Front Row (L to R): Jim Czaja, Dan Kolakowski, Robert Fields, Kevin Byrne, Charlie Settino, Bob Fitzgibbons, Tom Piacentini, Ned Lipes, Eric Martin. Row 2: Hal Downing, Rich Cassasanta, Dave Juall, Ron Salerno, Mike DellaRipa, Tom Vicino, Serge Gregg, John Kennedy. Row 3: Jeff Wilcox, John Buersmeyer, Bob Piacentini, Phil Pasternak, Bob Quinn, Mike Bordieri, Tim O'Keefe, Bob Burton, Paul Lombardo. Row 4: Ed Schultz, John Campanello, Bob Mattison, Tom Garafalo, assistant coach Mike Cancelliere, assistant coach Joseph Klinger, head coach Joe Cottone. Back Row Chris Franchi and Tom Lasher
2020 marks the 60th anniversary of the original varsity football team at Wethersfield High School. This summer we detailed the program’s early years, including the initial varsity squad in 1960, and now we’ll take an in-depth look at the 1970 Eagles, who were a young, scrappy and hungry bunch that came together to provide a fifth and final league championship for legendary head coach Joe Cottone. A few of Cottone’s assistant coaches during the 1970 season were former players from the early 60’s teams.
Below is a recollection of the 1970 team written by All-League player on the 1970’s team Michael DellaRipa, with contributions from 1970 co-captains Charlie Settino and Bob Fitzgibbons, along with 1970 player/future WHS head football coach John Campanello, former all-league player/assistant coach on the 1970 team Mike Cancelliere, and Michele Cottone Kriticos.
“Growing up as youngsters in the 1960’s, many of us (on the 1970 Eagles team) would go on fall Saturday afternoons to see the Wethersfield High football teams play all their great players being led by their legendary Coach, Joe Cottone. We all dreamed someday we would play on that same field and win a league title.
Coach Cottone played football at Bulkeley High School, and then at Dartmouth. His college coach, Red Blaik taught football not only to Coach Cottone but also later to a future assistant coach of his named Vince Lombardi (who later would go on to be head coach of the victorious Green Bay Packers in Super Bowls I and II.)
Coach Joe Cottone served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Army Medical Corps during WWII, and then began his career in teaching at Wethersfield High. He started the football program, winning four CCIL (Central Connecticut Interscholastic League) titles in the early and mid-1960’s.
Then, In the opening game in the 1968 season, Conard High School of West Hartford beat Wethersfield, 51-0, a stinging loss that would stay in the memory of players and coaches. That was followed by seven more losses in 1968 and seven more losses to start the 1969 season, a total of 15 games lost in a row.
Throughout the 1968 and 1969 seasons, Coach Cottone always showed us good sportsmanship and inspired his players to “never give up”. The eighth and final game of the 1969 season was won by Wethersfield, ending the 15-game losing streak, and it re-ignited the passion and confidence in the upcoming 1970 team to have a goal to win the CCIL title. Coach Cottone then brought in a weight-lifting machine after the 1969 season and many of players worked out hard in the off-season, preparing to win in 1970.
Unfortunately, in the summer of 1970 after an undefeated pre-season, Wethersfield Coach Cottone became ill for the opening game with Conard High and was hospitalized. On a blistering hot day in September 1970, we took the field at Conard High with a goal to win not only for us, but for our head coach in the hospital. Leading 15-6 In the fourth quarter, with eight minutes to go, our center Jeff Wilcox told the team in the huddle, “this drive now is for Coach Cottone”. Exhausted by the heat, we still gave our 100% then, ran only running plays, got four first downs and ran the final eight minutes off the game clock for a win.
The memory of the stinging 1968 51-0 loss to Conard was behind us. After the game many of the players went first to Hartford Hospital to celebrate with a now jubilant Coach Cottone after he heard the news of the victory over Conard. We all felt redeemed for the moment.
During the next two games our team sustained many injuries to key players which resulted in two tough losses to two other strong CCIL teams. It seemed suddenly our dream was not going to happen.
