As his team prepared to face Stafford/Somers/East Windsor Friday night, Ellington football coach Sean Byrne has desperately been trying to keep things as normal as possible — in what’s got to be the most awkward way possible.
The Ellington players don’t just know their opponents, they know them like brothers.
But Byrne has strictly forbid calling them by name.
That’s not Nathan LaJoie anymore. He’s “No. 11.”
Don’t call him Jake Hinkel. That’s “No. 24.”
He’ll do anything to keep his kids’ minds off the fact that his 3-0 Ellington football team is facing “our old buddies” from Somers, the town with whom Ellington shared a football program for almost a decade.
Admittedly, it’s been a challenge.
“I don’t know if it’s working or not,” Byrne said. “But that’s what we do for other teams. We’re just trying to keep this as normal as possible.”
But just thinking about the prospect of playing against LaJoie, Hinkel, Joe Mongillo and all of the other boys he coached last year — not to mention his good friend Brian Mazzone, the former Ellington assistant and now head coach at Stafford/Somers/East Windsor — sends Byrne’s mind into a tailspin.
“I don’t know what to think,” Byrne said, stammering to find the words to describe this pickle. “We obviously love those guys. But… I don’t know. I’m trying my best to keep my mind on the game. But in the back of my mind, you know it’s still there.
“It’ll be complicated. That’s really all I can say. It’ll be complicated.”
The feelings, of course, will be mutual on the Stafford/Somers/East Windsor sideline.
“It’s just weird,” Mazzone said. “It’s really weird.”
This time last year, Mazzone was helping Byrne coach Ellington to its third state playoff appearance in four years. But as the season began to wind down, the coaching staff realized their co-op with Somers — which had been in place since 2006 — would be struck down under CIAC rules.
Schools that can field more than 35 players can no longer host a co-operative football team with other schools and Ellington had grown too big to keep the Somers players around. It was clear they would be separated after the season. The CIAC is strict in its rule. There is no grandfather clause.
The impending breakup was a sensitive issue between the two small, northeastern Connecticut communities. And the coaches, Mazzone said, were told not to speak about it until it became official.
But word got around by Thanksgiving last year and caused an outcry, Mazzone recalled. Despite efforts of the coaches and parents of some of the Somers players, Byrne and Mazzone said they both realized there would be no way around it. Somers kids would have to play somewhere else.
“We just felt sick to our stomachs,” Mazzone said. “It suddenly became all about, ‘What’s going to happen to those poor (Somers) kids? How does this work out for them?'”
The situation didn’t sit well with anybody. The Somers players had grown up playing youth football with the Ellington players. The borders between the two towns dissolved when football season rolled around. This was ripping friendships apart.
“Looking back, it was sad,” said Byrne, who took over for Keith Tautkus, the program’s founder, in 2013. “It was like a divorce hitting our family. You know, the kids get split up and everyone feels bad. It was a lot like that.”
Ellington senior quarterback Christian Rider felt a rift rip between he and the Somers players he considered his brothers.
“…We lost players that were a part of our family, a family that we built over time,” he said via email to GameTimeCT. “Nothing can beat family and it’s challenging to lose family members. I personally built a relationship with the kids from Somers and when losing them it affected me because now that they’re on the other side keeping in touch really isn’t the same as it was when they were here.”
But it hit the Somers players — many of whom were big parts of last year’s playoff run — the hardest of all.
“I was devastated,” LaJoie wrote to GameTimeCT in an email. “The relationships and the bonds that I had built with the Ellington players and coaching staff were extremely tight, and the day I heard that I wouldn’t be playing for them anymore, I was completely heartbroken.
“It was like taking the dreams that I had had coming off of a playoff season, and aspirations to win a state title the next year and crushing them.”
That the nearby Stafford/East Windsor co-op accepted Somers into its football program didn’t matter. Some of the players flat-out refused to continue playing football, especially for a team that was 0-11 while Ellington annually competed for a spot in the state playoffs.
“My knee-jerk reaction was that if I couldn’t be a Knight, and put on that uniform, then I didn’t want to play football anymore,” LaJoie wrote.
Ellington’s coaches couldn’t stand to see that happen. They personally visited with the players at Somers over the winter, trying to get them to change their minds. “We told them, ‘You guys have to play football,'” Mazzone recalled. “Jake Hinkel said he’d still play, but the others wouldn’t budge.”
What they didn’t know at the time was that Mazzone had applied for the fortuitously vacant Stafford job. He’d been an assistant at Ellington and Fermi. He’d been hired as the head coach at Windsor Locks until disagreements with the school over his staff compelled him to resign before he even coached a practice.
“I thought, this was the perfect opportunity,” said Mazzone, who teaches at Enfield High School. “It’s driveable for me and I’d make sure the Somers kids had a good home. Think about it. I’d be a new coach, but I’d already know seven or eight of my players.
“And of all the guys on the Ellington staff, I was the one with the least to lose. Sean teaches at Ellington and all of the other coaches played at Ellington. So I thought, maybe this was the time to go.”
Mazzone was offered and took the job. When he told the Somers players, they all committed to play for him.
“Knowing him and having a great relationship with him over at Ellington really brought me back into the mindset of, ‘This isn’t the end of the world. Let’s get down to business and let’s build a winning culture at Stafford High School,'” LaJoie wrote.
Despite concerns from Stafford’s administration that the Somers and Stafford kids — fierce rivals in all other sports — wouldn’t get along, Mazzone said the team jelled immediately.
“It was like the kids knew each other for 10 years,” he said. “They were exchanging numbers, Twitter handles. They’ve become really close.”
LaJoie, Hinkel, Mongillo and Mazzone led a massive recruiting drive at Somers. Mazzone said 18 players — more than Ellington typically had — were convinced to joined the new co-op.
“To be honest, we never really recruited Somers much at Ellington,” Mazzone said. “I have two kids from Somers, Jacob Berry and Jackson Rheault, who didn’t play football last year and they’ve already been big contributors for us. I remember saying, ‘Where the hell have you been? You could have helped us (at Ellington) last year.’
Combined with Stafford’s 25 players, including big linemen Devin Gilbert (a captain) and Josh Barnett, Mazzone had a foundation from which to work.
The results were immediate. Stafford/Somers/East Windsor, which hadn’t won a game in two years, defeated Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton in its season opener, 22-0.
Somers’ LaJoie threw for 155 yards and a touchdown. Stafford’s Gilbert had six tackles, two for a loss. The team, which was flagged for excessive celebration toward the end of the victory, had arrived.
“It has been extremely uplifting for me,” said LaJoie, who told his Stafford teammates as much in an emotional speech after practice this week. “Our goal this year is to develop a winner in Stafford. It has been awhile since this program has been called a winner. And I believe that the best part of the experience so far has been seeing how excited the town, team, and school have truly gotten behind us. It’s really special to see how great of an effect a winning mentality can have.”
Over at Ellington, the Purple Knights showed no signs of weakness through three games and, with last week’s 37-20 victory over Cromwell/Portland (a team Stafford/Somers/East Windsor lost to 37-7), is fast becoming a team to beat in the Pequot League, led by Rider, Tyreik Noel, Mark Hickman and Izaiah Castro-Vega. “Even with the loss of the Somers kids, we thought we’d be pretty good this year, I’m not going to lie,” Byrne said.
The proverbial elephant on the field, of course, was the inevitable game between the two teams. It was the first game both sides looked for when the schedules were released.
October 2nd. At Stafford.
And now that it’s here, an uncomfortable silence has descended upon both teams, coaches and players alike.
A week after Mazzone had shared his scouting reports on Cromwell/Portland with the Ellington coaching staff, Ellington assistant coach Erick Knickerbocker asked him about Stafford. “Hrm? Oh, I don’t know anything about Stafford,” Mazzone said.
Looking at Stafford’s film, Byrne said the difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is “night and day.”
On film, Ellington is the more established program. But Byrne knows Stafford is capable.
After all, they run some of Ellington’s plays. Byrne coached some of its best players.
“I told our kids, these guys want this game and they have something to prove,” Byrne said. “They know us. We know them. We know Nate LaJoie has an arm. He can scramble around and pick apart our defense. So we have to be ready.”
At first, LaJoie wanted “no part” of playing Ellington. But like everyone else, he has attacked the problem by focusing on the game, rather than its significance. “Treat it like any other week. It’s just another jersey. Red and Black, or Purple and Gold, it doesn’t matter,” he wrote. “Prepare like I would against any other team.
“No matter what happens on Friday night, I’m still going to love those guys to death,” LaJoie continued. “But like any other opponent that we will play, when the lights are on and the chips are down. It’s just another opportunity.”
The same goes for the players on the Ellington sideline. The breakup was sad, Rider said, but now it’s all business until the clock hits triple-zeroes.
“I don’t want them to take it easy on me on Friday and I won’t take it easy on them,” he wrote. “We’re opponents now and when we’re in between the lines on Friday were enemies.
“But after the game is when you get to talk to them and catch up and just be high school kids and joke around and be friends.”