no season due to COVID but we had a passing league where my position was wide receiver and outsider linebacker," said Mejia. "This season, my positions are outside linebacker and fullback where it's a little different than halfback but I did a lot practicing with my coaches and teammates."

The Whips do not play again until Friday, Oct. 22 when they host Griswold at 6 p. m. at Ferrigno Field.

Will Windham's emerging ' Beast' on offense be ready to handle the load once again?

"On offense, I think my particular strengths are holding the football," said Mejia, who models his offensive game after former NFL back Marshawn Lynch. "But I need to practice more with taking my time and letting my lead blockers get to their blocks so I can read the hole and get more yards."

It's a given that when Prose and Vampatella look for more yards and more leadership, they need look no further than Mejia or Villanueva. ...

Mike Sypher is the sports editor of the Chronicle.

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