Mark Fritz was part of the foundation of Rocky Hill football as a player, helped construct a playoff program as an assistant coach, and has now transformed the Terriers into a state powerhouse as the head coach.
“We have the same goals every year, we want to win our division and we want to qualify for the state tournament,” said Fritz, who graduated from RHHS in 2006 after starring on the local fields for four seasons, “We don’t talk about the championship until we get there. Last season was the first time it’s every happened in the history of our program. It’s not something that we expect to happen every year, but it’s definitely our goal to get back.”
Fritz and his team literally came within inches of winning a state title a season ago, losing a heartbreaker to Ansonia in the Class S championship game.
The coach and his returning players have moved on from the loss, but haven’t forgotten that empty feeling.
“It haunted me all winter, it haunted me all spring. All of my offseason sports factored into losing that game. I’m still thinking about it, I think about it every day,” said senior running back Joe Catania, who ran wild for 1791 yards and 23 touchdowns as a junior, “I feel confident, especially after coming off last year and I’m absolutely driven because of what happen in the championship. I was totally revved up and I was so happy to get back on the field. It feels like home again.”
The team captain is being counted on more than ever this season, adding strong safety and kicker to his list of responsibilities. The full workload doesn’t faze the gridiron gladiator.
“It puts a lot more pressure on me, but I love being out there every play. Football is my passion and it’s what I want to do. It’s a good challenge for me,” added Catania, who is blessed with both blazing speed and brute strength, “Nothing is better than blowing by a safety untouched, but I also love being able to hit and run through somebody.”
Catania is the exactly the kind of student athlete the fits what Fritz values, “He buys into what we’re telling him. We preach to the kids that you need to be able to turn the page and you need to be able to refocus on the next thing and he’s just one of those guys who is willing to be coached and is willing to work hard and it translates onto the field.”
Quarterback Danny Cavallaro is another pigskin prodigy that has put his blood, sweat, and tears into the program. He’s been under center for the Terriers since the beginning of his sophomore year and has literally, and figuratively, grown into the position.
“Every year for every player, the game slow down for you. You really embrace it and it’s like slow motion. That’s what has happened to me, the game slowed down and I can really pick up more things on the run now,” said the three-year starter, “I love being a senior and being on top of the food chain out there. I’m at the helm and I’ve got to lead. If you don’t have a good quarterback you’re not going to have a good team, so I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I’m going to yell at our linemen, I’m going to yell at our skills players if it’s not perfect, because that’s what we are here for. We all have to work to get better.”
The quarterback’s maturation hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coach, “His confidence has grown exponentially. We lean on him on the offensive side of the ball to take control of the huddle and to be the coach on the field. He needs to be able to calm people down and he needs to be able to get people fired up and ready for the next play. He started to do that as a sophomore a little bit and last year in the playoffs he started doing it a ton.
This year he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s been doing it in the weight room and in summer conditioning and especially now in the season.”
Catania and Cavallaro are two of several seniors that have an extra special bond with the fourth-year head coach. They were freshmen when Fritz took over the reins.
“I always look back to when I was a freshman. I was new to the high school and he was new to the coaching job. We grew together and we built up the team,” reflected Catania, “I love coach Fritz and it’s been great to be able to grow with him and help grow the program.”
“When I went to college I was part of my head coach’s first recruiting class, so I kind of understand what they are going through,” recalled Fritz, who played safety at Central Connecticut State University.
“A lot of our seniors this year started playing varsity as freshmen and to see the caliber of their play increase every single year and to see them stay hungry and not be satisfied with just playing varsity minutes has been really great. To see how far they’ve come and to have a senior class of 16 kids that come all the way through the program and play together is special.”
After CCSU, Fritz was an assistant coach in Rocky Hill for three seasons. In 2013 the Terriers won their first ever playoff game and the next season he took over as the head coach.
The new head coach played several freshmen in his first season and the team finished 5-6 in 2014. The turning point was following a 27-0 loss against Avon to open the 2015 season.
After being shutout at home, the even-keeled coach said, “We have a good group of kids that will bounce back from this, they’re all great kids. There’s not a doubt in my mind that they can pick up what we’re trying to do as a team. We have to get better every day if we want to give ourselves a chance to compete. We did a lot of good things that we can build on going forward. The goal is to get better every day.”
Since that gloomy night in September, the Terriers have won 22 of 25 games, including a pair of postseason games. Whether it’s a demoralizing loss or a historic win, Fritz’ message remains the same.
“We let the guys celebrate the wins, but as soon as we come back Monday we are ready to work and we refocus on the next team. Winning football games isn’t easy. They have to understand that when we come back on the practice field we have to be ready to turn the page and work again. They do a good job at that. There’s always something that we can do better, whether it’s correcting a play on film or correcting a coverage. Football is a beautiful game in that way, there’s always something that you can improve upon.”
The team is off to another impressive start this fall, winning their first three games, including a 42-6 thumping of Plainville last Friday.
Catania and backfield brother Joseph Ferreira were in full locomotive mode and the Terriers scored all 42 points in the first half before coasting to the easy victory. Catania ran for two scores and was six for six on extra point attempts, and Ferreira had the best game of his high school career, rushing for 219 yards and three touchdowns. Cavallaro added a sixth score on an eight-yard QB keeper.
Fritz said it’s been great to see the Catania and Ferreira feed off of each other, but he’s still looking for more consistency in other areas, “We’re still trying to find our identity in some places and we’re still trying to find the right guys for some positions.”
The biggest challenge has been rewiring the offensive line, which lost four of five starters from last season to graduation.
“It was hard in the beginning. We didn’t think we were going to be as good on the line, but they’ve work really hard,” said Cavallaro, “Our mentality is next man up and that’s how we’ve got to do.”
Anthony Feliciano is the only returning starter from last fall. He’s joined by a rotation of players that includes Ryan Pirre, Alex Boutin, Kyle Sanzo, and quasi-linemen/full backs/tight ends Dante Baker, Greg Fern, and Cole Fishberg.
“Whenever you lose four of your five guys there’s going to be a ton of changes that you have to adjust for. To their credit these guys have stepped up,” added Fritz, “Some of them waited their time until their senior year and they’re making the most of it. Kyle Sanzo is a great example. He didn’t play offense for us last year and this year he’s our starting tackle and going a great job. He’s one of those guys. He waited his time, he earned his playing time, and he’s making the most of it.”
The line has done a nice job protecting Cavallaro and paving the way for the Dueling Joes. They have also excelled on the other sides of the ball, fronting a defensive unit that has surrendered only 28 total points through three games. The Baker Brothers, Dante and Diamante, along with Matt Osgood and Will White have set the tone defensively. The defense should get even better with the return of Jack Hansen, who missed the game against Plainville with an injury, but adds versatility and experience in the secondary.
Next up is a road game against Hartford’s three-headed dragon Bulkeley/HMTCA/Weaver at Buckley High School on Sat, Sept 30 at noon.
By the end of October the Terriers will have played five of their first seven games away from Rocky Hill. The silver lining to the brutal road schedule is that they’ll be hosting the final three regular season games, including back-to-back bouts against bitter rivals Berlin and Cromwell.
“We’ve done a lot of good things, but we still have a lot to clean up. It’s still early in the season and we have a lot of new guys playing varsity minutes this year so we expected it to take a little time, but I’m so proud of my guys for how they’ve handled themselves,” added Fritz, “I look forward to seeing what this team can do moving forward.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin