Seniors Matt Brehon, David Harris and Shawn Ogarro just may be the best running back trio in the state and a big reason why Hillhouse is one victory from capturing a sixth state title.
But the three would be hard-pressed to find any running room without the guys in front of them in the trenches.
“The line is very vital, they just open the holes for us,” Brehon said. “The O line, they work together as a good unit and they stick together even when we’re in bad situations. They’re the ones who provide for the whole team.”
The Academics returned junior Jaavon Brown (left guard) and seniors Billy Oliver (center) and Alvin Weekes (right guard) on the line. The two other positions were filled by first-year starters Moise Cisse (right guard) and Ronnie Morris (left tackle), both seniors.
“It was a work in progress, but they came around,” Hillhouse coach Reggie Lytle said. “They came around and put it together. A lot of teams like blitzing, putting nine guys in the box to stop our running game, but they picked up on it. It was a lot of communication and working together. You have to peak at the right time and, so far, they’re peaking at the right time.”
The second-seeded Academics (11-1) face No. 5 St. Joseph (10-2) for the Class M title on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at Ken Strong Stadium in West Haven. Hillhouse is in search of its first title since 2012. The Academics are 5-1 in state finals since winning their first CIAC championship in 1985.
Expect to see Hillhouse run early and often. The Academics have rushed for nearly 4,000 yards and 41 touchdowns this season behind that big and physical line. Brown, Weekes and Morris are all listed at 300 pounds.
“They’ve had a continuity,” Lytle said. “Ronnie Morris and Cisse, they’re first-year starters at tackle but they have done a nice job. All of them are big kids; strong kids. It’s a nice front, I’m sure Matt Brehon appreciates it.”
It took some time for the newly-built offensive line to jell, but once they did, they developed into one of the state’s best units. Brown, Cisse and Oliver were all named to the all-SCC team.
“We kind of had to jell as a unit,” Oliver said. “We worked really hard together in the offseason. The coaches were great, they pushed us hard. We worked. It’s a grind, but you have to stay mentally focused throughout the whole year. We stayed together as a team and we worked our butts off as a team, and it’s paying off now.”
A lineman’s job is normally difficult and they seldom get much publicity. Oliver says he and his fellow linemen are cool with that.
“I think that comes with the position,” Oliver said. “When they succeed, and the team succeeds, we all succeed. It gives me a sense of accomplishment to know that I’m apart of this and I’m contributing to what we’re doing.”
The Academics lost only to Fairfield Prep during the regular season. Hillhouse won its first ever playoff game at historic Bowen Field by defeating New Fairfield in the quarterfinals and then the Academics surged past Killingly in the semifinals, also played at Bowen.
The new Bowen Field, which included a turf field and lights, was officially open for full-time use at the start of this season. Hillhouse defeated crosstown rival Wilbur Cross on Thanksgiving last season on what was the first official game on the new field. The Academics are 10-0 since renovations were complete.
“It was tremendous, it was great,” Lytle said about having the new field. “It was everything we planned out, having two home games in the playoffs.”
Now, Hillhouse preps for a St. Joseph team in search of its 13th state title and fifth since 2009.
The Academics feel they have the size and speed to match the Hogs’, and St. Joseph is aware of just how dangerous Hillhouse is.
“They have a lot of speed,” St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “They’re good all around but their skill kids are exceptional. We’re going to have to try to limit them from big plays and we’re going to have to finish off tackles.”