HAMDEN >> The journey from a pretender to a state title contender has been a long and arduous process for North Haven football, especially during head coach Anthony Sagnella’s tenure, which began in 1997.
So it was especially rewarding when the Indians defeated previously unbeaten and second-seeded Platt 35-0 on Tuesday in the Class L state quarterfinals to earn the program’s first ever playoff win and move a victory away from its initial berth in a state title game.
The victory wasn’t just a testament to this year’s squad, but also to those that previously wore the maroon and white uniform and to those that helped set the foundation for North Haven’s current success.
“It was probably the greatest feeling,” said North Haven assistant Mark Zurlis, who played on North Haven teams that reached the postseason in 2010 and 2011.
“Being a part of the first win and just seeing everyone’s faces, knowing where were we came from to where we are now, it was awesome,” Zurlis added. “It was a great experience, not only for the school, but for me being on the coaching staff.”
Fellow assistant Chris Grillo was a member of the first North Haven team to earn a playoff berth in 2007, while Mike Ricciardelli, another former player now an assistant, was a captain in 2001.
The Indians, who have qualified for the postseason in four of the past seven seasons, have steadily evolved into one of the premier programs in the Southern Connecticut Conference under Sagnella’s direction. The Indians have won five straight SCC Division II East titles.
The Indians won just one game in the season prior to Sagnella’s arrival. Sagnella, who coached at North Branford for four seasons and guided the Thunderbirds to a playoff berth in 1996, said the North Haven administration was receptive to turning around the floundering program.
“The administration back then (the late) Pat Brozek (former North Haven High principal, athletic director and assistant Superintendent), (former Superintendent) Mary Jane Sheehy, Marge Dolan (former North Haven athletic director), Joseph Ierardi (former director of the Department of Community Services and recreation), they were all instrumental in hiring me and believing in building the football team into a quality program.
“Obviously people want to win and get into the playoffs, but they were more interested in developing a program for the town. They supported us, and kind of got things into place, and helped us develop the program from within the school walls. It’s a program that just keeps growing. Everyone in town seems to be in favor of chipping in and helping out in any way.”
North Haven experienced almost immediate success under Sagnella. After winning just two games his first season, North Haven earned a share of the SCC Hammonasset Division title in 1998 and 1999.
Lean years followed, though.
It wasn’t until Sagnella and other members of the football community decided to make changes from within, starting with how the youth program was operated.
“The youth program is completely different from when I first arrived,” Sagnella said. “Around 2003, 2004, 2005, we started to make some changes to where we were speaking the same language.”
It was around that time that Dave Mikos, who Sagnella noted was instrumental in North Haven’s renaissance, took over as president of the town’s youth league. Each youth team now runs the same system as the varsity, and all levels of play have seen drastic improvement in both performance and involvement.
“The program started to change its philosophy in trying to align our entire program from the flag level right up to the varsity level,” Sagnella said. “Our numbers have pretty much doubled. Our youth programs resemble us. They run the same things and they use the same language.”
The strength and conditioning program has also been restructured. For the past eight years, North Haven has utilized the services of Ranfone Training Systems out of Hamden.
“We train our kids more athletically than from a bodybuilding, power lifting standpoint,” Sagnella said. “That has appealed to the fundamental nature of what we do. We’re not big, but we are strong and we are fast. The kids are conditioned where we can play at a high speed.”
The conditioning helped North Haven defeat an athletic Platt squad. Now the seventh-seeded Indians (10-2) face, perhaps, the most talented team in Class L when they meet No. 3 New Canaan (12-1) in Saturday’s semifinals at 2 p.m. at Law High in Milford.
“I don’t think I absorbed it (the playoff win) yet,” Sagnella said. “I’m really thrilled for the team, and thrilled with the way we went about it. We had to play well — Platt was explosive, and they had a very good season this year. We were going to have to play well and, as a coach, you hope that on the biggest stage your team can perform at their best. I thought we did that on Tuesday night and we’re hoping for the same (Saturday). That’s what you want. We want our team to have to play their best and to get challenged — and we will be challenged.”