However, our assistant coaches, Joe Klinger and Mike Cancelliere, both great coaches and men of integrity, held our team together, encouraged and inspired our team to “not give up” and play to win the five games remaining. If we won all five games, we would have a chance at the CCIL title as by this point all the other CCIL teams had at least one loss. Led by our co-captains Charlie Settino and Bob Fitzgibbons, our team chose to rise up to that challenge, many coming back from injuries and doing whatever it took to win the final five games.
We won our next game and our record was two wins, two losses. Then Coach Cottone rejoined the team. We won our next three games and our record was now five wins, two losses, and alone in first place in the CCIL as by now, the two other league teams in second place behind us had a record of four wins, two losses. Our dream of a title now seemed alive again…. but only if we won our last game.
On November 14, 1970, before our final game, assistant coach Klinger inspired us saying “For the rest of your life, you will remember this day”. In that game, after being behind at halftime 8-6, we had a fourth quarter come-from-behind 14-8 win on a 91-yard drive led by quarterback Kevin Byrne and finished our season with six wins, two losses and now our team was alone in first place in the tough CCIL, for coach Cottone’s fifth and final league title.
While coming off the field at the end of the final game, the students and fans in the bleachers shouted, “We’re Number One...We’re Number One”. For most of us, this was the greatest feeling of our lives growing up. Our dream we all worked so hard for, never gave up on, had come true.
Coach Cottone was quoted that day by the Hartford Times Newspaper saying, “I am very proud of this team, they came from rock bottom to top”, which to us was quite a tribute. The Wethersfield Post Headline on the front page said it all…’WE WON!”
In remembering the 1970 season, our team felt coach Cottone and our two assistant coaches, Klinger and Cancelliere, taught us not just football, but how to be successful in life after high school with the values of teamwork, perseverance, hard work and “never giving up”. They instilled in us these values by their example we saw in them.
With a now revitalized football program the next three seasons for coach Cottone were winning seasons, 6-3 in 1971, 5-4 in 1972, and 6-3-1 in 1973. Ironically, coach Cottone’s final game in 1973 was a 12-0 victory over Bulkeley, his high school alma mater.
Then in 1974 Coach Cottone passed away. Our team, as well as all the “Cottone Boys” (members from all the other Wethersfield football teams) were saddened by his death. He will always be remembered as one of “America’s Greatest Generation” by all who were fortunate to have known him.
Our team players stayed in touch with each other through the years after 1970 and in 2003 when most of us turned 50, we decided to get together as a team each summer for a cookout. We have done this for the last 17 years.
In 2011, our 1970 team felt honored to be inducted into the Wethersfield Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame. Our team later held a fundraiser among us and donated a $500 scholarship to Wethersfield High School.
In closing, assistant coach Cancelliere said to us about our 1970 team “You may not have had the greatest players, but you were a great team which played great football together”. And yes, assistant coach Klinger was right, we have remembered November 14, 1970, for the rest of our lives for that was the day our dream came true.”
Following the 1970 season, DellaRipa and Eric Martin were selected to the All-CCIL defensive team for their work on the front seven. Fitzgibbons (running back) and Jimmy Czaja (line) received All-League honorable mention.
Klinger was an assistant under Cottone from 1969-1973, while Cancelliere and Kevin Duffy joined Cottone staff for that one magical year in 1970. Both Cancelliere and Duffy were previously WHS football captains and All-League players in 1962 and 1963, which happened to be the first and second league titles for Cottone and the Wethersfield football program.
After months of back and forth, starts and stops, and an agonizingly prolonged wait for a final decision regarding high school football, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) announced last Wednesday that the controversial sport will not be played this year.
Wednesday’s decision came as another gut punch to the players and coaches.
The CIAC did leave the door open for a potential football season later in school year, possibly during the spring sports season.
“CIAC made every effort to weigh all factors in this decision, including the passionate voices of students, parents, and school personnel, and ultimately made the determination to align its decision with the recommendations of the Governor’s office and DPH to not hold high-risk sports at this time,” CAS-CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini stated, “In conversation with other state associations across the country, it was clear that a key factor in playing interscholastic football was alignment with the opinion of their state’s governor and state health agency.”
As part of the announcement, the CIAC said it will not interfere with any schools or districts that choose to Club football. This muddies the waters even more and leaves coaches and players scrambling in order to put together a season this fall.
The issue with proceeding with fall football was that the Department of Health had categorized football as fall’s only “high risk” sport and would not change that classification despite efforts from the CIAC to put additional policies and procedures in place to make the game safer in regards to COVID-19.
The question asked many times to the DPH is what factors would have to occur to potentially lower the risk factor of football, including vaccines, studies from other states, and time frames.
Despite multiple attempts to get an answer, the DPH has not responded.
Leaving the question, what will or could change this fall with the anticipated return of basketball, ice hockey, and wrestling in the winter?
So for now football is dormant, however all other fall sports are getting ready for competitive action starting in early October.
Here are a few things to watch for as high school sports returns to action.
Cromwell boys are coming off a runner-up finish in the Class SS 2019 Cross Country championships. The Panthers top four finishers, Mark Rodriguez (3rd overall), Connor Daly (7th), Felipe Patinha (14th), and Mike Zocco (20th), were all juniors a season ago and are expected back.
Rocky Hill girls finished third overall in Class SS. The Terriers are losing Elizabeth Stockman, who set numerous records during her time at RHHS, but high performers Maren Valente, Mariaisabel Corcoran, Audrey-Lillian Grant, and Michaela Creevy are expected back. The Terriers have a home meet scheduled with Middletown on Thursday, Oct 1 at Elm Ridge Park.
Wethersfield won 16 games a season ago, including a postseason victory, marking a second consecutive tournament appearance. 2019 All-Conference players Kate Anzidei, Molly Bowers, Emily Messina, and Lorien Touponse will be returning to a team filled with experience. The Eagles open the season at home against rival Newington on Thursday, Oct 1 at Cottone Field and will use the opener to recognize the seniors.
Cromwell boys advanced to the Class S semifinal before losing a heartbreaker in double overtime. The Panthers are losing goal-scoring machine Anthony Caracoglia, but goalie James Grodzicki along with standouts Zach Randazzo and Mason Fox are expected back. The team begins the year with a pair of road games, starting Thursday, Oct 1 at North Branford.
Newington girls won 15 games in 2019, including a tournament game. The Indians enter 2020 loaded with leading scorer Olivia Mullings and fellow all-conference teammates Emily Chojnicki, Alyse Karanian, Alexie Armour, Giuliana Stolfi, and Karissa Zocco expected to be back. The Indians start the season on the road at Berlin on Thursday, Oct 1 and welcome Wethersfield to NHS for a home opener on Saturday, Oct 3.
Newington won 15 games a season ago and looks to build off that success. All conference players Sara Caceres, Erika Paradis, and Amaia Jackson graduated but all-conference Madison Massaro-Cook, who led the team in kills, and Emilia Dugas are expected to return. The Indians will start on the road at Platt on Thursday, Oct 1.
Wethersfield is perennial conference champions and always make waves in the state championships, including a fourth place showing in the 2019 Class L finals. The Eagles again are in great position to win another conference title, led by captains Haley Krawczyk, Libby Rich, Olivia Thompson, and Nadia Baroni. The team starts with back-to-back meets against Newington, Friday, Oct 2 at NHS and Friday, Oct 9 at WHS.
2020 Wethersfield Swim & Dive- Julia Pitchell, Riley Wilhelm, Mia Destefani, Haley Krawczyk, Libby Rich, Emily Wolf, Lindsey Pia, Olivia Thompson, Madison King, Nadia Baroni. Picture- Jo-Ann Campbell
Football players are used to settling differences on the field.
But because of the recent decision by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) and Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH), the local high school players were forced to take their game to streets, or better yet the steps of the state Capitol in Hartford.
Players, coaches, parents, and supporters across the state gathered on September 5 and again September the 9 to protest the recent ruling to shut down the high school football season after the 11-on-11 sport was labeled “high risk” by the DPH.
One of the most well-represented schools was Wethersfield High, who brought over 40 players, coaches, and team managers to the latest rally, which packed downtown Hartford with an estimated 1200 people.
Wethersfield head coach Matt McKinnon was glad to see the support from the entire state, “It’s awesome seeing everybody from all the different teams come together at the rallies. [The players] want to get out on the field. They don’t care who it’s against, they just want to play this game. To see the whole entire state come out and form one big bond for football, it’s just tremendous to see. I applaud all the administrators across the state, all coaches, all players, all communities because we all came together for the common goal and that’s to play this year.”
