FOOTBALL: Along with the games, the spirit of TWIST was rekindled with the 2022 revival

WALLINGFORD – Day two of the Wallingford Invitational Football Tournament was coming to a head by mid-afternoon Sunday at Choate, with all the championship games to be played and the first of the trophy presentations set.

At the front door next to the tournament headquarters, Dave Rodriguez and Sean Stowik, two of TWIST’s directors, were still bouncing with a lot of energy.

“That’s a good sign, isn’t it?” Rodriguez laughed.

“See you in two hours,” Stowik joked.

In two hours, the last of the tournament’s 160 games would be in the books, and TWIST volunteer teams would sweep the Choate campus and all other Wallingford fields used during the two-day event, picking up trash and cleaning the that they could go before darkness fell.

A second sweep would follow Monday morning. Leave a place better than you found it, right? It’s the surest way to get invited back.

“It’s a trust,” as Rodriguez put it, and it’s a philosophy that has stood TWIST in good stead throughout its history, which spanned 36 editions this weekend with a full return of a two-year break due to the pandemic.

Like an athlete returning after an extended absence, tournament organizers had kinks to work on, loose muscles to tone again. But given their experience, they were able to make some inside moves that almost all went out and made a smooth comeback.

“It’s exceeded my expectations based on so many people in new places, and we still delivered,” Rodriguez said. “There were things behind the scenes that we had to move resources and correct, but the public that faces a part, the games themselves and what surrounds them, has been perfect.

“The weather has been perfect,” he added. “The feedback we’ve been getting is phenomenal.”

That comment included this from a woman who works in special events at Wesleyan University: “Your customer service is second to none; it’s off the chain,” she said after noticing Slowik working the front door.

“I was just watching; I was wondering what was going on,” Rodriguez explained. “She said, ‘We paid people at Wesleyan and we couldn’t get what you do at the level you do.’

Rodriguez and Stowik are longtime co-directors with Brian Burr and, for the first time this year, Dave Esch.

Burr’s experience in making game schedules came in handy when some teams were pulled and other teams were added at the 11th hour.

“It was a little tricky because some teams went out late and other teams came in, so we were able to keep the brackets,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a lot of work for Brian, but he always gets it done. And that’s the thing about the whole tournament: there’s just a lot of people involved.”

In this regard, TWIST is looking for more people to participate. Many longtime volunteers have grown up and left, and TWIST needs to rebuild their bullpen.

“We’ve spread ourselves a bit thin, to be honest. We heard it this year. Sean was all out, I was all out, Brian was all out,” Rodriguez said.

“We’re looking for young kids who have time,” he continued. “We have a lot of kids who have played in the league who are here giving, but we need more. You need 100, really, to get everything right. Primary staff, you may only need 15-25, but then you need bodies. You need a lot of bodies to run something of this magnitude. We have set the bar very high.”

Participating teams took note of that bar this weekend.

A coach for one of the North Stars’ teams outside of New York, after losing a divisional championship game Sunday at Choate, told his players, “Look around you; Let’s take advantage of everything. We hope to come back next year that comes and try to win it all, but if we don’t, you’ll never play on fields as beautiful as these in a place as beautiful as this. Enjoy it now.”

“That’s the most satisfying part,” commented Stowik. “That’s why you have a lot of these people who have been doing it for 10, 15, 20, 30 years — when you hear at the end of the tournament, ‘I can’t wait to come back next year.'”

In total, 80 teams played this weekend in 17 age divisions.

There was a group of Rhode Island girls coached by Wallingford Youth Soccer alum Rob Schmitt. It was a team that had made TWIST an annual trip before COVID hit.

The girls, including Schmitt’s daughters, are in high school now, and their school preseason conflicted with TWIST 2022.

Schmitt, whose history with TWIST dates back to his sophomore year, still made an appearance. He served as quarterback at Choate under Holly Francke.

“We kept in touch and he offered to come and help,” Rodriguez said. “He said, ‘I’ll be back whenever you need me!’

The march to 37 would seem to be underway.

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