When Mike Eagle took over as head coach at Morgan four seasons ago there was no where to go but up for the struggling program.
Choosing to start several freshmen and sophomores, the Huskies finished at 4-6 during Eagle’s first season in 2010 and 1-9 the next year.
That strategy, though, has proved beneficial. Morgan went 5-5 last season, but won its last four games. This year the Huskies are unbeaten through five games and host fellow unbeaten Valley Regional/Old Lyme on Friday in one of the biggest games in recent memory for the Clinton school, which hasn’t reached the postseason since 2000.
Eagle’s vision to turn the program around seems to finally be coming to fruition.
“Without a doubt it is,” Eagle said. “My first year the program was a little in disarray.”
Eagle noted that Morgan had less than 30 kids on its roster and lacked senior leadership his first year. But with a dedicated and knowledgeable group of assistants, including line coach Tom Drew, the Huskies have positioned themselves as contenders in the Pequot Conference.
“This is our first senior class,” Eagle said. “They dedicated themselves and bought into what we’re teaching here.”
Morgan’s impressive start to this season isn’t entirely surprising. The Huskies returned several talented starters, including senior quarterback Alex Lipka, junior running back Jake Ward and a big, physical and mobile offensive line.
“We expected to be good,” Eagle admitted. “These kids are juniors and seniors who started as freshmen and sophomores, we expected to be competitive at this point. We wanted to be 5-0, and here we are. This is what we talked about over the summer. This is what the kids wanted. It’s been a nice little run thus far.”
Ward, whose father Chris is the defensive coordinator and running backs coach at Morgan, is, arguably, the top running back in the league. The 5-foot-10, 180 pound Ward has rushed 114 times for 1,208 yards (10.3 yards per carry) and 20 touchdowns this season. Eagle, who is a physical education teacher at McGee Middle School in Berlin, says Ward has similar qualities to those of former Berlin standout Max DeLorenzo, who’s now playing at UConn. Eagle coached DeLorenzo when Eagle was an assistant at Berlin.
“You get special players every now and then and this kid is in the same mold (of DeLorenzo),” Eagle said about Ward. “Not only is he (Ward) physically gifted, but he understands the mental part. He’s a football kid. He’s a tough kid; a strong kid.”
Ward also plays strong safety on a defense that has allowed just 13 points per game.
“He’s just as good defensively,” Eagle said. “He calls our defensive shells. He’s one of those kids that has all the intangibles.”
Lipka has started at quarterback since Week 7 of his sophomore year. He has completed 26 of 51 passes for 616 yards and seven touchdowns against just one interception this season. Lipka has also rushed for five scores.
“He has really turned it on,” Eagle said. “He knows the offense inside and out. He took it upon himself to be the field general. Everything we do is called on the line, we don’t huddle.”
The offensive line is another reason for the Huskies’ success. That unit includes senior Riley Cronan (6-3, 245) and juniors Jake Teuner (6-6, 220), Jace Garcia (6-3, 350), Greg Lee (5-10, 205), Eric Peterson (6-3, 280) and Chris Seales (6-2, 260).
Morgan will have a size advantage when it faces Valley Regional/Old Lyme (5-0) in what is expected to be one of this weekend’s most intense games. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at the Peters Complex in Clinton. Eagle got his coaching start as an assistant at Valley Regional in the early 2000s.
“(Valley head coach) Tim King gave me my first shot at coaching,” Eagle said.
Valley Regional/Old Lyme has an explosive offense led by senior quarterback Phil Cohen, junior running back Justin Cheverier and junior receivers Chris Jean Pierre and Evan Smith.
“You know that team is going to come in ready and disciplined,” Eagle said. “Their QB (Cohen) is very, very good. He stirs the pot. He makes that team go.”
Esposito excelling for ND-WH
Senior captain Sal Esposito, a fullback, has done an outstanding job of blocking for featured back Cam Tucker this season for Notre Dame-West Haven.
But Esposito can do more than just block. With Tucker not 100 percent due to an ankle injury, Esposito has recently proven just how good a running back he can be.
Esposito, 5-10, 190, rushed 15 times for a team-high 157 yards and added two touchdowns in a 38-20 win over Amity this past week.
“Sal’s been great for us,” Notre Dame coach Tom Marcucci said. “Sal has good speed, good power, and he’s certainly capable of getting the job done for us.”
Esposito also excels in the classroom. Marcucci says Esposito is one of the top students in the senior class and has received interest from such schools as Trinity and Stonehill.
“Sal is a very good football player, and a good student,” Marcucci added.
Tucker injured his ankle on the first play from scrimmage in the Green Knights’ loss to Fairfield Prep on Sept. 27. Tucker didn’t play the next week in a loss to Ridgefield, a game in which Esposito ran for 100 yards and one touchdown.
Although not at full-strength Tucker returned the next week against rival West Haven, rushing 18 times for 55 yards and two touchdowns. Tucker rushed 26 times for 106 yards and three touchdowns against Amity.
“Cam came back a little early against West Haven,” Marcucci said. “It’s his senior year in a big rivalry game so he wanted to play. He played (defense) for the first time in awhile (against Amity), which is helpful. We needed him out there.”
Notre Dame (2-4) has lost to St. Joseph, Fairfield Prep, Ridgefield and West Haven, who are a combined 20-4.
“We definitely needed to get that (the win over Amity),” Marcucci said. “People were telling us how tough our schedule was but it gave us no satisfaction, we were still 1-4. We needed the win against Amity. It was a good win for us.”
Notre Dame visits Xavier (4-2) on Friday.
“Another easy one,” Marcucci joked. “There’s no hiding in this league (the SCC).”
Newsome earns national honor
Ansonia senior running back Arkeel Newsome was named the U.S. Army All-American Bowl national high school player of the week.
Newsome rushed for 396 yards and six touchdowns in a 56-21 victory over Masuk on Thursday.
In the process, Newsome became the state’s all-time leading rusher. Newsome has gained 8,380 yards in his career. Newsome has season totals of 106 carries for 1,575 yards and 26 touchdowns. He also holds state records for career touchdowns (139) and points (900).
Derby senior running back Tyrae Small is likely lost for the season after he fractured his coracoid, a bone in the shoulder. Derby coach George French says Small will have a CAT scan this week and that surgery is a possibility depending on the test results.
Derby (4-2) hosts Valley rival Seymour (3-3) on Friday.
Shelton junior quarterback Mark Piccirillo suffered a leg injury in the Gaels’ victory over Wilbur Cross this past week. Shelton coach Jeff Roy says Piccirillo is being evaluated on a day-to-day basis. The injury does not seem serious and it’s likely Piccirillo will play this Friday when the Gaels (5-1) host Hand (5-1).