(Cromwell senior Kevin Hinkle intercepts a pass in a win over Lewis Mills. The Panthers are 4-0 this fall. Photo- Mark Wright Photography)
Cromwell/Portland football entered the 2018 season with high expectations and lofty goals, which included winning conference, making the playoffs, and competing for a state title.
But they’ve learned from past experiences that it takes a series of small accomplishments to achieve a greater goal.
“First off, we just want to go 1-0 every week,” said senior safety Devon Kilham.
So far, so good for the Panthers, who soundly defeated Haddam-Killingworth 47-19 last Saturday at Pierson Park, improving to 4-0.
Or better yet, the fourth straight week they’ve finished 1-0.
“We’re not taking anyone lightly,” quarterback Bryce Karstetter said prior to the game against H-K.
Karstetter is in his third season behind center and has been a rock at the helm for the Panthers since taking over in the fall of 2016.
As a sophomore he helped guide the team to a perfect 9-0 mark before an injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. The Panthers earned a playoff berth, but were eventually ousted in the semifinals.
Last season Karstetter threw 17 touchdowns compared to only six interceptions, leading the team to eight wins, but the Panthers finished on the outside looking in at the postseason picture.
“I've definitely seen that chip on his shoulder. He’s no longer the guy that is just existing between giving [Kristian] Sapp the ball or giving Brent Robbins the ball,” head coach Randell Bennett said of Karstetter, referencing the team’s leading rushers in 2016 and 2017, “Bryce understands that the game plan rests on his ability to get guys the ball with his arm. He’s got that next-level mentality, like a college player. He’s not just letting things happen, he’s trying to dictate the pace and he’s made my job easier.”
Karstetter wasted little time this fall, opening 2018 with the best game of his high school career in a 35-21 victory over Rockville. The seasoned senior threw for 300 yards and accounted for all five touchdowns, tossing four and adding another on the ground.
“We play a little different type of offense this year, we have a little more passing,” said Karstetter, who worked tirelessly during the offseason, “I went with a quarterback coach this summer, Travis Meyer, and we worked a lot on my throwing motions and techniques, like keeping my weight down and using power from my back foot.”
He also got a boost on the football field from a familiar face. First-year wide receiver and childhood friend Nick Wright quickly became Karstetter’s favorite target, developing an instant and dynamic rapport on the field.
“Our sisters always played on the same sports teams, so when we went to the games we would always have a football and play catch. Also we worked a lot this summer,” recalled Karstetter.
“I’ve played basketball my whole life and have always wanted to play at the next level. I wasn’t getting a lot of coaches looking at me,” said Wright, the leading rebounder on the school’s basketball team that won a state title last winter, “I’ve always been naturally pretty good at football, so I decided to give it a try.”
Wright’s first football game was a doozy, hauling in nine passes for 199 yards and three scores in the victory over Rockville.
“His catch radius is crazy,” Bennett said of his 6’1” pass catcher, “You would think he’s been doing this a long time. He’s a good athlete, his balance is great and his hand-eye coordination is great. He’s drawing from the other sports he’s played.”
Wright proved that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder, following up his debut with another three touchdown performance, including the game-winner in overtime to defeat North Branford. The Panthers took a 20-0 lead only to see the Thunderbirds counter with 20 unanswered, sending the game to overtime before Karstetter and Wright did what they do best and the defense shut the door.
“The best thing about that game was that it tested everyone in the group. It tested the coaches, it tested the players, it tested everyone,” Bennett said of the overtime victory, “They were a tough team and everyone had to come together. We finally got a break and our defense really stepped up.”
Bennett’s defense continued to shine in a 55-7 victory over Lewis Mills the following week. The Panthers took a quick 27-0 lead before coasting to victory behind a defense that allowed less than 100 total yards and created three turnovers.
Kilham is the vocal captain of a fearless secondary, which includes Zac Cyr, Kevin Hinkle, and sophomore Matthew Pepe.
“We’re confident in ourselves, confident in each other. We’re all kind of undersized so we have to go into every game confident,” said Kilham, “We’re really closely knit and we back up everything we say.”
“We consider ourselves the captains of the defense,” added Hinkle, “We really try to carry this team.”
The secondary has been superb but it’s been freshman linebacker Owen Brunk that has solidified the middle of the defense.
Brunk caught the eye of his head coach in the offseason and has turned heads early in the season, leading the team in tackles.
“We scrimmaged Killingly and he’s covering a slot receiver and they run ball away from him. He starts chasing and the tight end comes up and he shed the block, a guard comes up and he shed another block and makes tackle on the outside,” recalled Bennett, “I watch plays like that from him and see his natural ability.”
Brunk’s quick development and replacing a dozen seniors from a season ago is a true testament to the work of Bennett and his experienced coaching staff.
The second-year head coach is joined by offensive coordinator John Bozzi, defensive coordinator Chris Theriault, and position coaches Bobby Lorenti, Lorenzo Baker, Dwight Bailey, Jack Hemsley, Andre Dixon, and Scott Hartan.
Both Karstetter and Wright credited their quick learning curve to Lorenti, who tutors the quarterbacks and receivers.
“Coach Lorenti has been great. I mean, he’s a Michigan fan and I’m an Ohio State fan so we bicker about that a lot,” Karstetter said with a smirk, “We have great chemistry with all the coaches. We have respect for them but it’s not one of those coaching staffs that are always yelling. We’re able to have fun every once in a while.”
Bennett and his staff had their hands full trying to replace four of the five starting offensive linemen from a year ago, creating a void on both sides of the ball. Luckily the trenches are Bennett’s specialty and he had confident captain Ismar Kandic back for his senior year.
“Ismar was the best lineman we had last year. He’s the first to tell me that he’s the best lineman to ever play here. I tell him ‘well you had me coaching you so you better be better than me’,” joked the 2004 CHS graduate turned head coach.
Kandic and his line mates dominated in the week three win over Lewis Mills, opening up huge running lanes as the Panthers rushed for 274 and four touchdowns. Junior running back Justin Stergos accounted for team-high 105 rushing yards and a pair of scores.
Deniz Pine, Mark Dufresne, Marc Treglia, Ian Conway, and Jaylen Jenkins have joined Kandic on the frontline, creating a consistent force on both sides of the line scrimmage.
The boys upfront again led the way in the latest win over H-K. Both teams entered unbeaten and the visiting Cougars jumped out to a 13-0 lead before the Panthers flipped the switch, scoring the next 41 points en route to the runaway 28-point victory.
“We knew they were going to come out working hard. We just had to get some drives going on offense and get some three and outs on defense,” said Hinkle, who caught three of Karstetter’s four touchdown passes in the victory, “Bryce is amazing, we have so much confidence in him and coach Bozzi runs our offense really well. We have a bunch of guys that can make plays.”
Kilham hauled in the other touchdown and running back Bryan Lockwood added three scores on the ground, upping his season total to seven touchdowns.
After four weeks the Panthers are right where they want to be in the deep and competitive Class S, which includes perennial powerhouses Ansonia and Bloomfield.
Next up is another home game against Coginchaug/Hale Ray/East Hampton (1-2) at Pierson Park this Saturday, Oct 6 at 3 pm.
“We know that everyone else is coming for us, we have a big target on our backs,” Hinkle said after the latest win, “We just have to take it one game at a time.”
The Starting Five: Local Athletes of the Week
Alex Burke- Rocky Hill (Soccer): Burke was named the Player of the Match in a 5-0 win over Bloomfield last Tuesday and then earned the same honor from the Glastonbury coaches in a loss to the Tomahawks on Friday. The senior has been a consistent leader for the Terriers all season.
Aiden Toth- Newington (Cross Country): Toth finished with an invitational best time of 18:02 to take first place in the Bellringer Invitational last Friday, helping the Indians finish first overall at the event in East Hampton. The senior is having his best season yet, coming off back to back all-conference seasons.
Jonta'e Dempsey- Middletown (Football): Dempsey threw a go-ahead 91 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to Kenny Fountain, helping the Blue Dragons stay undefeated. The senior also blocked a punt, intercepted a pass, and had nine tackles in a 17-9 victory over Bristol Central.
Mark Rodriguez- Cromwell (Cross Country): Rodriguez ran a personal record 16:35.9 at the Winding Trails Invitational last Saturday, placing 12th overall against a strong field. To cap off his great week, he crossed the line in first place at the Shoreline League meet. The hardworking sophomore is coming off of a spectacular freshman season, earning first-team All-Conference and the Freshman Runner of the Year award for the Shoreline Conference.
Alyssa Pearce- Wethersfield (Swimming): Pearce was part of two new pool records (200 free relay/400 free relay) at Middletown High School and also has won every individual event she swam in two meets last week, posting state qualifying times in the 50 free and the 200 IM. The senior will always swim whatever is asked of her and is an incredible teammate and fantastic role model for the younger members of the team.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin