SWC-NVL football beat: Bruno, Bunnell meet again; Welcome back Pomperaug

Naugatuck coach Craig Bruno (left) matches up against Bunnell, the team he  led to two state championships, now coached by Doug Cotto.

Naugatuck coach Craig Bruno (left) matches up against Bunnell, the team he led to two state championships, now coached by Doug Cotto.

Craig Bruno bleeds Bunnell blue.

He grew up in Stratford, he attended the school on the north end, played for and then coached under Bunnell’s longtime football coach Bob Mastroni.

Bruno took over in 2001 and brought the football program into another another dimension, that of a state power. Bunnell was 25-1 from 2006-07 and won back-to-back Class L state championships.

“I spent my whole life there,” he said.

The wily and  emotional coach will be doing everything he can to keep his feelings buried when he stands on the sidelines at Naugatuck’s Veterans Field Friday night and sees players, fans and friends from his alma mater staring back at him from the other side.

Bruno coaches at Naugatuck now. And, as fate would have it, his Greyhounds were pitted against Bunnell in the SWC-NVL Challenge.

“It’s definitely going to be different,” said Bruno, who stunned his community when it was announced he was leaving Bunnell and taking over at Naugatuck last winter. “The first time I watched film, it felt like I was preparing for a (Thanksgiving town rival) Stratford game. I’d always know players well. I’d know all the kids names and stuff and it feels different.

“I miss a lot of people over there and some things cause me emotional and sad about it. In my heart, I have a lot of torn emotions. But I’m going to do my best to bury them and realty try to focus on what needs to be done for my team.”

[Related: SWC-NVL PREVIEW CAPSULES]

Bruno insists the game isn’t about him.  ”This is about two non-conference teams playing a non-conference game,” he said.

New Bunnell coach Doug Cotto agrees.

“Obviously, there are a lot of underlying things in this game. My kids are playing against the guy who used to coach there. I’d be naive to think otherwise, ” said Cotto, the former Newtown defensive coordinator who took over in the summer. “But, for us, it’s the next game on the schedule. When we line up on the field, we’re not playing Craig. We’re playing Naugatuck.

“We won’t get eight wins if we win it. We won’t fold up the program if we lose it.”

When it comes to preparing for a Bruno-coached team, though, it helps to have played his unorthodox style.

Luckily for Cotto, he has a roster full of players who won’t be stunned when Naugatuck tries a fake punt deep in its own end, won’t be confused when Naugatuck lines up in a polecat formation, tries double reverses, or throws 15-to-20 deep balls down field.

“If anything, it’s more of an advantage to them, I think, because they know what I do,”  said Bruno, who promises to open his mad scientist playbook. “I don’t know Doug too well. I’m not familiar with his offense. But I do know their personnel, hopefully that’ll help us.”

Cotto, who coached against Bruno twice while at Newtown, knows what to expect. That goes double for his players, who are led by quarterback Nolan Aurelia and still trying to find their way after a 2-3 start. “They’re pretty familiar with what he does, yea,” Cotto said. “It’s still fresh in their minds. They have a keen idea of what’s coming. Practice has been fun. When we’ve lined up to show them, they already know.

“Football crazy game. You could know as much as you know, but it comes down to executing on the field. We have to execute.”

[Complete SWC-NVL Challenge Preview Capsules]

Welcome back, Pomperaug

Croce-TDIt takes six hours to drive from the University of Maine to Southbury.

Steve and Kellen Croce wish it took 5 hours and 59 minutes.

That one minute would have allowed the Pomperaug offensive line coach and his middle son, a quarterback at Maine, the chance to watch the youngest son of the Croce family make Pomperaug’s biggest play in years.

Steven Croce caught the winning 12-yard touchdown pass from Wade Prajer to give Pomperaug an stunning 35-32 victory over previously unbeaten Masuk last Friday.

“I was doing about 95 down Interstate-84,” said Steve Croce, a former offensive coordinator at Pomperaug and at Holy Cross when his oldest son Mike led the Crusaders to the 2006 SS title at QB. “I was flying. My wife’s screaming at me to put her on speaker phone.”

The two hit Hartford by the fourth quarter as Kelly Croce gave play-by-play interspersed with bright color commentary. They pulled into Pomperaug High School just after his son’s big touchdown catch.

“We had just won the game and Steve comes running onto the field,” Pomperaug coach Dave Roach said. ”There were so many stories surrounding this game.”

It was a banner night for Pomperaug, which has faded somewhat from the state scene in recent years.

Pomperaug trailed by 14 but rallied behind Prajer’s career night at quarterback: a school record 401 yards and two touchdowns.

“Watching the film, there were parts Masuk could have blown us away,” Roach said. “But our kids stuck with it.”

Down 32-27, Prajer threw an interception and fans at the Arum Athletic Complex began leaving, Roach said.

But Masuk failed to get a enough first downs to run out the clock and Pomperaug got the ball at its own 30 with 1:18 left and no timeouts. They ran a 2-minute drill, taking advantage of a personal foul call and a fourth-down pass interference call in the end zone to set up Croce’s winning score with 18 seconds left

On the ensuing kickoff, Roach said he instructed senior kicker Nickolas Harper, who joined the team just before the season began, to chip the ball to the 30-yard line to give the kickoff team time to cover.

But Harper tripped and accidentally squibbed the ball past the unsuspecting Masuk players. Michael Curcio recovered for Pomperaug to end the game.

And so the Panthers are suddenly feeling better about themselves heading into Friday’s SWC-NVL Challenge game vs. Woodland (5-0).

A 6-foot, 190-pound junior, Prajer played in spots a year ago alongside Eric Beatty. Now, in sole control of the offense, he’s suddenly setting the SWC aflame. Since Pomperaug has veered away from using its traditional, double-wing formation, Prajer has set and surpassed the state’s single-game completion record in back-to-back weeks.

He was 42-for-61 vs. Bethel, breaking the state mark of 38 set by Foran’s Jake White in 2007. Against Masuk, he was 38-for-56.

Croce and 6-4 receiver Ryan Johannes have subsequently put up big numbers as well, allowing Roach to pop either Bobby Tzepos and big fullback/linebacker Jack Yule in for hard yardage.

“I do have guys up front,” Roach said. “But we were struggling to run block early in the season. We’ve been able to pass because we try to take what the defense gives us.”

But even Roach was surprised at the Masuk result. The program has gone just 6-9 over the last season and change.

“We didn’t have a great week of practice and it’s been hard for me to get a grip on this team.” Roach said. “Kids are coachable if they listen. Some weren’t listening. Since this senior class has been freshmen, they kind of did what they wanted to do.

“We’re excited about this. I think they needed to see some success and to see that listening, working hard and hustling pays off. Hopefully we can build off this.”

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