FAIRFIELD — So close, but yet, so far.
Last season, Fairfield Prep needed a victory against West Haven in its final game of the season to make the Class LL playoffs for the first time since 2013.
They came up just short.
West Haven won 28-21, eliminating the Jesuits and leaving a team with a decent 6-4 finish and a very sour taste in its mouth.
“We were definitely motivated over the winter and summer with our lifting and our off-season work,” senior quarterback Will Lucas said. “I think we’re going to be happy. I think we’re going to do well this season.”
And why not? Three years without playing in the postseason can make a team hungry, and angry, and yes, the Jesuits are both.
“When you come that close, the margin for error is so small,” Prep coach Keith Hellstern said. “And if you have a hic-up in week one or week two, you still have the rest of your season but you want to be building momentum, you don’t want to have to keep climbing that slippery slope and unfortunately, that’s what’s happened to us the last couple of years.
“Every season is a new season and the ultimate goal for us is to try and put yourself in a position to be playoff-bound. This thing I emphasize with them and I think they get it, is that it’s a one day at a time process … but I think our guys are really hungry. They’ve been working hard at it.”
Quarterback Patrick Conte graduated and Hellstern’s biggest challenge was to name a replacement. The competition in camp was between Lucas and junior Conner Boyle. When the Jesuits take the field for Friday night’s season opener against Notre Dame-West Haven (7 p.m. Veterans Stadium) it will be Lucas leading them.
“I’ve been trying to work on things that I didn’t do well last year, like just getting the ball to my playmakers’ hands and not trying to do too much with it, not trying to force throws, which I did too much of last year,” Lucas said. “I’d like to use my athleticism, run when it’s there, just get the ball into the playmakers’ hands.”
“We have a luxury to have two guys with some experience,” Hellstern said. “With Will, it’s all about his comfort level in the huddle and his ability to manage the game better. He played as a freshman, didn’t play as a sophomore and then came back strong last season. He’s been doing his for a long time.”
Protecting Lucas will be returning offensive linemen senior center Matt Trez (6-2, 310), junior tackle Campbell Halloran (6-2, 235) and junior tackle Will Healy (6-2, 240).
“If they play well, I think we’ve got the weapons in the backfield to allow us to run the football,” Hellstern said.
Running the football? That job goes to junior Doug Harrison (5-9, 195), who after being banged up in the early part of the season, started the last seven games and rushed for 1,018 yards and scored 10 touchdowns.
“We want to play to our strengths, you want to be physical and run the ball and having a gifted back helps, but you have to block,” Hellstern said. “If you can manage a game physically, you’ve got a great chance to win.”
Along with Harrison, Hellstern will look at a deep core of receivers to spread the field and get the offense going.
“Our receivers went from being big and huge to small and athletic,” Hellstern said. “They’re just great kids in space. They’ve all got good skills and I think they’re going to allow us to do some things.”
Senior Chris Duffy (5-10, 150), junior Finn Duran (5-10, 155), senior Tairece Somers (6-1, 160), junior Pete Kavanaugh (5-9, 155), senior P.J. DeJesus (5-9, 165) are the players that Hellstern is relying on.
“We’ve got a great wide receiver core,” Lucas said. “We’ve got a lot of weapons. Now, it’s time to see what they can do.”
All-State punter Bruno Perlicki (6-4, 205) returns as does Prep’s entire linebacking core, including Justin Keith (6-1, 200) — the team’s leading tackler last season — Anthony Mastroni (6-3, 250), Will Stenz (6-4, 200) and A.J. Valus (6-2, 195). And returning to that old school Prep defense will be paramount in a march to the postseason.
“We have goals that we have to set, defend the run and be sound in everything that we’re doing,” Hellstern said. “I think we’ve enough pieces there to be successful.”
FAIRFIELD PREP JESUITS
COACH: Keith Hellstern (Third season, 11-9)
2016 RECORD: 6-4
TOP RETURNEES: RB Doug Harrison (5-8, 195), P Bruno Perlicki (6-4, 205), LB Justin Keith (6-1, 200), LB Anthony Mastroni (6-3, 250), LB Will Stenz (6-4, 200), LB A.J. Valus (6-2, 195), OL Matt Trez (6-2, 310)
REASON TO SMILE: Defense should be solid as entire linebacking corps returns, led by Keith, the team’s leading tackler from last season.
REASON TO WORRY: Hellstern needs to fill a lot of holes on both offensive and defensive lines and young players at perimeter skill positions need to grow up fast.
DID YOU KNOW: Harrison started just seven games last season but rushed for 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns.
KEY GAME: Week 3 at Shelton. Gaels went 8-2 last season and reached the LL semifinals.
OUTLOOK: Will it be senior Will Lucas (6-0, 170) or junior Connor Boyle (5-11, 175) at quarterback? Whoever Hellstern decides on is going to have to put up some serious numbers if Prep wants to challenge for the Class LL playoffs.