Senior Rory Stickley echoed his coach’s sentiments, “It’s been cool to see. We saw teams that play in our conference and we’re all standing together for the thing we want, and that’s to play football.”
News of the latest cancellation stung all the football players, particularly Stickley and the other seniors.
Nick Thompson, who made all-conference as a junior, said the players are willing to do whatever it takes to play this season, “I’ve been playing the game for 10 years and I don’t want to have my senior season taken away from me. Honestly, I don’t think it should be just football, we can’t be just singled out. This is our last year to prove something to college coaches to go to the next level to play. They should just be straight up with us, if we’re not going to have a season just tell us. They get our hopes up for nothing and then just tear it right down. It doesn’t make any sense.”
One of the considerations has been to play 7-on-7, which transforms the contact game into a non-contact passing league and eliminates linemen from the game.
This idea has been met with a resounding “NO!” from the football community.
Wethersfield senior Zak Zurzola, who plays receiver and defensive back, knows the importance of having all 11 guys on the field, “We’re not for playing 7v7 because we win and lose with the guys up front. It’s not football without the big guys up front. We win in the trenches.”
“We’re totally against it,” added McKinnon, “You can’t leave your linemen out. The game is won and lost at the line of scrimmage, that hasn’t changed since the 20’s. It’s disrespectful to the kids that it was even brought up. We’re not strapping up to play flag football. We’re strapping up to play real football and hit people. If you say 11 on 11 can’t happen, there’s no other option.”
For many, football is more than just a game. It’s a way of life.
Lineman Samuele Marchio moved to Wethersfield from Italy five years ago.
“Football has changed my life. It’s taught me so much stuff,” said the European transplant, “We became family. As a senior it’s hard for all of us and it’s not the right decision to cancel it like this. At least give us a week and try it out and see if spikes go up or just bring back the decision to play spring football. I don’t understand why we can go back to school but not play football.”
Player’s frustrations stem from the handful of starts, stop, and mix signal they’ve received from the CIAC and DPH.
Admittedly, it’s taken and emotional toll on McKinnon and his staff, “I’m not going to lie it’s been difficult. We made all of our decisions as coaches and players based on August 17th starting football. Emotionally being told three times and then pulled four times, in my eyes that’s ridiculous. As coaches we’re picking up the pieces for the indecisiveness that’s going on. It’s not fair to coaches, it’s not fair for players, and it’s an emotional rollercoaster.”
All other high school fall sports in Connecticut have been given permission to proceed with the season, including volleyball, which was categorized as moderate risk but was given the green light if masks are worn.
Options remain on the table for football, including additional safety precautions, changing formats, or postponing the season to the spring.
Eagles all-conference middle linebacker Marcus Nieves is willing to do whatever it takes to get him and his teammates back on the field, “We’ll do anything. Test before and after, wear the visors, wear the facemasks just to be able to get a chance to play.”
2020 was supposed to be the season that Nieves and his teammates would build off last season’s playoff appearance, and possibly take the next step, “We wanted to get back to where we were last year and get better, and have all the juniors and sophomores from last year step up to fill out those rolls we need. Not having it means that all the younger guys don’t get a chance to show and help the team and they have to wait an extra year to make that happen.”
With each passing day the likelihood of playing this fall get reduced. Football is unique and requires additional preparation to protect against the player’s physical safety.
“It’s at the point now where the guidelines need to be lifted and let us play football,” stated McKinnon, “There’s a whole other side to the safety of football. You’ve got to know how to hit, it’s a violent game. Kids have to get out there and get used to hitting, getting tackled and getting back up.”
“Hopefully this decision gets reverse and we can start playing football. We’ve followed everything since July 6. That’s two month of cohorts, two months of daily forms, two months of different waves, that’s two months of the team being separated. If we’re going to go out there and compete, we need to come back together and play ball.”
Following the latest protest, the CIAC presented additional safety precautions and options to the DPH in a meeting last Friday. The meeting convened after Governor Ned Lamont spoke about the issue at a press conference and urged the two sides to get back together.
