Class L playoff beat: North Haven has evolved into state title contender

Ethan Suraci runs through several Platt defenders during the Indians’ Class L quarterfinal victory Tuesday. North Haven won 35-0 to earn the program’s first playoff victory.
(John Vanacore/For the Register)

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.”


  1. Kahona says

    Off season weight training was the key as coach mention evidence of this appeared this summer when NH finish first in the Berlin Lineman 185 pound bench press event with a record 114 total reps.

  2. Brian says

    The only chance NH has is to play ground and pound and keep away from the NC offense. If they fall behind a couple of scores it’s over.

  3. Frank Rizzo says

    As a Hand fan, I would be thrilled if NH won it all, not because NC beats us, but because they are a SCC team, and they are a very respected program.

  4. Big Daddy says

    Thanks Frank. It’s going to be a David vs. Goliath battle and NH needs the support of the whole SCC behind them. NH can do this. PLAY YOUR GAME NH!!!! Do it for yourselves, your High School, your Parents and your community. We will all be there to support you.

  5. common sense says

    just wondering – what team actually plays well from behind?? The only knock anyone ever comes up with on north haven is that they can’t play from behind.. this is so ridiculous. I hope it snows, rains, you name it tomorrow and people say – tough to be a spread offense in december in new england!
    Go North Haven! the entire SCC believes in you!

  6. Hand Fan says

    We have a ton of respect for North Haven. Tony & his staff do it the right way. They are a classy, hard nosed, well coached football team full of tough, respectful kids.

  7. jeb says

    Dear common sense.

    Your point is well taken….Several years ago New Canaan came from 20 points behind in the final quarter to beat a very good Daniel Hand team in the State title game. Coach Fillipone after that game switched to a more wide open approach because he felt if the roles were reversed Hand would not have had enough time to score three touchdowns with his offense. In the case of North Haven because they rely on the run 90% they would have zero chance of coming back even if they trailed by two td’s in the second quarter. North haven is a great team and will give NC a terrific game. Though I am a New Canaan I know we will have our hands full tomorrow.

  8. Old Mare says

    They don’t weight train in New Canaan during the season or during the rest of the year. No names end in a vowel–no Italians, no Indians, all pure blooded Anglos with bloody bad accents. The don’t use Grey Poupon–they have their multiple servants prepare fresh homemade mustard from imported ingredients. They have a weak defense and maybe 2 or 3 kids who are decent on the only limited offense they try to play. The NC coaches are just fair at coaching and have long criminal records. NC is only really good at 7-on-7 in tropical climates, that’s it. And let’s not forget the teams NC plays are all a laughable bunch a pushovers, losers, and girls! I’m not taking anything away from North Haven who obviously have had an impressive season. But some of you guys are making comments as silly as mine. See ya tomorrow for a great game! NC will be tested, but this ain’t no Turkey Bowl! RAM POWER (or a BMW)!!!

  9. Old Mare says

    Do NH linemen squat each other? “Where’s the beef?”

    We could have a conversation about foot speed and squating. NC has linemen who are 200+ and qualify for the States in sprinting and high jump. It’s those same kids who avoid the weight room and hate squating…

    So do the NH power-lifter actualy move or are they flat on their strong feet?

    Again, credit is due to NH. I give the NH power-lifters all the credit they deserve–that’s a lot of weight you’re lifting boys! But you’ll see that NC has a bunch of well-rounded athletes tomorrow!

  10. Old Mare says

    No argument on dedication. I think both teams are loaded with dedicated kids who worked hard and think football 24/7/365 regardless of what they are doing on their off seasons, whether it’s lifting or lifting and basketball, lifting and hockey, lifting and track, lifting and baseball, lifting and lacrosse, lifting and skiing, lifting and tennis, or even lifting and joining the school band. I hope they probably study long and hard too. Thanks to an equally dedicated group of coaches too. High school football certainly sure has become a lot more intense than when many of us dads played. C U at the game!


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