Eastern Connecticut Conference football always sizzles with storylines.
If Ledyard, New London, Fitch, East Lyme or Montville aren't challenging for conference or state titles, Waterford, NFA, St. Bernard or Stonington carve storybook seasons from time to time. There are always juicy subplots: Cochran coming home, running up scores, getting into trouble, Fitch winning 50-straight ECC games, Allens running wild in East Lyme, Mignault going out a winner, Montville finally beating New London.
The 2011 season projects as another winner. Six of the seven teams in Southeastern Connecticut's Patch area produced winning seasons last year - two made the playoffs - and look to contend for ECC Division and state playoff berths. The seventh team welcomes a new coach and new confidence.
Patch kicks off the season with the following previews. Patch will cover the season from start to finish. We also invite the public to submit photos and videos of your favorite team after games.
New London also graduated a host of key players from a Class M state final team. Much like Montville, a solid nucleus returns looking to avenge the bitter taste of letting a potential 6th state title slip away in the 7-0 loss to Hillhouse.
Several factors point to a potential return trip to the playoffs. Aside from an overflow of talent, New London exudes plenty of juice with the completion of renovated Cannamella Field. The Whalers will play their full share of home games this year.
The Whalers (10-3 in ’10) return perhaps the state’s best running back in the Kyle McKinnon (1,450 yards, 15 TDs last year). He’s one of several skilled game-breakers, complimented by perhaps the state’s deepest set of receivers: Jevon Elmore, Khaleed Fields, Jason Piontkowski and Doug Henton. Elmore will run the ball as well to take advantage of open field moves.
The Key? Will first-year starting senior quarterback Robert Key allow them to showcase their speed? New London graduated a productive quarterback in Josh Clements, who passed for 21 TDs. The Whalers are also a little thinner than usual on both lines, but return imposing defensive ends in 6-6, 250 pound Voghan Larrieux and 6-4, 235-pound Malcolm Simmons and center Greg Castronova. They will also miss the crunching tackles of two-time All-State linebacker Stephon Dance, although McKinnon and Dom Snell form a good linebacking corps.
Coach Jeff Larson, who is also athletic director, struggled to find an opponent for week 2, leaving the Whalers with nine regular-season games. He's finally landed a partner in powerhouse Greenwich, an eight-time LL champ. The teams will play Oct. 1 at West Haven High.
Patch Outlook: Even if he didn't find a 10th game, Larson would likely make up for it with extra games in the playoffs. If New London can get by Greenwich and Ledyard (Oct. 7) they could be undefeated heading into Thanksgiving against ECC Large contender NFA.
Eighth-year coach A.J. Massengale has given Stonington football a firm identity as a powerful and prolific rushing team.
In the past few seasons, the Bears have produced record running-game numbers (typically 250 to 3500 yards a game) with their signature Double Wing offense. From Zach Wheeler to Josh Whitford to Jim Connelly to Tyler Tavares, 1,000-yard rushing seasons have become the norm for the Bears. Success has followed with four straight .500 or better seasons: 7-3, 8-3, 5-5 and 6-4 a year ago.
Does the Double Wing make 1,000-yard rushers? That theory will be tested now that Connelly and Tavares graduated, taking a combined 2,300 yards and 30 touchdowns to alumni status.
Seniors Bobby Lynch (5 TDs last year) and Brandon Hall have the tall task of trying to replace that production along with juniors Jason Whitford and Cory Candelet and sophomores Harry Calmar and Zach Poirier.
Arrow Johnson, an All-State cornerback as a junior, is the top receiving target for new quarterback, senior Eddie Rathbun. Jay Nieuwenhuis, Jake Schlais, Kyle Woodworth and Nick Silvia are other options at end.
The lines look to be a team strength with seniors Peter Hoops, Luke Brogno, Pete Sieczkiewicz, Zach Wing and Isaiah Perkins returning. Varsity newcomers Emerson MacDonald, Jack Raddack, Ryan Francis, Ian Capozzoli, Nick Galli and Nick Ryan also figure in the Bears' plans.
"We have many new players stepping into varsity roles," Massengale said. "At this point, we are still finding the right combination of players on offense, defense, and special teams to give us the best opportunity to be successful."
Patch outlook: Without any proven skill players, Stonington will be pressed to avoid slipping below the .500 mark. The Bears play a tough non-league schedule, drawing Fitch, Waterford and NFA from the ECC Large as well as Ledyard, Foran-Milford and Westerly on Thanksgiving.
"Our schedule will present challenges each week," Massengale said.
Stonington looks to challenge for the ECC Small along with Plainfield, Griswold and Killingly with Saint Bernard looking for improvement.
The Tyler and Skyler Show is over, closing the most successful three-year run in Montville High football history with 29 wins, three playoffs berths, including one state final CIAC state final.
Yes, Tyler Girard-Floyd (5,200 rush yards, 78 touchdowns, No. 6 all-time in state history) and Skyler McNair (1,800 yards, 25 TDs) have graduated much to the delight of ECC opponents. Only perennial power New London enjoyed the upperhand against the Indians, that is until MHS beat the Whalers in last year’s season opener. This potent 1-2 punch did everything but win a state title for a school that has never won a CIAC football crown.
Let’s not weep for coach Tanner Grove. Montville rolling up points and winning games may not be a thing of the past.
The Indians finished first in the ECC Passing League this summer, showing a dangerous aerial attack and perhaps a shift in focus from the previous punishing ground game of Tyler, now at football factory Milford Academy Prep, and Skyler, at Southern Connecticut.
"We are very excited about 2011," Grove said. "As a whole the team understands that the expectation this season is no different than it has been the past five years, win the ECC and compete for a state championship."
Junior quarterback Nick Clemons, impressive in spot duty behind graduated Troy Nunes last year, is ready to take over the reins. He’ll have one of the area’s most athletic receivers in 6-2 Brandon Johnson, an ECC high hurdling champ, who was the No. 2 target behind brother Robert Johnson, who now plays at Sacred Heart University.
The Indians will likely show a more balanced offense that last year’s 10-2, ECC Medium title squad, which lost to Ansonia in the Class S semifinals. Senior Ken Strecker, who scored five touchdowns at fullback last year, Will Griggs, Tecumseh Champlain and Jeremiah Crowley and will handle the bulk of the running game. Guard Isaiah Holloway may also use his athletic ability in the backfield.
They will run behind a big line, headed by 6-4, 300-pound junior Jake Basilica, an All-State selection as a sophomore. Ruben Diaz, Holloway, Ryan Murtha, Peter Utz, Devin Bedard and Brandon Robertson add quality up front.
Basilica, Diaz and Holloway anchor the defensive interior. Strecker and Champlain will lead the linebacking corps. Perhaps the biggest question mark will be the secondary where McNair was a three-year standout and All-State pick at safety.
Grove hopes the big-game experience of three straight playoffs rubs off on returnees.
"The group may enter this year without household names Like Girard-Floyd, McNair, and Johnson around the state, but this group is truly committed to excellence," Grove said. "Because we know it takes more than one player to win a title, we decided this year our theme is simple 'Every Man, Every Play.'
Patch outlook: Indians have talent to contend in ECC Medium, but the loss of Girard-Floyd, McNair and Co. leaves such a tremendous void of production, reaching the playoffs will be difficult with a tough schedule: opener vs. Watertown, NFA, Fitch, Ledyard.
Colonel coach Jim Buonocore's expectations stay the same no matter returning starters are back.
"Our goals are always the same here," he said. "Win every game and compete for a league championship and state championship. That will never change. The process is day by day and making sure each day we get better from the previous."
It’s hard to doubt a coach who has taken three different programs to CIAC berths in the last 10 years and is 23-9 in three LHS seasons. Ledyard graduated 17 seniors, including All-State lineman Desmond Gray, 800-yard rusher Ryan Pementil, quarterback John Trudel and tight end Nick Polansky, from its 7-3 squad last year. But one returnee makes Buonocore sure this won’t be a rebuilding year.
Senior back-linebacker-kick returner Alex Manwaring projects as one of the ECC’s very best all-around players. He gained 1,000 yards, scored 14 touchdowns and keyed and the defense in a junior year that was curtailed by an ankle injury in the final three games. Keeping the powerful yet medium-sized Manwaring (5-8, 175) will be crucial to Ledyard’s fortunes.
Ledyard has plenty of complimentary offensive weapons with Kasey Flint, Acklee Barber backinup up Manwaring. Mike Spellman and Matt Daggett are rugged fullbacks. Returning starter Slade Baxley, Tom Finney, Chris Turner, Evan Stockman, and Cal Williams are the top receivers. Dallas Smith will play tight end, a productive spot in Buonocore's system.
Running the show will be either junior transfer John Rainey or sophomore Adam Hildebrant. Rainey started at Saint Bernard last year but left after AD-coach Bill Buscetto's controversial separation last summer. He will be the second key transfer at QB after Trudel left Xavier and was outstanding last year as a LHS senior.
Senior tackle Josh Lawrence paces the offensive line along with Bobby Bozym, Darren Alexander, Ben Morales, Cody Wooten and Evan Stockman.
An area of concern could be the defensive line where Gray and Brandon Smith threw their 300 pound frames around to clog up space. Manwaring and Smith return as starting linebackers. Rainey and senior newcomer Derrin Carter will bolster a secondary that returns Baxley as a starter.
"We look to establish a solid run game, and play strong defense and special teams," Buonocore said. "We have a very challenging schedule but are looking forward to putting out a great product each Friday night."
Patch outlook: Despite less than dazzling athleticism, Ledyard figures to battle for the ECC Medium. If Manwaring stays healthy, a Class M playoff berth is possible.
It’s been 10 years since Fitch produced the type of powerhouse squad that Mike Emery made commonplace two two state titles and four final berths from 1994 to 2001. While the Falcons have been good, reaching the playoffs in 2005 and producing winning records, they haven’t been great, never winning more than seven games in a season.
Perhaps this is the year Emery and the Falcons return to glory.
Fitch had its moments last year, beating Montville en route to a 4-0 start. Injuries and inconsistency prevailed as Fitch finished 6-4, punctuated by a one-sided 23-7 loss to Ledyard on Thanksgiving. Riding the talented feet of senior Derrik Baldoz, Fitch looks to rise again in the ECC.
Baldoz, the ECC’s top running quarterback, rushed for eight touchdowns last year, including three against Montville. He has potential to turn a short gain into a 60-yarder as does 200-pound junior back Saffwan Davis, who showed signs of his Groton-Mystic Falcon youth football superstardom with two 100-yard games late last year after a knee injury slowed him early in his career.
Baldoz's running is so lethal, he's moving to slotback to become a constant threat. All-purpose runner-receiver Johnathan Conley will move to quarterback. Receivers Lexus Gordon, Dashawn Frederick and Chris Corum-Giles give Fitch a nice array of weapons. Cody Wheeler, a 6-2, 290-pound senior, returns for this third year as a two-way tackle. He along with tackle Mustafa Johnson, linebacker Mike Siniero and Davis, at rush end, key the defense.
Patch outlook: It's been a while since Fitch had two stars the quality of Baldoz and Davis. The ECC Large is stocked with talent, but the Falcons should contend behind breakouts years from the aforementioned duo.
Despite a playoff-eliminating, late-season loss to Windham, Waterford enjoyed one of its best season in years, transforming from 2-8 in '09 to 7-3.
A strong senior nucleus committed itself to off-season weight training, allowing Waterford to make a similar leap forward to East Lyme's marked improvement from 4-7 to state title berth in '09. An upset win at Ledyard, the first over the Colonels since 1995, kept Ledyard out of the Class M playoffs and put Waterford in position to qualify.
Indeed, Waterford football enjoyed a near dream season, but major contributors such as wide receiver Davonte Valentine, quarterback Richard Purdy, 270-pound fullback Tyrell Robinson, lineman Brian D'Amico and others were among the 17-senior grads now in college.
Waterford's mission now is to prove the 7-3 mark was not simply a peak among a cluster of .500 seasons. Coach Mike Ellis thinks a repeat is within reach.
"We have an experienced team, but with our difficult schedule, we'll have t work very hard to repeat last year's record," Ellis said.
The "Thunder and Lightning" backfield of Robinson and Y-Kim Sheppard accounted over nearly 1,500 yards. Sheppard (7 TDs, 750 yards) is back for his senior year and welcomes his sophomore brother Bishme Sheppard, a former Waterford youth football superstar ready to give the Lancers perhaps the area's quickest set of backs.
Senior Brian Gencarelli, a defensive stalwart last year, takes the quarterback reins from Purdy, a strong leader who developed a nice combination with Valentine. David Zaldivar and Deon Pittman look to emerge as receiving threats.
Ellis envisions a strong defense, where most of the returnees played last year. Linemen Zach Cash, Dave Willox, Dakota Jones and Ivar Wirta, linebackers Baude and Gencarelli, defensive backs John Palladino, Kobey Coburn (4 interceptions) and Y-kim Sheppard all started.
Patch outlook: If Gencarelli can produce at quarterback, Waterford could challenge Montville and Ledyard in the ECC Medium and match last year's 7-3 record.
After a winless season in 2009, Saint Bernard expected to make progress last year. The Saints did improve, but not enough as a 1-9 record caused the dismissal of second-year coach Sean Ladyga.
New coach Scott Cook, a 19-year Montville assistant, inherits some talent which gained experience under Ladyga. The Saints may show more offensive balance than its wide-open spread, and mistake-prone, offense of the last two seasons. One thing is certain, Cook looks for the Saints to establish more of a physical presence.
"You guys lined up against Fitch, which is a much bigger school than any we play, and gave them all they could handle," Cook told the Saints during a preseason scrimmage with the Falcons. "We held our own on the line of scrimmage."
Junior Pete Aldrich and Ryan Leary anchor the offensive line, which could receive a boost from football newcomer, 6-6 basketball player Jared Kobyluck. The Saints return most of their skill players with quarterback Phil Jenkins, the starter now afte sharing time with Rainey last year, and fine set of receivers in Jon Malchiodi, Sean Hurley and Mark McKeon. The Saints have a young backfield with sophomores Kevin Gazlay and Devon Gleason stepping in.
Patch outlook: The Saints could surprise a few teams and win three or four games. Cook will have Saint Bernard play more traditional football than the spread passing attack, which, if it doesn't work, sends the offense to the sideline in less than a minute. Mark Game 2 on the calander: Stonington at St. Bernard Sept. 23. The Saints will face former coach Ladyga, who is back as a SHS assistant.