NEW MILFORD — Aided by a bold strategy and, at times, a high-powered offense, New Milford took a massive step forward in going 5-5 in 2016. Most of that cast — including its senior quarterback — returns for one final run at a place the school has never been: the state playoffs.
Twenty seniors will try to leave their mark and be known as the group that led New Milford to the postseason.
“We’ve all stuck together since freshman year; we know how varsity works and what’s expected of us,” said quarterback Tyler Sullivan. “I think we should have a good year.”
The philosophy of going for it on every fourth down and not punting began in the winter of 2015, when coach Larry Badaracco attended a clinic run by Kevin Kelley, a prep coach in Arkansas who popularized the system. For the Green Wave, it began with a bang by converting a long 4th-down opportunity in the season-opener against Weston a year ago. It only took one success for the team to buy in.
“At first, I was like I don’t know if this is going to work,” said senior receiver Matt Brevard. “Once we got to that first game we saw it worked. We just have to trust the process.”
By the end of the season, New Milford’s experiment was considered a success. The goal was 50 percent; the Green Wave just exceeded that mark, Badaracco said.
“We looked at the information we had from the previous two years from our film, and 75 percent of the time we punted, our opponent on the following series got the ball back to at least where we punted,” Badaracco said. “We put ourselves in a situation where we were giving the ball back to our opponent without an opportunity (to score).”
The Green Wave have worked on wrinkles to the kickoff game to hit this number.
None of this works without an offense that can put up points in a hurry, or a defense that can get stops when put in an awkward situation. Both were there during the team’s 5-2 start a year ago, but the aggressive strategy tended to produce a boom or bust outcome. New Milford played just one game that was decided by single digits (nine points) last season; seven were decided by 22 points or more.
Badaracco — along with his success on the field — has created excitement for the once-dormant program.
“It’s been a big cultural thing here, trying to build the culture and getting the kids to believe in our program,” Badaracco said. “That’s been the big change; the thing is you have to stay healthy because you have a limited amount of varsity players.”
A high-powered passing attack has many of its weapons back this fall. Brevard and Austin Swanson will catch passes from Sullivan, and junior running back Kendall Greene — who led the team in all-purpose yards despite playing just six games — is a threat to take it to the house on any given play.
“Even playing them in 7-on-7 on defense; it’s insanely good how they can move the ball down field,” said linebacker Nate Capriglione, who had 65 total tackles last season. “We have to be at 100 percent on defense to stop them.”
Sullivan averaged 32 pass attempts per gam e a year ago. Hampered by an early-season torn ACL that he somehow played through, he’s now healthy and more experienced.
“It’s the leadership aspect of it,” Badaracco said. “He’s become such a great leader; his toughness has elevated everyone else’s game. We’re looking for him to make better decisions, but he’s had a great offseason and summer.”
The Green Wave were a step behind the SWC leaders; closing that gap is step one to ending the postseason drought.
“The goal is to just improve every week,” Senior lineman Mike Haggerty said. “And maybe even get a banner in our gym.”
NEW MILFORD GREEN WAVE
COACH: Larry Badaracco (4th year)
CONFERENCE, CLASS: SWC, LL
2016 RECORD: 5-5
TOP RETURNEES: Sr. QB Tyler Sullivan (6-0, 210, 2,029 yards, 16 TDs; 313 rushing yards, 6 TDs); Jr. WR Kendall Greene (5-9, 175, 412 receiving yards, 180 rushing yards), Sr. WR/CB Austin Swanson (6-0, 160, 190 receiving yards); Sr. WR Matthew Brevard (6-1, 180, 46 catches, 563 yards, 5 TD); Sr. OL/DL Michael Haggerty (6-0, 230); Sr. LB (5-10, 155).
REASON TO SMILE: The Green Wave return 20 seniors and 15 starters, including nine on defense. Badaracco noted that leadership could be one of the biggest strengths of the group this fall.
REASON TO WORRY: Facing Newtown, Masuk and New Fairfield in consecutive weeks to close the season would keep most coaches up at night.
DID YOU KNOW?: New Milford has never made the state playoffs in 50 years as a team, and has just four winning seasons since 1994.
KEY GAME: vs. Hillhouse, Sept. 15. The SWC-SCC crossover takes stage in Week 2; the Green Wave drew a tough Academics squad that went 12-1 and captured the Class M state championship.
OUTLOOK: The Green Wave will likely boast a sparkling record and be in playoff contention the stretch. A reality check may beckon after that, however.