NEW HAVEN >> For the first time in recent memory, all three Southern Connecticut football schools in the Shoreline Times circulation area suffered losing season during the 2014 high school football season.
Hand, Branford and Guilford are looking for that to change in 2015. Optimism is running high for all three teams as their coaches stated at the annual SCC Football Media Night Sunday night at the Floyd Little Athletic Center.
Hand, which had qualified for the state playoffs for five consecutive years, including winning championships in 2011 and 2012, finished 5-6.
As usual, the Tigers will play a brutal SCC Division I schedule, although it’s not the meat grinder Hand faced a year ago when it had the toughest schedule in the entire state. Gone is the SCC-FCIAC Challenge, which means Hand doesn’t have to play a perennial Top 5 team in New Canaan.
“The SCC is excruciating for every one of us in this room,” Hand coach Steve Filippone said. “It’s a constant battle against mediocrity. You better be ready to be at your best every single day. If you’re not, you’re going to get beat.”
But it was surprising for Hand to get beaten six times last season.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult for us to improve on last year’s record,” said Hand coach Steve Filippone, who graduated 28 seniors last spring. “We have to grow up very quickly from a team that lost six games and we have a lot of work to do. Depending on how quickly the kids come along, we can become competitive.”
A year ago, Filippone came to the same event thinking his Tigers might run the table, but that ended quickly with an opening night loss to New Canaan.
“This year last year we thought we’d be undefeated,” Filippone said. “We’re not there going into this practice week. We’ll have seven new starters on offense and seven new starters on defense. And we’re not in position anymore to go two-platoon. We’ll have many guys going both ways.”
On the bright side, Hand, will have perhaps the best quarterback in the state in senior Nick van Dell. When he’s all done, Filippone said that van Dell will end up being the most prolific quarterback in Hand history.
“We’ve had state players of the year in David Thompson, Ken Sweitzer and Ryan Fodor and he’ll be better in terms of what he’s done than any of the others,” Filippone said. “I think he’s the best quarterback in the state. Let the other guys come get him.”
For Branford, a shot at a winning season is on the horizon. The Hornets have a goal of posting a winning season, but will have to overcome fourth quarter woes it had a year ago.
Branford went 3-8 in 2014 for second year coach John Limone, who suffered through a winless season in his rookie year in 2013.
“We feel like we left a couple on the table last year,” Limone said. “Our staff and our kids look back on last season we missed at least three opportunities for wins. Now, we have to take advantage of opportunities to close the deal.”
The schedule will be tough as Branford opens the season with road contests at Foran, Hillhouse and Hand, before the Hornets return home to play defending SCC Division II champ North Haven.
“We don’t play a home game until Oct. 9 then we go on the road for two more games,” said Limone. “But we have a lot of experience with starters who played with me two years. We played them and they took their lumps.”
Branford found a quarterback last season when Griffin Lynch started against Hillhouse because of an injury to Zach DeGoursey. Lynch went in and led the Hornets to an upset win.
“We like Griffin, but the Hillhouse game made us think we had something and we had to roll with it,” Limone said. “He’s a year older as a junior and has experience. Zach will help at running back and on defense.”
In Guilford, it’s all about change. The Indians will have a new coach on the sidelines in Mike Eagle, who rebuilt the Morgan School program into a perennial Class S contender. The Indians were 2-9 a year ago under Tom Unger, who is now an assistant at West Haven.
“No matter whether it’s Division I or Division II, this is a different animal,” said Eagle, who will bring three assistants with him from Morgan. “The good thing about this situation we’ve done it before. Morgan was my first head coaching position, but the consistency with the staff was key.”
Eagle will bring the spread offense with him from Morgan, which is a drastic change from the triple option Guilford employed in the past.
“It will be a learning curve going to the spread,” Eagle said. “The question is the learning curve of when you transfer everything in the weight room and conditioning to practice, and then to games. Then when does that collective light bulb goes on for everyone. It could be end of the week or the end of the season.”
Mistakes could be plentiful at first, he added.
“We want to limit the amount of mistakes, but at first this is all new for them,” Eagle said. “We have to be patient, which is going to be hard with me. We’ve been talking all the positives, but we’ve been them they’ll make mistakes. It’s part of the building process.”