WALLINGFORD – When LJ Spinnato applied for the Choate head coaching job back in 2014 he had one important thing he wanted to do: “Rock Connecticut.”
“I think there is great talent in Connecticut, great students in Connecticut, great education in Connecticut,” Spinnato said. “Those kids that were rocking where they were would be great fits for Choate. And also when you get kids from Connecticut, you get a great fan base.
“The Choate football community now is so special because of our Connecticut families and the atmosphere they create at the games and that helps recruit others.”
Of the 51 football players on the Choate roster, 24 of them are from in-state.
“We’ve been fortunate to get a bunch of great kids and get into great families — in the Connecticut area, the New Haven area, also the Fairfield County area — that have made up our roster for the past five years as I have been the head coach,” Spinnato said. “They have really been kind of our mainstays in our program.”
Over Spinnato’s five seasons as head coach of Choate, his team’s have never lost.
The Wild Boars are 47-0 in Spinnato’s tenure, including four-consecutive NEPSAC Bowl championships. At 9-0 this season, the Wild Boards are going for a fifth-straight title.
All four captains – Hunter Burns (Milford) Clay Zachery (Easton), Spencer Witter (West Hartford), James McCarthy (West Haven) – are in-state players, a first under Spinnato.
Starting offensive lineman Crawford Sargent and Gary Kazanijian, who are from Greenwich and Glastonbury, respectively. Starting defensive lineman North Peters is from Mystic, running back Rashaud Conway is from Manchester and defensive tackle Jonny Wu is from Wilton. Sean Dennehy is from Wallingford and Jack Dialia is from Cheshire.
“I think it’s pretty amazing because Connecticut, a lot of time, is overlooked,” Peters said. “To see that we have a group of a lot of Connecticut guys is good to have.”
For Dennehy coming to Choate was an easy decision, his dad, Pat Dennehy, is Choate’s boys ice hockey coach.
“Just looking at our team, our roster is unbelievable,” Dennehy said. “We have a ton of talent. Our coach tries to attract top kids in Connecticut to come here and I think he has done a great job over the past couple of years.
“I’ve been around this campus for 15 years now,” he said. “So there was no question that I wanted to come here ever since I was a little kid.”
For the other players they choose to come for a handful of different reasons.
Some said the academics, others said football, but they all focused on the community.
“Even with new players, the program stays exactly the same,” Dialia said. “We stress brotherhood and relentless precision in all aspects of football.”
That’s is one of the many reasons why the Wild Boars will take their undefeated record into the Mike Silipo Bowl – a de facto NEPSAC Class A championship game, on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. on Choate’s turf field in Wallingford.
Choate will be hosting 7-1 Brunswick, led by four-star receiver and Greenwich native Cornelius Johnson and running back Jalen Madison, from Stratford in a NEPSAC Bowl with an overwhelming Nutmeg State flavor.
Johnson, a wide receiver, has been recruited by almost every major college football program. He recently told GameTimeCT he has narrowed his choices to Michigan, Penn State, Stanford, Alabama and Notre Dame.
Johnson will be one player Spinnato and the coaching staff are focused on stopping.
“I haven’t really had a chance to see him outside of the past two days on film, but he is a rare talent, he’s a special talent,” Spinnato said. “I am not sure we have seen someone with his abilities before and they try to get him the ball in many different ways.
“He’s a problem, someone we have to try and slow down. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to neutralize him, but at least try to slow him down a bit.”
The Wild Boars will not only have to worry about Johnson, but must also contend with the possible return of Madison. The former Bunnell star has run for nearly 800 yards and 10 touchdowns before injuring his ankle in the Bruins’ only loss of the season, 17-14 to Avon Old Farms.
Choate has had injury issues of its own. The Wild Boars again will be without starting quarterback Jack Maley. The senior from Darien played the first seven games of the season before a season-ending shoulder injury.
So, Maley has taken a different role with the team to help out the new quarterback, who happens to be fellow Darien native Shane Baldwin.
“He has done an incredible job as an assistant coach and still leading in his own right and still rallying the troops like he did as a player,” Spinnato said. “He is working hard to step in, in Jack’s shoes and those two are working together well to get Shane ready for each game.”
For Choate, beating Brunswick requires what the players have done all season.
“We know they are a tough team,” Sargent said. “We know they play hard and we know that we are going to have to be perfect in our execution. We’re going to go out there and play our best game to compete.”