MIDDLETOWN >> The names are well-known. Dario Highsmith is the reigning Connecticut Gatorade Football Player of the Year and Isaiah Thompkins is regarded as one of the state’s best linebackers.
But they are so much more than Middletown High School football players. Both are very good students and are being followed closely by Ivy League schools and by the best smaller colleges in the Northeast.
World-renowned names like Yale, Harvard, Williams, Amherst, Wesleyan and Trinity are part of the picture, but with both players, it’s first things first.
“When college coaches call, I give the phone to my dad [Dario Sr., an all-time MHS great running back],” said Dario Jr. “He wants me to have, and I want to have, a typical senior year in high school.”
That “typical senior year” includes advanced placement psychology with Deborah Bailey and AP statistics with Matt Cohen.
For the uninitiated, AP courses are college level courses, not college preparatory courses. The teachers must be certified to teach AP and the courses carry with them end-of-year AP exams and possible college credit.
Thompkins, an honors and high honors student, carries a transcript loaded with AP classes and among others, is currently taking AP calculus with Steve Lecky, one of the high-powered courses in Middletown High’s widely respected AP program.
“When Isaiah was a freshman in my advanced geometry class, I was very impressed with his maturity and character, not only in the way he approached his academics, but in his relationships with peers and teachers,” said Lecky.
“I am very pleased to have him as a student this year in AP Calculus. He puts a strong effort into every assignment, works well in groups, and achieves high academic success in the most rigorous classes. I am delighted that he is applying to Yale and other elite schools.
“He will be a great addition to any university.”
Lecky, an Ohio State alumnus, jokingly added, “Given the lackluster way the linebackers at my Alma Mater played this weekend [loss to Virginia Tech], I might start pushing Isaiah to continue hitting the weights and apply to Ohio State.”
Trevor Charles of the social studies department had similar things to say about Highsmith.
“I’ve had Dario in class and coached him in Ultimate Frisbee,” said Charles. “He is a great asset in the classroom and on the field. He is such a leader and has a charismatic personality. He works very hard at everything he does and commands respect.”
“The thing about these two is they are so focused,” said football coach Sal Morello. “In both academics and football they are incredibly focused. They work so hard at what they do. I see it on the football field, of course, but I also see it in team study halls [held every day after classes]. They work at it.
“I will say that Isaiah is the most mature, hardest working young man I have ever come across. Whether in academics or football, he is very detail-oriented. I have to say things only once to him; he’s like a sponge.
“Dario is so competitive, one of the most competitive players I have ever coached. He gives you that smile, he doesn’t give you that typical competitive face. But then he goes out and competes with the best of them. He doesn’t want to lose. Athletically and academically, these two are special. I don’t usually start freshmen, but when I saw them as ninth graders, they played.”
Thompkins’ life hasn’t always been easy. His dad, Mark, passed away in June 2012, leaving mom Hillary to raise Isaiah and brothers Mark and Laurenzo.
“When I go to the games, I just hope he doesn’t get hurt and plays to the best of his ability,” said mom. “For me, it’s tough to know how well he’s doing. I have no reference point about his career.
“His father played football at New Britain High, then at Wichita State when it was a Division I program. He then coached at Wichita State. But he passed away. If his dad was still with us, I would know more about how it goes, but I just don’t have that information. I am glad he’s had the men that coach the team mentoring him. All I can say is that I think playing at Middletown High has been good for him, and if that’s true, then it’s good for me.”
Thompkins said, “Playing for coach Morello is great. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had, along with coach [Josh] Rosek [defensive coordinator]. They have elevated my game.”
He went on to say that two years ago the Blue Dragons made the playoffs, then last year advanced to the semifinals.
Now the goal is “to go all the way,” he said.
He has the same approach in academics. “I’ve gotten a lot of interest from Yale, talked with Harvard, too,” he said.
“Wesleyan, Trinity, Williams have talked and also I’ve heard from Bates. I would love to go to the Ivy league, but I just want to go to a high-level academic institution.
“But no matter what happens, I can’t put into words how much fun I’ve had here with the camaraderie on the team. It’s so much more than fun. I can’t imagine doing anything else with the fall season than playing football here.”
Highsmith said that playing for Morello is “like having another father.”
“He tries to make everybody a better person,” he said. “It’s definitely challenging to play for him, but it’s rewarding at the same time. He’ll get on you, but you know he does that so when you hang up your cleats, you will be better and that’s not just in football.
“And in football, I just take it game by game [The season opener is tonight at East Lyme at 6:30]. My only goal is to win the next game. Coach Morello will have us prepared, he will have us work hard. We know that. I was switched to running back this year [Highsmith gained over 2,700 yards rushing last season from the quarterback position] and I don’t care.
“It doesn’t mean much to me where I play. Whatever coach Morello wants me to do, I will do. I just want to win win every week, win the conference and then go right to the championship.
“But I’m most definitely having fun. It’s the best four years of my life.”
Dad Dario put it all into perspective.
“If they could win a state championship, that would be something they would remember for the rest of their lives,” said dad, who won a state championship with MHS in 1987, 27-0 over Bristol Central. “Like all athletes, the first thing they think of is that. That’s No. 1. Winning a league title is nice, but a state title is something else.
“Then will come college plans and all I want to say right now is that Yale and others are in the mix. That’s for after the season.
“But for now, it would be great for Middletown High School to win a championship. That would be important to me and important for Dario. But in the end, all I want is what’s best for Dario and for MHS football.”