Every year, as the euonymus bushes along Route 8 turn crimson and summer fades toward fall, a question bugs me: Is it time to hang up the clipboard and quit football?
Face it: I covered my first Connecticut high school game for the Register in 1957. I’ve charted games in at least 75 venues – 80-odd if you count prep schools – from Greenwich to Stonington to Windsor Locks. I’ve voted in probably 40 of the 53 seasons the Register has run a Top 10 poll. I’ve seen great athletes who would become famous or infamous, from Hall of Famer Floyd Little to multiple murder suspect Aaron Hernandez.
Why, then, should an old dude with a metal hip joint and none-too-pristine knees still want to be out on Friday nights, watching teen-agers chase their dream of playing for a trophy in December’s snows?
Good question. It gives me pause.
But then I remember:
I remember seeing Dario Highsmith, of Middletown’s Highsmith dynasty, turn right end on a sweep and arrive in an eyeblink at a goal line 71 yards away. And I thought: Good gosh, that kid will visit a lot more end zones before he gets his diploma in 2015.
Or I remember hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” played by the Wethersfield band or sung by North Haven übersoprano Natalie Oronzo and thinking: Wow, that pregame moment alone is worth the price of admission.
Or I remember reading the statistics on New Canaan’s Peter Swindell, who kicked a dozen field goals – the longest 45 yards – last fall as a mere sophomore. And I realized: hey, New Canaan comes to Madison this year to play Hand on opening weekend. A must-see game, for sure.
So the answer to my question is nope; I’m not done. Sign me up for another year.
Bounty or excess?
There’s too much football in Connecticut.
That’s what the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference decided last winter after snow kept the playoffs from ending until six days before Christmas. State finalists that had league playoffs – five of last year’s eight – endured seasons numbering 15 games. “We’re a little nicked up,” Ansonia coach Tom Brockett observed before the Class S final, “[but] everybody’s nicked up.”
The upshot was that, for this year at least, the CIAC has shortened state playoffs from three rounds to two, eliminating the Tuesday-after-Thanksgiving quarterfinals. Instead of crowning four champions from eight-team fields, the CIAC will have eight champions from four-team fields. That’s a lot of champions, but maybe they’ll have fewer bruises.
Effective in 2015, playoffs will again be three rounds, but the regular season will be shorter. Teams will have a ceiling of 13 games, league and state playoffs included.
Problem: As noted, it snows in Connecticut, and the timing doesn’t always fit a three-rounds-in-12-days playoff schedule.
This writer would have been happier to see the playoffs left at two rounds and the playoff field trimmed to 24 teams in six divisions. (Connecticut never has 32 playoff-worthy teams, as attested by quarterfinal scores of 45-3, 51-8 and such.) If it didn’t need to cram quarterfinals in on a Tuesday night, the CIAC could adjust playing dates according to the weather forecast.
A further suggestion – admittedly not original – would be to structure the playoff divisions thus:
- An elite class, with four teams plucked from other classes via a strength-of-schedule formula.
- A new Class CT (co-ops and tech schools), letting teams that are often beaten up in state playoffs face comparable opponents.
- The four traditional enrollment classes – LL, L, M and S.
A perfect solution? No. There is none. But the CIAC needs to give its football committee room to think beyond the box.
A shrinking number
The number of varsity football teams in Connecticut drops by three this year, to 143. Whitney Tech of Hamden, winless last season, and Housatonic/ Wamogo in the state’s northwest corner. which ran short of players midway through 2013, have downgraded to junior varsity programs. Immaculate of Danbury, also unable to finish last season, has joined Abbott Tech in a co-op program.
Your questions answered
Questions come to this corner – one last year was from Saline, Michigan – about keeping football statistics. And no wonder.
Statistics employ a strange logic. The ball can change position statistically while just lying on the ground. A punt and a pass can occur on the same play, but not a pass and a rush. A defender who tackles the quarterback for a safety gets credit for a tackle, a tackle for loss, and a sack – but not for the 2 points. And so on.
The good news is that the National Federation, which crafts the rules of high school football, offers an online statisticians’ manual that covers several sports. It’s here.
Further, the NCAA’s football statistics handbook, from which the Federation derived its rules, is on line and is updated every couple of years. It’s here.
Now there’s no excuse for a team not to keep statistics and report them to Maxpreps, which acts as the CIAC’s statistical clearing house.
Clarity in colors
The National Federation playing rules are arguably the best at any level of football, but even they could use some tweaking.
For instance, they could ban certain color combinations that make jersey numerals hard to read. If you ever watched, say, Gilbert/ Northwestern (yellow on white) vs. Canton (black on burgundy), you know that quarter-inch borders on the numbers are no real help.
And the football rules could borrow a couple of referee’s signals from soccer: yellow card held aloft for a warning, red card for ejection. Those are clearer than the signals in football’s manual.
Case in point: Last year the North Haven band brought a 15-yard penalty upon the football team for playing while Darien was calling offensive signals. No one in the stands had a clue what was up.
In discussions afterward, it developed that Darien had complained earlier about band noise and the complaint had been relayed to North Haven. A second offense brought the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Referee Billy Riccio, an experienced rule interpreter, made a proper call. But if, after one complaint, he could have walked over to the bandleader and given him a yellow card, things would have been so much clearer.
North Haven, by the way, is hardly a major offender in this regard. Two affluent schools that often make the playoffs have bands that routinely toot when the other side has the ball. I’ve never seen them flagged.
Sportsmanship can’t be legislated, but it sometimes needs a push.
Plotting the itinerary
If you have a source of cheap gasoline (hint: try those stations on the Berlin Turnpike around Newington), this year’s four-day opening weekend offers a chance to pig out on good football. The Fairfield County-vs.-New Haven County intersectional series offers New Canaan-Hand, Greenwich-West Haven, St. Joseph-Notre Dame (West Haven), stuff like that.
Other weathervane games include Greenwich-Darien in Week 2, Newtown-Ansonia in Week 6 when South-West Conference teams challenge the Naugatuck Valley League, and the Central Connecticut Conference showdown on Thanksgiving eve when Windsor visits Middletown. Both may come in unbeaten.
Saturdays will be less lively this fall because nearly all the schools ranked high in the polls have opted for Friday night lights. With that proviso, here’s one man’s grand plan for seeing as many good and might-be-good teams as possible:
Week 1 (Sept. 10-13)
Week 2 (Sept. 19-20)
Darien at Greenwich, 7 p.m. Friday; Fairfield Prep at St. Joseph, 1 p.m. Saturday.
Week 3 (Sept. 26-27)
Holy Cross at Naugatuck, 7 p.m. Friday; Morgan at Hyde, noon Saturday.
Week 4 (Oct. 2-4)
Week 5 (Oct. 10-11)
Week 6 (Oct. 17-18)
Week 7 (Oct. 24-25)
Fairfield Prep at Cheshire, 7 p.m. Friday; Valley Regional/ Old Lyme at Coginchaug, 1 p.m. Saturday.
Week 8 (Oct. 30-Nov. 1)
Week 9 (Nov. 7-8)
Week 10 (Nov. 13-15)
Week 11 (Nov. 20-22)
Glastonbury at Simsbury, 7 p.m. Friday; Conard at William Hall, 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
Thanksgiving (Nov. 26-27)
Windsor at Middletown, 7 p.m. Wednesday; Cheshire at Southington, 10 a.m. Thursday.