BERLIN — There’s one month to the start of practice and another month to the first Connecticut high school football games since 2019.
A strange and disappointing 2020 is behind the state’s teams. They’ve got something much more tangible to prepare for. And that includes some enjoyable competition at the Berlin Lineman Challenge, another institution that had to sit out a year for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think of course we’re having a good time,” Darien senior defensive lineman Beau Hancock said, “but Darien has a history, especially with (strength and conditioning coach) John Carlozzi — he’s a great trainer — of winning this event. Last time we had it, we didn’t place so well, so there’s a big focus on trying to win this year.”
The Blue Wave didn’t quite get there, though they were competitive in most events. They’re a perennial contender when the football begins for real, too: They’ve appeared in six state finals in the past seven times they’ve been contested. There was no CIAC football in the 2020-21 school year.
Darien did get to play football last fall, taking part — officially unconnected to the school — in an independent league in Fairfield County. The team played four games before Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration shut down “higher risk” youth sports in early November.
“We got four games in,” Hancock said. “The whole year, we’ve been in the weight room. As soon as we were able to get back in the gym, we were there. We were in there four days a week, almost the whole team.
“When it comes down to it, we’d love to have the skills (players) here to cheer us on, but they’re at Grip It and Rip It in New Canaan. When it comes down to it, we just want to win.”
— Will Aldam (@AldamWill) July 10, 2021
Around 40 teams have competed in some past years, but there were 23 on Saturday. There was not, sadly, the spectacle of teammates going head-to-head in the tug-of-war elimination-bracket finale; Darien won that event.
Who was Hancock interested in seeing Saturday?
“Definitely that kid from West Haven who got 37 reps (at bench press),” Hancock said. “I saw him do that big wheel push (a sandbag-laden, large-diameter cylinder that was clearly much harder to roll than it appeared) in 10 seconds. He’s a beast. I’m not looking forward to playing him in tug of war.”
That was West Haven senior Kyshawn Togba, who receiving the day’s top lineman award named in memory of Berlin’s Nick Zuk, who died of cancer in 2016. Togba’s official bench-press number was 34 reps at 185 pounds, a competition record.
A new name, Newtown sophomore Jack Chappa, had the best agility course time for a while before Southington senior Austin Pszczolkowski turned in a time of 17.25 seconds late in the morning.
Southington and West Haven won two events apiece. Simsbury and Notre Dame-Fairfield each took one. Darien won three, including the tug-of-war.
In the final point tally, Southington took the team title, with Simsbury and West Haven placing second and third.