Senior Cole Brisson returns at quarterback for the defending Class S state champion Cromwell/Portland co-op football team. Brisson earned all-conference, throwing 30 touchdowns, during the Panthers undefeated season last fall.
It’s hard to top an undefeated state championship season.
But if anyone can, it’s the Cromwell/Portland co-op football team that has been sweating swagger since head coach Randell Bennett took over the program in 2017.
The Panthers are coming off a 13-0 season, which culminated with a 21-6 Class S state championship victory over Bloomfield last December. It was the program’s first state championship since 2008 and the first since Cromwell and Portland first combined forces on the field in 2015.
“The mentality is definitely still there, but we have to make sure we are sharpening any skills that we need to sharpen going into the season,” Bennett said of the team’s confident aura.
And there is a reason for the team maintaining that championship confidence. They have a slew of talent returning to the roster, including 9 of 11 starters coming back on the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive coordinator Jack Wilson, who was named the state’s Assistant Coach of the Year, returns to lead a unit that created 33 turnovers and scored a half dozen touchdowns, while allowing a mere seven points per game a season ago
Senior Alex Hair returns to start on both sides of the ball — serving as the team’s primary ball carrier offensively and a disruptive defensive end.
“Honestly I haven't approached it differently,” Hair said of entering his senior season. “Maybe now I’m passing on the things I know to the younger guys, but I’m still working as hard as I possibly can like I did last year.”
In the championship quest last fall, Hair led the team with nearly 900 rushing yards and scored a dozen touchdowns. His 12 trips to the end zone were second on the team behind only Teddy Williams, who scored 30 times.
Williams and Owen Brunk will be the team’s two biggest departures. The prolific pair made the Connecticut High School Coaches Association (CHSCA) Top-25 Players in the State list a season ago.
Despite losing two all-state players, the Panthers have experienced pieces coming back in key positions.
Senior quarterback Cole Brisson is back behind center and four of five starters will be returning along the offensive line.
Brisson, who has started since his freshman year, threw 30 touchdowns compared to only five interceptions a season ago. He is now the undisputed leader of an offense that averaged nearly 38 points per game last fall.
“We’re not satisfied,” said Brisson. “We had a lot of playmakers on the field and we’re really deep. It gives me a lot of confidence that we have a ton of experience coming back.”
Senior Ryan Rozich, who started alongside Williams and Brunk to create a fierce linebacking trio last year, steps into a larger leadership role.
“I’m ready, I’m so excited. I can’t wait to get back out here,” said Rozich, who missed the final two games last fall due to an injury. “We are coming into this year with the same attitude we had last year. We have the same goal.”
Emeka Yearwood, who led the team with eight sacks, and Jack Nolan, who nabbed a team-high seven interceptions, will also be back to impact both sides of the ball.
Allen Cohen can play both ways in the trenches and will return to handle the kicking duties on special teams.
Jack Williams — the younger brother of Teddy William — will also be back to anchor the lines after posting six sacks a season ago. Williams and Matt Binezewski are the team’s two linemen that will be back following all-conference seasons.
Bennett added that Brandon Rose, Daevyon Lovelace, Ashton Rambrose, Ray Boudreau, Alex McKiernan, and EricTreglia will be asked to play major roles again, while young studs like sophomores Vaughn Payne and Matt Gish, along with a few freshmen could make waves this season.
So what can we expect from a team that is coming off a historic season?
“More of the same, we want to channel that same energy. It’s not broke; it works for us,” answered Bennett, “We know we have 10 games and we are hoping to play 13 again this year.”
The Panthers open the 2022 season at home on Thurs., Sept. 8 against Morgan. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. at Pierson Park in Cromwell.
“We have the same mentality. In my eyes nothing has really changed from last year,” Hair said about approaching the first game, “We’re still going to come out and we’re still going to go as hard as we possibly can.”
Both Brisson and Rozich said to expect “a show” in the opener, and if last season was any indication, the show may continue into December.
Alex Hair returns to start on both sides of the ball at running back and defensive end.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin