The inevitable end of summer is a sad thought, but that sadness is quickly replaced by the joy of knowing that our local high school fields will soon be packed on Friday nights with passionate parents and fans cheering on our football gladiators.
Football is as American as apple pie and has become our countries most popular sports by leaps and bounds. There will be four high school football teams crowned champions come December, but late summer is when those championship foundations are built. Here’s a look at the six local teams that are vying to be one of those final four.
Cromwell had a tumultuous beginning to last season, but head coach Chris Eckert and his team persevered and thrived, just missing the postseason following an 8-2 regular season.
Eckert enters his sixth season prowling the sideline for the Panthers. The team lost a lot of leadership, especially on the defensive side of the ball where mainstays Justice Taylor and Jack Wilson graduated. The unit will turn to defensive stud Ethan Roy, who posted double-digit sacks a season ago, and fellow defensive lineman Austin Rambarose to anchor the defense.
Triggerman Jarius Bailey is also gone. The team most likely will hand the reins to Bryce Karstetter, who saw limited action behind center last season. Thankfully the first-year starter will have all-around dynamo Kristian Sapp behind him in the offensive backfield. Sapp led the team in touchdowns last season and is primed for a monster senior season as the team’s primary ball carrier.
Two players to keep an eye on as the season progresses are senior tight end Ryan Yorski, who has the size to dominate in the red zone, and Dianta Highsmith, who is a ball hawk in the defensive secondary.
Cromwell hasn’t been to the postseason since 2011, but all that could change this season. The Panthers kick-off the regular season at home with a conference test against Coginchaug Regional on Friday, Sept 9th at Pierson Park, 6 p.m.
Middletown Blue Dragons
Middletown won eight of eleven games to reach the playoffs last fall and all signs are pointing to another stellar season for the Blue Dragons.
Veteran head coach Sal Morello enters his seventh season and has a deep senior class returning, which includes multidimensional quarterback Tyshaun James. James is equally deadly with his arm and feet, leading the team in totals yards and scoring 22 combined touchdowns a season ago. The team lost big-play threat Trequan Weston to graduation, but speedy receiver C.J. Sprowl could be ripe for a breakout season on the outside.
The Blue Dragons always have a stout defense and they again will be tough to score on this season thanks to one of the state’s most talented defensive backfields. Bilal Chapman, Justin McMillan, DeAaron Lawrence, and Stone Belzo will be leading a vaunted secondary that can both cover and deliver pops in the running game. Linebacker Jay Nanfito and lineman Ibn Lombardo are two seniors that should also make big impacts this season.
The pieces and athletes are in place for a potential title run in 2016 for the experienced group. The team starts their title quest on the road at Platt, but returns to Middletown High School for their annual bragging rights battle against Wethersfield on Friday, Sept 16th for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
It wasn’t an easy season for Newington and second-year head coach Eric Hennessy last fall. The Indians lost eight of ten games, including five losses by 20 or more points and their final handful of games to finish the season.
Hennessy is hoping the third year is the charm, but it will take a total team effort after superstar signal caller Nick Guadarrama transferred out of state in the offseason. It’ll be an open completion at quarterback, with senior playmaker Isaac Ortiz Jr, who led the team in receiving a season ago, and explosive junior Carlum Caldwell both in line to replace the massive void left by Guadarrama’s departure.
The team will be very young and the offense will rely on Ortiz Jr and sophomore running back Brandon Kamansky, who finished very strong a year ago. Productive junior Luke Pappalardo will be a leader on defense and look for fellow junior Aveontae Frazier to play a major role, both offensively and defensively, for the Indians this fall.
The team starts the season on the road against Hartford Public, before playing their home opener against perennial powerhouse Windsor on Friday, Sept 16th at 6:30 p.m. If the team can put the pieces together they could finish strong, because they close the regular season with four of their last five games at home, including tilts against Middletown and Wethersfield.
Rocky Hill Terriers
The arrow is pointing up for Rocky Hill, who won their final six games to finish 8-2 a season ago. They only missed the postseason because of the discipline handed down to the Berlin and a faulty scoring system.
Head coach Mark Fritz’ third season on the sideline should be the best one yet, as many of last season’s impact players are returning. The team’s bread and butter under Fritz has been the solid play on the interior and seniors Lukasz Zduniak and Damon Lonero are back to anchor the offensive and defensive lines.
Potential all-state running back Grant Nieves, who led the team in yards and touchdowns in 2015, is back and better than ever, and will again be joined in the backfield by junior running mate Joe Catania. Incumbent quarterback Danny Cavallaro will have a year of experience under his belt and should be back at the helm for his junior season.
The defense took a hit in the offseason with the loss of inspirational leaders Patrick Sullivan and Jason Carducci, but middle linebacker and tackling-extraordinaire Ricky Montalvo is back for his senior campaign. Juniors Diamante and Dante Baker are also back to steady the Terriers’ back seven.
The motivated team has a tough road test against Avon to start the season, but returns home for back-to-back contests against rivals Northwest Catholic (9/16) and Bloomfield (9/23). Both home tilts kickoff at 7 p.m.
Head coach John Campanello has built a rock solid football foundation at Wethersfield. The team has won 21 of their last 24 games and chalked up their first ever playoff victory a season ago, defeating Torrington 33-6.
A repeat performance will not be easy, as the team lost nearly two-dozen seniors to graduation. Quarterback Devon Smith, leading rusher Richard Williams, leading receiver Kyle Klavins, and four of the five starting offensive linemen have departed, leaving several holes to fill. Normally, losing that much firepower would force a rebuilding season, but if anyone is capable of revitalizing an offense it’s offensive coordinator Jeff Russell, whose football wizardry keeps churning out points and playmakers. The team may turn to Tim Blaisdell at quarterback, after the junior saw some action behind center a season ago. The guys up front protecting Blaisdell will be new, with the exception of dominant offensive tackle Conor Keane.
The defensive side of the ball also took a major hit, losing their entire defensive backfield, which was the underrated group during the team’s consecutive playoff appearences. Senior Jamal Bagley will carry a heavy load on both sides of the ball, doubling as a bruising running back on offense and hard-hitting linebacker on defense. Bagley will be one of the team’s captains, along with fellow seniors Kyle Vasquez and Chris Cravero.
Also expect a big season out of Michael Alessandra, who showed flashes of brilliance a season ago and has the size and ability to be a major threat at tight end.
The question remains, is it rebuilding or reloading in Wethersfield? The good news is that four of their first five games are at home, starting Friday, Sept 9th against Farmington at 7 p.m.
Xavier had a rare down year a season ago, finishing 6-4 and missing the postseason, after winning four state titles in the previous five seasons.
The young team hopes to get back to championship form this season. Despite a lack of seniors, head coach Sean Marinan has several starters returning, including senior running back Glenn Cunningham, who is coming off a fantastic junior season.
Quarterback Will Levis also played well last season as a sophomore starter and hopes to take the next step as an upperclassman. The second-year starter will have his safety blanket back on the field, as big target Parker Rowley returns at tight end after leading the team with seven touchdown receptions in 2015.
The offensive and defensive lines could be a concern, after all-state stud Kevin Lawrence graduated, but versatile lineman Kiko Nvietkus is back to help solidify both lines.
The Falcons are have a chance to reclaim their rightful place atop the Class LL standings and could come out of the gates strong as they open the season with three straight home games, starting with Norwich Free Academy at Xavier High School on Friday, Sept 9th at 7 p.m.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin