Cromwell/Portland head coach Randell Bennett with Justin Stergos, Marc Dufresne, Matt Pepe, and Harry Deane
It wasn’t an easy year for the Cromwell/Portland football team. They lost a dynamic senior class following a playoff appearance a season ago, leaving a roster full of youth, and then the injury bug hit.
The perfect storm led to eight consecutive losses, prior to a season-ending 20-14 victory over Rocky Hill to win their second straight Shunpike Showdown last Wednesday night at Pierson Park.
Despite an overall 2-8 record, head coach Randell Bennett focused on the long-term benefits of a season full of growing pains.
“We’ve made progress every week. I think a lot of the players didn’t know what high school football really meant, especially here. We kind of have a college approach, where you’re watching film and getting critiqued on every little aspect of your game. At first there was a shock with the guys coming in,” said Bennett.
2019 started with a 3-0 win over Haddam-Killingworth, thanks to a field goal from kicker/punter Matt Pepe, who also played safety and wide receiver.
The season-opening win came at a cost as starting quarterback Cam Latronica when down with an injury on the first series, forcing freshman Cole Brisson behind center.
“I said to him before the first game ‘be ready because you never know when we’ll have to go to you’ and then the second play of the game he had to go in there,” recalled Bennett, who made the decision to stick with Brisson, “He’s stood in there and has taken some hits, we’ve got a young line. He’s grown every week, he’s made some checks in games, it’s all stuff that we love to see out of our young quarterback.”
Brisson assumed the vacated spot held by three-year starter Bryce Karstetter, who guided the Panthers to 28 wins and two playoff appearances during his time at CHS.
“Every time we play a team, we watch last year’s film and he’s able to watch Bryce. It’s like big brother-little brother. He knows the shoes he’s trying to fill but he doesn’t shy away from that at all. He’s got some traits that are similar to Bryce, like scrambling and finding guys. He’s grown a lot this year and I’m excited to see what he can do.”
Brisson was far from the only freshman that saw action this season. Out of necessity, Bennett had to start several other freshmen, including (S/WR) Ben Fagan, (CB/WR) Henry Cela, (CB) David Weston, (OL) Luke Tatro, Mr. Everything Ryan Rozich, and others.
“I know they want to be good. I know they’re trying hard but they’re just too young,” said Bennett, “Every week we’ve tried to get a little better.”
Cromwell’s strength was at linebacker where sophomores Owen Brunk and Teddy Williams solidified the second level of the defense.
“They’re best friends. They know every call. Owen has been able to make plays on the ball. He had an interception and a forced fumble against H-K and has been solid all year. He’s already thinking about his offseason and coming back stronger next year. He’s the real deal.”
Helping Bennett mentor the younger players were senior captains Justin Stergos, Marc Dufresne, and Harry Deane. The trio bestowed the knowledge they obtained from three years of conference-winning football to the next generation.
“I knew it was coming. I knew we were going to be a younger team this year,” said Stergos, who played running back and linebacker, “This year I’ve tried to take the young guys under my wing and show them the proper steps that they can use in the future.”
Dufresne, who anchored the offensive line at center, was impressed with the learning curve of the younger guys, “The growth has honestly been more than I thought. It surprised me, we have a freshman left guard, we have a sophomore right guard, we have a very young offensive line and they’ve done a great job holding themselves up against these bigger defensive lines. They’ve done a really good job at picking it up and picking it up fast. They have a bright future ahead of them.”
Deane didn’t get a lot of playing time a season ago but dedicated himself with the offseason program and started at defensive end for a unit that has held up well for most of the season, “Having a freshman quarterback, we have to help the offensive as much as possible. We don’t want to put them in a hole.”
Bennett credited his seniors for staying positive.
“We’ve said to them all year you don’t have anything to hang your head about. You’ve won your league three years in a row. There are a lot of teams with seniors who aren’t graduating with three Pequot championships and two playoff appearances. It’s not ending the way that they want it to, but they’ve been part of the growth.”
Thanksgiving-eve’s victory over the Terriers allowed the seniors to exit with a win and showed what program is capable of doing in the coming years.
Brisson had his most productive game of the season, tossing three touchdowns---one each to Fagan, Rozich, and Williams---and the defense made key stops in the fourth quarter.
It’s a victory that Pepe knew would be important prior to the game, “This game means a lot. It sets the tone for next year to let teams know that we want to be all business and let them know that next year will be a completely different season.”
Pepe and Latronica will head a solid senior class coming back next fall, which includes Ethan Wilson, Hasani Yearwood, Brandon Lockwood, and Marc Treglia.
Bennett is also excited about the talent that is coming up from the youth programs.
“We’re shaping up to be in a nice position moving forward. It’s just about us being patient. We have to teach them everything we can this year, we can’t worry about the score, we just have to keep teaching.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin