BRIDGEPORT — Eddie Santiago has never been the type to shy away from competition. He embraces challenges, like the one his football team will soon be facing.
After beating up on the Constitution State Conference for two seasons, Harding is ready to test its might against a far more imposing foe. The Presidents will begin play this season in the almighty Southern Connecticut Conference, which has fielded at least one state finalist in each of the last 17 years.
“We understand that in the SCC, every week’s going to be competitive,” Santiago said. “That’s the type of football that we want to play.”
Once the CSC decided last fall to form a new league that would go by the same name but consist only of technical high schools, the Presidents were forced to search for a new home. Fortunately, they didn’t need to look too far.
“We feel like we finally have a home,” Santiago said. “We’re not bouncing around and searching.”
Santiago believes the Presidents are well equipped to handle the challenging slate that’s about to come their way, even though their schedules while in the CSC were particularly light. One reason for optimism is the return of 20 seniors, 16 of whom have been with Santiago since his first full season at the helm.
“We expect to win,” senior wide receiver Shawn Jeffries said. “We work hard every day. In practice, (we’re) non-stop working hard.”
The Presidents return five starters on offense and six on defense. They graduated their quarterback, Eric Jones, but there’s a feeling around the program that Kevin Bednarz — who did not attempt a single varsity pass last season — is ready to step up and help fill the void.
“He had a good offseason,” Santiago said of Bednarz, a 5-foot-8 junior. “I think a lot of people are going to be shocked by what Kevin can do.”
Jones threw for 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, leading the Presidents to a 7-4 record. They made the playoffs for just the second time since 1978, but were blown out 52-0 by top-seeded Windsor in the Class L quarterfinals. The year before, following a 10-0 regular season, they were beaten 34-0 by SCC powerhouse Notre Dame-West Haven in the same round.
Leon Hanley — a 330-pound senior who will start on both the offensive and defensive lines — is eager for Harding to take the next step.
“Now we feel like we’re ready to actually go somewhere,” he said.
The Presidents kick off a stretch of five straight games against SCC opponents to begin the season with a visit to Amity on Sept. 8. That will be followed with games against North Haven, Foran, Hand and defending Class M champion Hillhouse. They will also continue their city rivalries with Bassick (Oct. 28) and Central (Thanksgiving).
“It’s more of a competition (this year),” Hanley said. “I like this season. I like the schedule we’ve got now.”
COACH: Eddie Santiago (4th year)
CONFERENCE, CLASS: SCC, M
2016 RECORD: 7-4 (Class L quarterfinals)
TOP RETURNEES: Sr. OL/DL Leon Hanley (6-2, 330; 40 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries); Sr. WR Shawn Jeffries (5-9, 160; 150 receiving yards, 1 TD); Jr. QB Kevin Bednarz (5-8, 180); Jr. FS/WR Coleman Adams (6-0, 185; 395 receiving yards, 223 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 5 ints); Jr. WR/FS Jaharie Mack (6-2, 170); Sr. DL/OL Daniel Daley (6-4, 240); Sr. RB/LB David Council (5-10, 200; 48 tackles, 1 sack, 1 int); Sr. LB/OL Humberto Rodriguez (5-10, 195; 57 tackles); Sr. DB Quran Blow (5-5, 145; 3 sacks, 2 ints).
REASON TO SMILE: Experience is a plus. The Presidents return their largest class (20 seniors) of Santiago’s tenure.
REASON TO WORRY: Not since they were in the FCIAC have the Presidents played a schedule this challenging. North Haven, Hillhouse and Fairfield Prep are a step up from Platt Tech, Quinebaug Valley and Cheney Tech, to say the least.
DID YOU KNOW?: The Presidents had as many wins during their two seasons in the CSC (17) than in the previous 11 seasons combined.
KEY GAME: at Amity, Sept. 8, 7 p.m. Here’s a chance for the Presidents to open on a high note against a team that’s just 8-23 over the last three seasons.
OUTLOOK: The Presidents are on their third quarterback in three years and no longer have the luxury of beating up on teams from the CSC. The road is daunting.