Published March 20. 2014 4:00AM
Southington - Joe Grippo lives on Ocean Avenue in the heart of New London, a city he calls a "melting pot" and in which he's lived his entire life.
Grippo is the head girls' basketball coach of The Morgan School from Clinton, which will oppose none other than New London High School in the Class M state championship game Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena (12:30 p.m.)
Grippo has been to the finals four times, winning championships in 1996 and 2000. He is 545-215 in his career with nine Shoreline Conference titles and has added another 594 victories in volleyball, where Morgan won a state championship in the fall.
Retired from his job teaching math at Morgan, Grippo said at Wednesday's CIAC-sponsored luncheon for the finalists, that he's never considered leaving the city where his dad, Joe, was once the fire chief.
"The house I live in, it was torn down and rebuilt, but we used to live upstairs from my grandparents," Grippo said. "My grandfather was a gardener at Harkness State Park, he kept the gardens, he planted corn. I have very fond memories. I plan on staying there until I die."
Grippo, then, who attended St. Joseph School in New London before attending high school at St. Bernard - he graduated in 1973 - didn't have very far to go to scout New London. He said while the distance was convenient, he wasn't attending New London games just for a day out.
"Against Holy Cross (the top seed, which New London eliminated from the semifinals), what was impressive about that game is that New London was the more inexperienced team, you'd think they'd be the ones to show jitters and it was the other way around," Grippo said. "I have a lot of respect for what they did."
Fifth-seeded New London (23-4) will be making its first state championship appearance against No. 6 Morgan (22-5).
"It's different (to be playing New London), but a good different," Grippo said. "The fact that Kerrianne (Dugan, second-year New London coach has) done such a good job … it's a credit to her, it's a credit to them getting here."
New London senior Lexus Childs-Harris was selected to speak on behalf of her team at Wednesday's luncheon, held at the Aqua Turf Club. She became choked up during her remarks when talking about the Whalers' mental toughness.
"Just saying it, I think I kind of took the time to see where we are and kind of realize, 'Oh, wow, this is making history' and realizing it's almost over," said Childs-Harris, who led New London with 14 points in its semifinal victory last Friday.
The players selected had to provide tidbits about themselves for their introductions.
Childs-Harris wants to be an obstetrician.
"I've always known since I was in kindergarten that I wanted to be a doctor," Childs-Harris said. "Other kids wanted to be ice cream drivers. My mom would come to pick me up and the teacher would say, 'Your daughter wants to be a doctor.' I've always liked to help people, to care for people."
New London junior Deanna McCarvell, asked if it struck home to hear Childs-Harris become emotional: "Kind of because we look up to her. Also, no New London girls' team has ever made it here in three million years. … It's going to be amazing playing on that court where legends played."
Dugan, the New London coach and former Waterford High all-stater who played in two state championship games, is getting married Aug. 30 to Evan Jensen of Ledyard.
Dugan said many of her former teammates will serve as her bridesmaids.
"It's coming up. Pretty soon I'll get back to it. I did a lot before the season because I knew I couldn't do both," Dugan said. "My mom calls every day, 'Kerrianne, I did this for the wedding.' I'm like, 'Mom, it's still basketball season.
"… Friends introduced us. We hit it off. And the rest is history."