The hope is that the COVID-related risk level of football can be lowered to allow the season to proceed.
As on Monday, no changes have been made, meaning Wethersfield and the rest of the football community remain in a state of uncertainty.
“Give us a chance. We understand if the number spike during the season, but all we want is a chance,” pleaded Zurzola.
Stickley added, “Let us play week one and see how it does. Look at the numbers, if it’s safe let’s continue playing. If it’s not, move it to the spring. They didn’t even have a plan to move it to the spring in the first place. They just said no football.”
McKinnon continues to navigate his players and coaching staff through a difficult situation and remains hopeful that a resolution can be reached
“One of the main things we talk to [the players] about is that when adversity hits you, you’re either going to fold or take it head on. We teach our kids to take it head on. For them to put this together and to still come out here hungry and practice shows a lot with this group. This senior class is a very special class. There’s a lot of collegiate athletes that I can see in this class and they need that chance to play.”
“Football teaches people life lessons, it teaches people how to handle adversity, and it’s just a different breed to people. We’re at the point where we feel frustrated, we felt disrespected as football programs across the state. The message we want to say is that we’re ready to play tomorrow. Just give us that green light. If it’s not this fall, we have four months to figure it out for the spring. My main message would be let us play and see what happens.”
#5 Grant Nieves finds an opening as #3 Will White delivers a block during Rocky Hill's 49-15 victory over Avon to open the 2016 season.
The leaves are turning, and the temperatures are slowly dropping. Normally that is a sign that the high school fall sports season is underway.
Unfortunately, 2020 has been anything but normal and the high school football season remains in a state of limbo after the CIAC announced last week that 11-on-11 football will not be played, following a recommendation from the Department of Public Health.
In the meantime, the National Football League season kicks off tonight and all 32 professional teams will have played their opener by late Monday night/early Tuesday morning.
While local football awaits its ultimate fate, let us take a trip down memory lane and look back at the local games and names from yesteryear by revealing the area’s best opening-game football performances from the last past decade.
September 17, 2011: Morales-Antonio Connection Ring Bellringers’ Bell
Quarterback Anthony Morales and wide receiver Michael Antonio took to the skies in the 2011 opener, boosting the Panthers past East Hampton/Vinal 40-24. Morales threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns. Two of those scoring strikes went to Antonio, who nabbed a total of nine passes for 233 yards. Junior running back Derrick Villard gashed the Bellringers with 201 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
The win started a six-game winning streak for the Panthers, who would eventually advance all the 2011 Class S championship game following upset wins over Capital/Classical and Northwest Catholic in the playoffs. The trio of Morales, Antonio, and Villard shined the entire season, all earning All-State honors. The season didn’t end in a championship victory, but the dominant opener and the season will never be forgotten.
Best of the Rest: Karstetter Rocks Rockville, Twice
Cromwell quarterback Bryce Karstetter had back-to-back brilliant performances against Rockville, combining for 494 passing yards and nine total touchdowns in the 2017 and 2018 openers. As a junior in 2017, Karstetter completed 10 of 12 passes for four touchdowns in a 54-20 victory at Rockville and then added four score aerial scores and another on the ground in a 35-21 home win over the Rams in 2018.
In his three years under center, Karstetter led the Panthers to 26 wins and the consecutive openers may have been his two finest performances.
Middletown Blue Dragons
September 9, 2016: Middletown’s Ground Attack Pounds Platt
Middletown ran the ball early and often against rival Platt, resulting in 377 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in a 49-24 season-opening victory in 2016. Quarterback Tyshaun James led the way, tossing a touchdown and running for two more to go along with his 144 rushing yards. Stone Belzo added 77 yards and two more scores on the ground, while Deshaun Bradshaw added 98 yards and another touchdown.
The Blue Dragons would go on to win seven more regular season games before again meeting up with Platt in the first round of the playoffs. The location was different (this time at Middletown High School) but the result was the same. Middletown again plastered the Panthers with 459 ground yards and eight touchdowns, five by James.
After the dust settled, Middletown rushed for 836 yards and 13 touchdowns in the two meetings against Platt in 2016.
Best of the Rest: Belzo Bombards Eagles
Making his quarterbacking debut, Stone Belzo threw for a touchdown and ran 117 yards and two more scores in a 29-12 victory over Wethersfield to open the 2017 season. Belzo carved up the Eagles on offense and also forced and recovered a fumble on the defensive end, which was one of four turnovers created by the Blue Dragons.
Running back Xzavier Reyes added 148 yards on the ground in the win, which prompted a magical season in Middletown as the Blue Dragons eventually completed an undefeated (10-0) regular season in 2017.
September 13, 2019: Newington’s Balanced Attack Topples Nemesis
Coming into the fall of 2019, Newington’s recent history against Windsor wasn’t pretty. The Warriors had handed the Indians four consecutive losses by a combined score of 155-6.
Led by quarterback Nick Pestrichello, who ran for two scores and threw another, Newington got revenge against their nemesis with a 30-22 victory to open the 2019 season. John Amaning Jr did damage on both sides of the ball, controlling the clock with 122 rushing yards and a touchdown on offense and intercepting a pass on defense.
The win was the first of seven regular season victories the Indians, who broke a decade-long postseason drought by qualifying the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Best of the Rest: Hedberg and Young Sizzle Bacon
Newington ate up Bacon Academy 52-22 in the 2013 opener thanks to an immaculate first half led by quarterback Jake Hedberg and running back Isaiah Young. Hedberg tossed for 255 yards and four scores, while Young ran wild for 228 yards and three touchdowns.
The offensive onslaught outshined a solid defensive performance from the Indians, who led 40-6 at the break before taking the gas off the pedal. Senior defenders Christian Zotti and Nick Mamet combined for 27 tackles in memorable home opener.
Rocky Hill Terriers
September 13, 2013: Rocky Hill’s Interior Grounds Eagles
Senior running back Chris Young led a relentless rushing attack, which amassed over 400 yards, as Rocky Hill defeated Wethersfield 39-26 to open the 2013 season. Young ran for 214 yards a pair of scores and Greg Marzilli added 117 yards and another score. The loss overshadowed a terrific afternoon from Eagles quarterback Matt Sanzaro, who threw for 355 yards and three touchdowns.
The win started a magical season for the Terriers, who won 10 regular season games and then walloped Prince Vinal Tech in the first round of the playoffs. The opener and memorable year was a great send off for a terrific senior class and for longtime head coach Dave Coyne, who retired following the year.
Best of the Rest: First-Quarter Fireworks Burns Avon
In 2015, Rocky Hill lost at home to Avon 27-0. A year later the Terrier avenged the loss, de-feathering the Falcons 49-15 at Avon.
Rocky Hill scored five touchdowns over the first 12 minutes before coasting to the easy victory. Grant Nieves scored on a run and a reception, and Joe Catania added two more on the ground. Quarterback Danny Cavallaro tossed two, his second going to White White.
Joe Ferreira and Greg Fernstrom added touchdown runs in the second half as the Terriers started a remarkable run that ended with a trip to the 2016 Class S title game.
September 9, 2016: Eagles’ Defense Smothers Farmington
Wethersfield is known for having an up-tempo, quick strike offenses, but it was the other side of the ball that stole the show during the 2015 season opener. Wethersfield’s defensive unit blanked Farmington 33-0, creating four turnovers, four sacks, and a defensive touchdown.
Junior Chris Cravero forced and recovered a fumble, returning it 33 yards for a touchdown, and Richard Williams tallied a game-high 13 tackles in the victory. Kyle Klavins, who also intercepted a pass, hauled in two of Devon Smith’s three touchdown passes.
The opener was the first of nine regular season victories for the Eagles, who would also chalk up a historic road playoff victory at Torrington.
Best of the Rest: Wethersfield Wins Slugfest at Rocky Hill
Quarterback Matt Sanzaro scored two touchdowns (one passing and one rushing) as Wethersfield knocked off neighboring rival Rocky Hill 17-7 to open the 2014 season.
Richard Williams helped the Eagles control the ball, rushing for 90 yards, and Patrick Mozzicato led the change defensively by harassing Rocky Hill’s backfield with six tackles, three behind the line of scrimmage.
The win would be the first of eleven straight for the Eagles, who completed a flawless (11-0) regular season in 2014.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin