Wethersfield head coach Matt McKinnon addresses his team following practice
Football is officially back! After a year without competitive contact, the boys are fall will soon be exchanging hits and making highlights under the Friday Night Nights. Here’s a preview of what to expect out of the local teams this season.
Rocky Hill: Terriers Full of Athletes and Promise
Head coach Rich Dance is back for his third season with the Terriers. Dance’s first season in 2019 ended at 2-8 and the team was ready to make a big leap in 2020 with a strong group of seniors before the COVID-restrictions last fall.
“These guys have been with us for three years, so it’s been a much smoother transition to start the season,” Dance said of the returning players, “We saw it in the Jamboree we had at Coginchaug, it was a huge improvement with how we started the season a few years ago. The guys are a lot more prepared and they know my expectations and the systems we run here. We’ve been able to get the younger guys further along that might not be familiar with it as well. We’re seeing some consistency out of the players.”
Dance will have first-year quarterback Tyreice Dominique behind center. Dominique has the size and speed to be a dual-threat through the air and on the ground.
“We’ve worked together and he’s work hard on his own to get faster and get his arm stronger. He’s come a long way since he joined us a few years ago,” Dance said of Dominique.
Dominque said that the experiences last fall and throughout the summer gave him a glimpse into what to expect, “7-on-7 gave me a taste of what it is like to play quarterback. Now I feel way more comfortable in the pocket, I feel more comfortable running outside. My teammates always have my back, whenever I’m doubting myself a little bit, they’re there helping me out.”
The first-year signal caller will have some dangerous weapons on the outside in juniors Frankie Guerrera and Alex Peruta. Dance said that Guerrera has “some of the best hands I’ve seen in a long time” and Peruta is equally impressive catching the ball and blocking downfield, calling him a “hybrid-type that can do it all.”
Manning the trenches will be Desmond Connolly, Salvatore Signorello, and Daniel “Gator” Sjoblom.
Dance has also been impressed with Sean Asante, who bulked up in the offseason and is set to play linebacker.
“I think we are very athletic. We have a lot of guys that can run, we have a lot of guys that can catch,” added Dance, “All the guys out here didn’t see a lot of playing time two years ago, but we’re athletic at the skill positions and I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like when we get out there.”
Dominique added, “All my years of football, I’ve never loved a team more. The chemistry we have this year is insane. It’s a good team atmosphere.”
The Terriers open the season at East Catholic (Sat, 9/11 @ 12 p.m.) and return to RHHS for home opener against Avon (Fri. 9/17 @ 7:00 p.m.).
“We’re chomping at bit. The kids are really excited to play,” Dance said of the opener, “It’s a great feeling to be back out here. I told the guys that it goes by in the blink of an eye so enjoy it.”
Wethersfield: Eagles Hungry and Deep
The last time the Eagles were on the field was the 2019 Class L playoffs following an 8-2 season in Matt McKinnon’s first season as head coach. McKinnon’s 2020 squad was one of the most vocal teams trying to save competitive football last fall and return with a chip on their shoulder in 2021.
“The biggest thing is that they are smiling. Their mental health is better,” McKinnon said of the team’s mindset, “With football being taken away from them it did a lot of wear and tear on them and now you can see that excitement is back. Every day in practice, led by the seniors, we have energy out there.”
McKinnon’s field captains are Jeremy Gilbert, TJ Smith, Cooper Moreau, and Holden Speed. The four showcased leadership through last year’s restrictions
“They were very upset about what happened last season. They took out their anger and aggression in the weight room and they could not wait for
this season,” McKinnon said of his captains, “They’ve earned it. They’re vocal leaders and they’ve worked hard. They are really setting the example for other people to follow.”
Wil Bankowski, who starred on the lacrosse fields this spring, will start at quarterback. McKinnon praised his first-year quarterback for in intellect and for being fearless, saying “he’s showing pure toughness in the pocket.”
Moreau is slated to be one of Bankowski’s main threats on the outside.
“Cooper is coachable and has gotten into great physical shape. He went from a lineman to a receiver, and he’s probably one of the best blockers on the field. For a receiver, if you don’t block you don’t play. We don’t care who throws it, catches it, or runs it; the guys blocking are the ones who make the touchdown.”
Smith will flank Bankowski in the backfield and Gilbert will solidly the line, potentially protecting Bankowski's blindside.
Louie Montalvo is a special athlete that will be a dynamic threat at receiver and Andrew Knapp adds a big target at tight end.
Speed will provide leadership on defense as an edge rusher and lead a defensive line that McKinnon said is full of power and potential.
Linebackers Evan Christian and Felipe Lozano will anchor the middle of the Eagles attacking defense.
The defensive secondary, which has always been strength at WHS, will again be loaded with talent with Tanner Healy, Ben Caufield, Ethan Lemos, and Mathyas Nieves leading a deep unit.
If everything comes together, the Eagles could be serious contender in 2021. They open in the road against Platt (Fri, 9/10 @ 6:30 p.m.) before returning to Cottone Field for a bout with Berlin (9/17 @ 7:00 p.m.)
“It’s a little surreal with all the missed time and everything we’ve dealt with since March 2020, but it’s here,” said McKinnon, “I’m going to have to contain myself, which will be tough at times, but I’m just glad to see high school football back and be a part of it.”
Cromwell/Portland: Panthers Ready to Pounce
Head coach Randell Bennett played several underclassmen in 2019, which should pay dividends in 2021.
2019’s team went 2-8, finishing with a character-building 20-14 victory over Rocky Hill in the finale when freshman quarterback Cole Brisson tossed three touchdowns.
Bennett said he thought the team was primed take the next step last fall, “After things got canceled last season these guys worked hard last offseason. They were in football-mode and went right into training. These guys take it so serious, we’re not going to duck any work.”
The lefty, mobile Brisson is back at the helm for his junior season, leading an offensive unit that Bennett said could be dangerous with a revamped offensive line led by sophomore Jack Williams, who is slated to be the starting center and double as a defensive lineman.
Bennett’s most complete unit right now is linebacker, where the Panthers are stacked with three studs. Returning all-state senior Owen Brunk leads a group that includes Teddy Williams and Ryan Rozich. Brunk and Williams are slated to be on the outside and Rozich will man the middle. Bennett said the trio is approaching this season liked they are the best linebacking group in the state after training like professionals in the offseason.
Rozich leads a robust group of talented juniors that includes Alex Hair (RB/LB) and Ben Fagan (WR/DB), and Johnny Beltre (RB/DB).
Bennett also pointed to sophomore Daevyon Lovelace, who will play on the outside, as someone that will standout this season.
The fifth-year head coach has a roster full of position versatility, with players capable of playing multiple positions on both sides of the ball.
“We put the pads on and did a double session practice on that first Saturday. We did tackling drills and then scrimmaged and had the first team offense and took the remaining players and made the best defense we could make. Then we flipped sides and it was a super tight game. The team that was the scout team D was playing like they were playing the Patriots in Foxborough,” said Bennett, “It’s been fun to watch the film. These guys are in-synch and playing really well.”
Bennett has a young coaching staff featuring previous Cromwell/Portland player. Jack Wilson (2016-grad) is the defensive coordinator, Ethan Roy (2017-grad) is coaching the defensive line, and Jack Hemsley (2015-grad) is handling the offensive line duties.
The Panthers open with a pair of road games (Morgan and North Branford) before returning to Pierson Park to take on Haddam-Killingworth (Fri, 10/1 @ 6:00 p.m.).
Newington: Nor’easters Primed for Impact
Like nearly every team in the state, Newington will look a lot different from the team that finished 7-3 and made the playoffs in 2019.
The Nor’easters enter 2021 with very little varsity experience, yet head coach Jason Pace has a hungry, confident team that went toe-to-toe with Amity in a scrimmage last Thursday.
“We came out and it was sloppy. We made some mistakes as far as execution, but we started to play to our ability in the second quarter,” Pace said following the scrimmage, “We’re ecstatic to be out there and having the contact again makes it more real. It was a lot more fun once we started hitting.”
Captaining the team on the field will be Austyn Howe, Jordan Middlebrooks, Donte Cooper, and Shakir Smith.
Howe, who was a deep threat at receiver and filled it at quarterback in the 2019 playoffs, is one of the players with extensive varsity experience and will be shifting back to receiver and defensive back this fall.
Middlebrooks will anchor the interior on both sides of the line and Cooper will be an edge rusher and play tight end.
Pace pointed to Smith, who will carry the rock, as a player that has made great strides in practice, “He has come a long way. Watching his ability to finish runs and on the flip side to play linebacker is impressive.”
Junior Padraig Brown will assume the quarterbacking duties behind center.
“He’s worked tremendously in the offseason to get to the level that he is now,” said Pace, who is entering his fifth season at NHS, “We have confidence in him, and we have other guys that could step up if needed.”
The Nor’easters open at home, welcoming Enfield to Alumni Field (Friday, 9/10 at 6:30 p.m.)
“I don’t think you can approach it like a normal season because we haven’t played in so long and a lot of the players don’t have that varsity experience or much experience at all,” added Pace, “Usually you form an identity at this point and I don’t think we have one yet. I think it will come throughout the season but I know our guys are really excited and they’ll be ready to go.”
Rocky Hill is entering the third season of the Rich Dance-era
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin