Anthony Avallone understands he was a curious choice to become head coach of Guilford’s struggling football program.
He’s heard all the criticisms from parents and fans in town: He’s under-qualified to win at this level. He only coached youth football and last year’s Guilford freshman team before getting the big job. He can’t know what he’s doing.
Daddyball, was what the most vociferous critics derisively labled his new program, referring to the fact that he, too, is a team parent with senior on the squad. Laughingstock, was another.
And, sure, this is a new experience for him. But Avallone — who took over for Mike Eagle more than five months after Eagle resigned in December — said he drew from his 30 years experience as a businessman to handle the scrutiny. More important, he endeavored to shield his returning players from it.
“It’s like anything in business. When a business struggles, the leadership is tested and you’ll get most of the critics looking at you,” said Avallone, who owns Reitman Personnel, a recruiting company out of Branford. “Your job as a leader is to focus less on the individuals and more on working together and feeding off each other to solve problems.”
Avallone said he and the Guilford players put their heads down and quietly went to work, oblivious to the negativity. “There are too many things outside our control,” he said. “Our message to the kids was let’s try to focus on what we can control.”
The long offseason culminated in the season opener Friday night at Guilford’s Kavanaugh Field. In front of what Avallone believes was the biggest home crowd in “quite a few years,” the Indians pulled off an impressive 35-14 victory over border rival Branford.
Five different players scored as Guilford built a three-touchdown lead in the third quarter and pulled away late. Quarterback Jack Strand accounted for four touchdowns in the win, including a 68-yard strike to Corey Sondak. Senior A.J. Moscato had five tackles and scored late to put the game away.
“It was huge,” Avallone said of the victory. “It was a big sigh of relief. And it made the kids feel confident in what we were able to do. We’d talked about it all spring and summer. It’s one thing to work hard in the offseason, but now can you transition that to executing on Friday nights. We were able to turn it around and start executing.”
It helped that Avallone ran the team’s offseason weight training while the administration decided on a new coach. He’s also been around football his entire life. Avallone played at North Branford and then at Central Connecticut State before graduating from Southern Connecticut State in 1989. So he felt he was in a good spot when Guilford officially handed him the keys.
“I’ll be the first to say I’m not an Xs and Os kind of guy,” Avallone said. “There are probably a lot more qualified coaches out there for that. But I like to manage the process and focus on getting the best out of the kids. And I’m comfortable enough to bring people on staff and let them do their jobs. It’s not about egos, it’s about moving these kids forward.”
Guilford hasn’t had a winning since 2007, when the Indians went 5-4-1 in Scott Benoit’s final year at the helm. The program tried Tom Unger from 2008-2014 and then Eagle in 2015 and 2016 with little success. “They’re all great guys and very good coaches,” Avallone said of his predecessors. “But for one reason or another it just didn’t work out for them in Guilford.”
Avallone says he gets it. There’s perhaps too much pressure to win in town, especially when it’s next door to Madisom, home to state powerhouse Hand. But he takes a pragmatic approach to the situation.
“I don’t think it’s strictly a Guilford thing,” he said. “Any town that struggles with its football program tends to look at all the bad things. We do have our challenges. We sure do. We have very zealous parents who want certain things to happen that just aren’t there yet. Right now, we can only control our attitude and our desire to succeed. And that’s what we’re focused on.”
Still boss in Tier 3
Sheehan paid close attention to all the buzz about Jonathan Law, its Week 1 opponent. And despite only returning six seniors from last year’s SCC Tier 3 championship team, the Titans were pretty amped up about proving they were still the team to beat among the SCC’s smaller schools.
The Titans were so amped, in fact, they scored five touchdowns in the first half of an eventual 41-26 victory.
Sheehan graduated the lion’s share of last years team, including one of the state’s most prolific tailbacks in first-team all-stater Zach Davis (now at Fordham), who ran for state record 3,588 yards and 50 touchdowns during last year’s 6-4 season.
On Friday night, Sheehan proved it’s offense will be just fine. Junior quarterback Wes Terzi threw for 211 yards and a score. Sophomore backs Terrence Bogan and Jordan Davis, Zach’s younger brother, combined for 268 yards rushing and three scores as Sheehan’s offensive line had its way with Law’s front seven.
Senior Evan Mansfield had 72 receiving yards, senior lineman Steve Zenisky had 12 tackles and Terzi had 13 as Sheehan held off Law’s second-half rally.
“Our kids take pride in being the Tier champs last year and this year they want more,” Sheehan coach John Ferrazzi said. “There was absolutely no doubt in our minds we would win the game, just based on our preparation and film study. It was just a matter of executing.”
Despite it’s lack of experience and depth (there are again under 50 players on the roster), Ferrazzi says the talent is there to build on the foundation left by last year’s seniors.
“They left their mark on the program,” said Ferrazzi, whose team faces Weston in a non-league game on Friday. “But this year’s group doesn’t want to live in their shadows. They want to create their own identity. Doing what we did Game 1 was the first step. We’re excited about where we can go.”
‘Did I miss halftime?’
The 124 points scored in Norwalk’s 68-57 victory over Hamden at Joe Bruno Field Friday night was the fourth-highest game total in state history.
The two teams combined for 1,029 yards of total offense (Norwalk had 522, Hamden 507). Norwalk’s new QB Kyle Gordon finished with 319 yards and three touchdown passes as Norwalk scored 60 points in the first half to take a 60-33 lead.
“The first half took two hours,” Hamden coach Tom Dyer said. “I turned to one of my assistants and asked, ‘Did I miss halftime?'”
In the second, it was all Hamden as the Dragons roared back behind new sophomore QB Sahim Hasan, who ran for 101 yards and four touchdowns. “I said before the season, he’s going to be a special player,” Dyer said.
Hamden’s defense allowed just eight points in the second half. But four turnovers kept the Dragons from cutting further into the lead.
All told, Hamden’s eight touchdowns scored were just four less than its entire output in 2016, when its scored 112 points and finished 2-8.
“There were some positives, absolutely,” Dyer said. “The kids really competed hard. They tried to keep the clock running but we came roaring back.
“We still have a lot to improve on.”
Inside the Numbers
50.8 Percentage of Hamden’s total points scored 2016 (112) that the Green Dragons score in Week 1 of 2017. At this rate, Hamden will score 570 points in 2017, an increase of more than 500 percent. On the other hand, the 68 points surrendered to Norwalk isn’t an encouraging sign that Hamden will cut down on the 345 points it allowed in 2016, either.
Player of the Week
Chris Butler, Amity — Senior safety made four interceptions and had two tackles as Amity defeated SCC newcomer Harding 24-14. The four picks in one game is just one short the state record held by three players. According to the state record book, it was the first four INT game since Troy Gray in 2014.
Other Top Performances
- Phoenix Billings, Hand — The sophomore quarterback completed 18-of-27 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns in his starting debut, a 34-16 win over Hillhouse. He also ran 12 times for 50 yards for two touchdowns.
- Tanner Devito, East Haven — Completed 16 of 21 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown in his debut at QB in East Haven’s 40-6 victory over Bassick.
- Doug Harrison, Fairfield Prep — Ran for 211 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries in a 29-12 victory over Notre Dame-West Haven.
- Sahim Hasan, Hamden — The sophomore QB completed 4-of-7 passes for 109 yards and ran 12 times for 101 yards and 4 TDs in Hamden’s 68-57 loss to Norwalk.
- Michael Jeffery, Cheshire — Caught eight passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns from Jack Raba (209 yards) in Cheshire’s 28-10 victory over Shelton.
- Nick Santello, Lyman Hall — Scored the game’s only touchdown in a 7-0 victory over Creed Co-Op. It was the first victory for new coach Bill Weyrauch.
- Wes Terzi, Sheehan — The quarterback completed and efficient 8 of 11 passes for an efficient 211 yards and a touchdown in a 41-26 victory over Law.
- Noah Washington, Wlibur Cross — Recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass for a touchdown, caught a touchdown pass and kicked three extra points for Cross in its 27-22 win over Foran.
- West Haven defense — Forced five turnovers (three fumbles, two interceptions) and returned two of them for scores in a 33-27 victory over North Haven. Doug Johnson returned a fumble for a score. Joe Steinman returned an interception for a score.
GAMES TO WATCH
- No. 5 Cheshire at NFA, Friday 7 — The Rams bring the SCC banner to Norwich for this suddenly huge matchup. NFA, out of the Eastern Connecticut Conference, stunned Xavier 40-37.
- Newtown at Xavier, Friday, 7 — This SWC vs. SCC game is a rematch of the 2014 Class LL semifinal game, won by Xavier 13-7.
- West Haven at Wilbur Cross, Friday, 3:30 — Nobody likes playing at Wilbur Cross on Friday afternoon. The Governors are hoping to catch the offensively-challenged Westies sleeping.
- Hand at Shelton, Friday, 7 p.m. — Are Phoenix Billings and the Tigers for real? Or will Shelton rebound from its disappointing loss to Cheshire?
- Foran at Brookfield, Friday, 7 — Foran returns to Brookfield for the first time since it played in the SWC over a decade ago. Brookfield will be retiring former All-Stater and UConn star Scott Lutrus’ No. 21 during the game.
- 1. CHESHIRE — Cheshire’s defense was the most impressive part of Friday’s win over Shelton.
- 2. XAVIER — Xavier’s defense… wasn’t in their game vs. NFA. The Falcons D made the Wildcats look like the Patriots (last year’s Patriots).
- 3. HAND — An SCC coach strongly suggested Hand would roll in SCC Tier 2. With Hillhouse dispatched, who’s stopping the Tigers?
- 4. SHELTON — It says here the Gaels will be just fine… unless Hand of old shows up Friday. Then there might be issues.
- 5. FAIRFIELD PREP — The Doug Harrison formula worked to perfection against rebuilding Notre Dame.
- 6. WEST HAVEN — Defense? Check. Offense? Oof.
- 7. NORTH HAVEN — Take away the five turnovers and the Indians might have beaten West Haven. Yes, really.
- 8. WILBUR CROSS — For a team starting a kid at QB who’d never played football before, the Governors looked pretty solid. Noah Washington, especially.
- 9. HILLHOUSE — Were the Acs too busy reading last year’s press clippings, or is there trouble in paradise?
- 10. NOTRE DAME-WH — As expected, Joe DeCaprio and Co. have some work to do.
- 11. FORAN — Took a little too long to show up vs. Wilbur Cross, boys.
- 12. SHEEHAN — Ferrazzi’s right: The foundation is set. Time to take another step forward.
- 13. LAW — Yes, Law expected much more vs. Sheehan. Sure they’re disappointed. The schedule will give them plenty of time for redemption.
- 14. HAMDEN — Well, looks like the Dragons have the offense figured out this year.
- 15. AMITY — The Spartans wanted nothing to do with being Harding’s first SCC win.
- 16. GUILFORD — Maybe a Guilford guy is the right guy to have in here, after all.
- 17. HARDING — Not a bad SCC debut, but not great either.
- 18. BRANFORD — We’re pretty sure Branford’s kicking itself over its opening loss to Guilford.
- 19. EAST HAVEN — Took care of business in Bridgeport.
- 20. LYMAN HALL — That ‘W’ had to have felt great, huh Trojans?
- 21. CREED/CAREER/WHITNEY TECH — The Howling Wolves hammered Lyman Hall last year, so…
- 22. BASSICK — Keep fighting, fellas.