(Brendan Dowd is back at the helm for Wethersfield)
Cromwell/Portland: New Era, Same Hard-Nosed Attitude for Panthers
Former line coach Randell Bennett takes over the head coaching duties in Cromwell, replacing Chris Eckert. In Eckert’s final season, the Panthers won their first nine games and upset previously undefeated Bloomfield in the first round of the playoffs before losing to Ansonia, the eventual Class S champion, in the semifinals.
Quarterback Bryce Karstetter has his sophomore season cut short by an injury, but he’s back and better than ever following an impressive 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio during his first season under center. The junior signal caller also has his favorite target back in Dianta Highsmith, who hauled in eight touchdowns in 2016. The Karstetter-Highsmith connection will be counted on more this season after the departure of all-state halfback Kristian Sapp, who graduated after amassing 2,000 yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground in 2016.
Captains Matt Wolak and Jack Shauck, along with Kyle Martin, are back to stabilize the offensive and defensive lines, which are coach Bennett’s specialty and were a major part of the Panthers success a season ago.
Defensive dynamo Kittrell Lauray is back for his senior season after leading the team in tackles as a junior and this season he’ll be asked to assume a bigger role in the offensive backfield. Also keep an eye out for seniors Brett Robbins and Liam Coleman, along with juniors Devon Kilham and Zac Cry. All four were productive last year and give the Panthers versatility on both sides of the ball.
The Panthers start the season on the road, facing Vernon-based Rockville on Friday, Sept 8 at 6:30 p.m.
Middletown: No Rebuilding, Just Reloading for Blue Dragons
Since Sal Morello took over as the head coach in Middletown the Blue Dragons have been championship contenders every season, including last fall when they won eight of ten regular season games and outgunned Platt 56-36 in the first-round of the Class L playoffs.
The team’s first priority this season will be replacing the immense talent and production of quarterback Tyshaun James, who is currently slinging the rock at Central Connecticut State University. Defensive tone-setter Stone Belzo could see some time at the helm and junior Jontae Dempsey may be the next in line to head the Blue Dragons potent offense.
Regardless of who is under center, the team may rely more on their ground game behind a seasoned offensive line and the blazing speed of tailback Deshaun Bradshaw, who average seven yards per touch in 2016.
Max Cry, James Johnson, Derrick Vereen, and Osbourne Richards will help pave the way for Bradshaw and the foursome also provides the team a devastating defensive front. Belzo, Nico Cavaliere, and DeAaron Lawrence are incredible athletes that will be protecting the second level of the defense.
Returning all-state kicker/punter Michael Aresco gives the team an added threat on special teams and watch out for Stephen Hill Jr, who could be in line for a breakout 2017.
The Blue Dragons start the season with a bang, visiting rival Wethersfield on Friday, Sept 8 at 7:00 p.m.
Newington: New Sherriff in Newington
The Eric Hennessy tenure in Newington ended with a disappointing 3-7 campaign last fall, which included three straight losses to end the season. Enter Jason Pace, who takes over the head coaching responsibilities after six successful seasons as the HC at Wolcott High.
Pace inherits a roster that is highly motivated with a great deal of experience and talent. Roberto Sanchez split time at the quarterback position as a junior, leading the team with 10 total touchdowns in 2016. The senior will take on an even larger load this season and will again be sharing the backfield with running back Aveontae Frazier, who burst onto the scene last fall with 800 rushing yards and an all-conference selection as a sophomore.
Lineman Damon Stewart, who earned all-state as a junior, is back for his senior season and will again anchor both the offensive and defensive lines. Leading tackler Luke Pappalardo, along with Nick Kerlejza, Connor Brennan, and Brandon Kamansky will shoulder the bulk of the defensive responsibilities.
Also don’t sleep on seniors Cooper Johnson and Carlum Caldwell, who have a knack for making big plays in all three phases of the game.
The Indians aim to make an early-season statement, welcoming Massachusetts-based Chicopee to NHS on Friday, Sept 8 at 6:30.
Rocky Hill: Title Town for Terriers?
Last fall, Rocky Hill won 11 games and came within a bad bounce of knocking off Class S monster Ansonia in the state championship game. Head coach Mark Fritz is entering his fourth season as the main man on the sidelines and is tasked with replacing all-state studs Grant Nieves and Ricky Montalvo, but does have several key pieces are returning.
Senior Danny Cavallaro returns after a full season under center and will again be joined in the backfield by dynamic running back Joe Catania. The C&C TD Factory will be featured even more this season and will have some new faces up front after four of their five starting offensive linemen graduated.
Linemen Anthony Feliciano and Greg Fern are back to solidify a young line and two-way stars Dante Baker, Matt Osgood, Will White and Jack Hansen all have a year of varsity experience under their belts following standout junior campaigns.
There’s a lot of buzz surrounding junior Bellal Matar and sophomore Alex Boutin, so keep your eyes peeled for these diamonds in the rough.
The Terriers kick off their season on the road game against Northwest Catholic, Saturday, Sept 9 at 12:00 p.m.
Wethersfield: Fresh Start for Healthy Eagles
Injuries riddled the 2016 season in Wethersfield, but the team still managed to win their final two games and finish 5-5. The rash of injuries derailed the Eagles chances of a third straight playoff appearance, but it did provide several younger players the opportunity to step up and receive valuable playing time.
Senior Brendan Dowd is back guiding the Eagles offense. Dowd is a duel threat quarterback who started six games and totaled five touchdowns last fall. Junior Craig Elliott, who played admirable as a sophomore in relief before sustaining an injury that put him on the shelf for most of the season, is also back to add depth at the QB position.
Three-year starter Conor Keane and Josh Cronkhite will solidify the line and Ryan Skelly and Luke Saharek will provide leadership and productions on both sides of the ball.
The team also has a large junior class, who dominated at a JV level and got experience at a varsity level due to the injuries last fall. The group, which includes David Colon, Mitchell Quadrato, and Bobby Balesano, are the future of football in Wethersfield.
Luke Kelleher and Rossano DiGiacomo are two more players that should be household names before the 2017 season is over.
The Eagles start at home, kicking off the season with their annual bragging rights barnburner against Middletown on Friday, Sept 8 at 7 p.m.
(Rocky Hill senior Joe Catania aims to muscle the Terriers back to title game)
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin