- COACH — JOHNNY BURNS (1st year)
- CONFERENCE — ECC Division I
- PLAYOFF CLASS — L (568 boys enrollment)
- HOME — Canamella Field, New London
- 2017 RECORD — 4-6
- 2018 OPENER — Sept. 7 vs. Capital Prep/Achievement, 6:30 p.m.
- JACOB COMMANDER, Sr. RB/LB
- JOSEPH LUCAS, Jr. OL/DT
- OWEN GEORGE, Jr. QB
- NAZELL HODGES, Sr. TE/DE
- CLAYTON SMITH, Jr. OLB
- GERMIAH BALLINGER, Jr. LB/RB
- LEVESTER GANT, Sr. OL
- ZEHKI BURGIS, Sr. WR/CB
- NICHOLAS FLEETWOOD, Sr. RB
- ANTHONIO JONES, Sr. OL/DE
WR/DB Gio Lopez (All-State), WR/DE Elijah Parker.
Every time Johnny Burns, hired this offseason to replace Juan Roman as the head coach at New London, heads out to practice, he can help but wade through a flood of memories.
“I’m coaching on the field that’s right next to the neighborhood I grew up in and played around when I was a kid,” Burns said. “It takes me all the way back. I’m definitely excited about this journey.”
The 41-year old indeed has a direct link to the program’s not-so-distant glorious past. Not only did he grow up a stone’s throw away from the high school field, he played on Jim Buonocore Sr.’s back-to-back two state championship teams of the early 1990s.
Burns has been a head coach and league administrator for years, just not at the high school level. He turned Norwich’s Youth Football program into a successful outfit and, with a family to care for at home, Burns said he was content. “I was all right. I was busy enough,” he said. “I had enough responsibility.”
But then came itch to coach at a higher level, Burns said, and he felt he was ready. He was about to accept a coordinator job at another ECC school, but when his alma mater came calling, he answered.
“We just kind of collided at the midnight hour,” Burns said. “It’s exciting. It’s surreal.”
Roman, who was compelled to leave to watch his two former New London All-State sons, D. Major and J. Hunter play at Yale, left approximately seven returning starters from last year’s 4-6 team, including four-year stater Jacob Commander back at tailback.
New London is just a year removed from a Class L playoff-season and talent, as Burns knows, isn’t too hard to find at New London. He expects his Whalers will keep the tradition going.
“There’s a nice foundation here,” he said. “We feel good about ourselves.”
New London’s primary weapon will be Commander, a two-way star at the school for his entire varsity career. He was all-state two seasons ago and has run for 1,907 yards and 14 touchdowns.
His ground production last season dropped, somewhat, as the Whalers relied more on all-stater Gio Lopez, who has since graduated after leading the team with 51 catches and 16 touchdowns. Commander is also one of the ECC’s best linebackers. He averaged 8.0 tackles a game to lead the Whalers last year.
New London also returns second-year starting quarterback Owen George, who threw for 1,454 yards and 18 touchdowns last season as a sophomore.
“Those guys are certainly going to be part of the leadership fabric of our team,” Burns said.
Three starters return on the offensive lines. New London graduated all four of its top receivers from last year, and will look to Commander, senior Zehki Burgis and senior tight end Nazell Hodges.
On defense, Hodges (3.1 tackles/game and two sacks) and junior Joseph Lucas (2.7 tackles/game) will man New London’s defensive line. Junior Clayton Smith (3.4 tackles/game) and NFA transfer Germiah Ballinger will join Commander at linebacker.
“We have a nice group of youngsters. The sophomore class is pretty talented,” Burns said. “We’re still putting all puzzle pieces together. iWe have to control what we do in terms of being prepared and bringing our A-game week in and week out. We feel as long as we bring our A-game, there’s not game on schedule game we won’t be competitive in.”
About that schedule… New London (and, by extension, the ECC) left Burns a rough non-conference schedule to go with Whalers’ six-game ECC schedule.
The Whalers start the year with Capital Prep/Achievement, play at Notre Dame-West Haven (for the second time in three seasons, by the way), face Class M champion Killingly and defending ECC Division I champ Fitch and, finally, Hillhouse and East Lyme — all well-known programs with recent postseason and championship pedigrees. Later, they face Middletown a week before resuming their 150-year rival Norwich Free Academy. The Whalers rallied to win a thriller a year ago.
“We’ve taken on quite the schedule and we realize there are certain challenges ahead,” Burns said. “But we want to be a program that plays good football teams week-to-week. It’s nice to have the big blowouts, but we would rather be a program competing throughout the season.
“So when we reach our postseason goals, it’ll already a part of our culture.”
- Sept. 7 — CAPITAL PREP/ACHIEVEMENT, 6:30 p.m.
- Sept. 14 — at Notre Dame-West Haven, 7 p.m.
- Sept. 21 — KILLINGLY*, 6:30 p.m.
- Sept. 29 — FITCH**, 1 p.m.
- Oct. 12 — HILLHOUSE, 6:30 p.m.
- Oct. 26 — at East Lyme**, 6:30 p.m.
- Nov. 2 — at Ledyard*, 6:30 p.m.
- Nov. 9 — at Stonington*, 6:30 p.m.
- Nov. 15 — at Middletown, 6 p.m.
- Nov. 22 — NORWICH FREE ACADEMY**, 10 a.m.
Home games in CAPS
Note: New London has only played Notre Dame-WH twice over the last three seasons, not three straight years as written in a previous version of this story. It has been corrected.