NEW HAVEN >> Newtown’s Ben Mason is already a student at the University of Michigan. He left on New Year’s Eve and has started classes and weight training in Ann Arbor.
But the three-time New Haven Register all-state linebacker and fullback managed to make a trip back to Connecticut this weekend for one last last hurrah before devoting the rest of his spring in preparation for Michigan’s 2017 football season.
After winning the Walter Camp Foundation’s Player of the Year Award, given to Connecticut’s top football player, Mason took his moment to express admiration for finalists Nico Ragaini of Notre Dame-West Haven and Zach Davis of Sheehan. He did the same to all his fellow Connecticut players, many of whom packed the Omni Hotel banquet hall for the 10th annual Breakfast of Champions Saturday.
“Hearing all the stats, it’s absolutely crazy some of the things that these guys did,” Mason said, referring to Davis and Ragaini. “Starting off with Zach, 3,500 yards rushing? That’s unheard of. I don’t know if you guys know, but that was third in the country. That’s pretty impressive.
“Nico Ragaini… He had over 200 receptions in his career, and that’s a state record too. So that’s also really impressive. He’s a good player.”
It was part of a broader message Mason wanted to deliver to the room and to the state that, despite its relatively insignificant reputation nationwide, Connecticut has potential to produce great football players.
“A lot of the other states they don’t really respect Connecticut the way I think it deserves to be respected,” Mason told the crowd. “There are some guys here that are going on to play big-time college football — like (Darien’s) Andrew (Stueber) and (Newtown’s) Seth (Willis).
“But I just want to encourage some of the younger guys here, the sophomores and juniors, to really stick with it and work hard. Because I think that there’s a lot of potential in this room and if everyone just works as hard as they can, we’re going to have a lot of great football players, a lot of people who are going to be remembered.”
Mason, who was also the Connecticut Gatorade State Player of the Year and the New Haven Register Player of the Year, was a four year starter at Newtown and quickly established himself as one of the state’s best defenders. With the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Mason manning the middle of the defense, and carrying the ball in his junior and senior seasons, Newtown went 44-5, won three SWC championships and reached the state playoffs four-consecutive years.
Former Newtown head coach Steve George, who introduced Mason, said four of his team’s losses during Mason’s career were by a combined 21 points. Mason missed the team’s Class LL quarterfinal game vs. Shelton due to a torn meniscus, which he had repaired in December. Newtown lost, 55-21.
“The game we didn’t have him, unfortunately, when his presence wasn’t there was a 35-point loss to end our season,” George said. “That’s the kind of player he is. You had to know where he was at all times. He was an extremely well-respected player in the state.”
But when Mason would venture out-of-state for camps and other recruiting events, he said felt disregard just because of where he grew up.
“Throughout my entire recruiting process, people were always like, ‘Oh, you’re from Connecticut?'” Mason said. “It kind of just makes them over look you, I guess.
“I feel like there are a lot of great players here and sometimes they don’t get the attention because they’re from Connecticut. The quantity isn’t as much, but there’s still some very quality players. Like I was saying (about Davis and Ragaini), all of the statistics and achievements they racked up, they were very well deserving of this award, too. It could have gone to any one of us.”
Hillhouse’s Reggie Lytle was named the Walter Camp Coach of the Year after guiding his team to a 12-1 record and the Class M championship. Lytle, who was also the New Haven Register‘s Coach of the Year, dedicated his award to his wife, Terri, his two daughters and his assistant coaches.
“They’ve been very patient with me,” he said. “When I’m out coaching my kids I often hear my wife talk about, ‘Remember, you have two kids at home.’ But she’s been good. She’s been holding it down and I thank you.
“Also, I told my coaches if I did win, this goes to the coaches also because I’m just the face of the coaching staff. So, guys, thank you.”
Lytle won a state championship as a player and as an assistant coach at Hillhouse. He said his coaching philosophy — education first — stems from when he tore his ACL during his playing days. “You’ve gotta have something to fall back on,” he said. “You need an education because when you’re done with football, you need a job. And you get that job by getting an education.”
Simsbury’s Danny Deitz won the Generation UCan Inspire award award for his perseverance after being diagnosed with an enlarged heart and receiving a transplant in September 2015, when he was a junior.
Deitz worked to come back and, after getting clearance from his surgeons, miraculously rejoined the football team and played his senior season.
Deitz caught a touchdown pass vs. Enfield on Nov. 4 in one of the most memorable moments of the 2016 football season.
“If you’re not a donor, please consider being one. That’s the only reason why I’m here today,” said Deitz, who was given a standing ovation before taking the podium. “It truly is the gift of life.”
Connecticut four state champions, Darien (Class LL), New Canaan (Class L), Hillhouse (Class M) and Ansonia (Class S) were recognized during the breakfast. For the second-consecutive season, Darien was awarded the Larry Kelly Award for being voted the No. 1 team in Connecticut in the final GameTimeCT / New Haven Register Top 10 Poll.
Walter Camp also honored West Hartford coaches Bill McKee and Frank Robinson II (posthumously) for their decades of coaching multiple sports at Conard and Hall, respectively.