DEEP RIVER >> It was the first day of practice and Valley Regional/Old Lyme football coach Tim King was wearing his state championship ring. The shiny, diamond encrusted bauble is an icon for the greatest season in school history, one that culminated with an epic 21-20 victory over legendary Ansonia last December.
But now the ring had a purpose.
As the Warriors players gathered on this first day of the 2015 season, King asked them to take a look at his ring. He then asked how many also had one and a good number of hands were raised into the air.
“I told them that was great but as soon as this practice is over…it’s over,” King said. “It’s 2015. We’ll never forget 2014. I said, ‘you guys were a part of it and nobody can take that away from you. It’s something to cherish but now it’s up to you guys to start another chapter of this book.’ The Warriors book.”
After two straight undefeated seasons; after capturing four Pequot Conference championships in five years; after three appearances in the postseason; the after winning their first state football title; and after earning their first ever spot in the New Haven’s Register’s final Top 10 poll (at No 8); that proverbial target the Warriors have carried on their back these past few years has moved, “To the front,” King said. “We don’t have any ear holes anymore because they’re covered up with targets too.”
Indeed, writing a new chapter won’t be easy.
Valley Regional, which has moved up to Class M, has graduated nine defensive starters, including linebacker Justin Cheverier, who made more tackles than any player in state history. The Warriors also lose all of its skill players, including quarterback Chris Jean-Pierre, the Register’s Athlete of the Year whose game-winning touchdown with only 22 seconds left against Ansonia will soon be the stuff of legend.
King’s coaching staff has also been overhauled.
“Besides losing 12 great players we lost three great coaches (Paul Ginter, Bob Narducci, Anthony Pagano) and that’s tough too,” said King, who is in his 19th year at the helm.
The Warriors are already experiencing some adversity. Starting quarterback Matt Sapere had surgery on his leg and will miss 3-4 weeks. Sapere, a junior dual threat, completed 21 of 30 passes with one touchdown a year ago.
Sophomores Ernest Jean-Pierre (Chris’ brother) and Mike Cullina will handle the quarterbacking duties.
Valley’s strength will be its offensive and defensive lines, which will be anchored by senior captains Jack Giaconia (6-4, 300) and Will Visgilio (6-3, 230), junior captain Mitch Conrad (6-0, 230), senior Matt Robertson (6-0, 250) and senior transfer Luke Williams (5-10, 260).
New defensive coordinator Bobby Sanchez, who joined the staff last season, will also rely on the leadership of senior captain Jared Roche, a linebacker who, along with junior linebacker Dan Stecher and sophomore linebacker Roan Sullivan, will give the Warriors a formidable front seven.
“I’m happy with the defense,” King said. “Everyone says defense is you just line up and if you’ve got good athletes, let them tackle. It’s not that. Responsibility football is huge.”
King’s also been happy with the progress of his skill players. Junior Sean Hunt, sophomore Jake Kruszewski and Stecher, whom King said is “blossoming,” will provide some backfield speed. Hunt was part of Valley’s 4×100 Shoreline championship relay team.
Senior Gus Cummins, sophomore Judd O’Brien, Roche and Jean-Pierre make up the receiving corps. Valley also got a boost with the arrival of New London transfer Garrett Burdick (WR/S). Middletown fans might remember Burdick. As a freshman in 2013, Burdick kicked a game-winning, last second field goal to beat the Blue Dragons.
Valley Regional/Old Lyme will bring a 24 game regular season unbeaten streak to New Haven on Saturday, Sept. 12 when they open against Hyde (noon kick-off) at Wilbur Cross High School. There are also early season tests against Morgan (Sept. 18), Enfield (Sept. 25), North Branford (Oct. 2), Granby Memorial (Oct. 9) and Ellington (Oct. 16).
“Granby and Ellington could be two of the better teams in the league,” King explained. “It’s tough being young. We’ve only got eight seniors. But we’ve got some good athletes who are working hard, listening and putting in the time. I just hope we can jell and get through the early part of the season because down the road we’re going to be a pretty good football team.”
The Warriors have had a great summer. Besides a large group of players performing well in the weight room, Valley – behind Sapere – was the surprise champion at New London’s 7-on-7 passing league.
Still, it didn’t take long for the Warriors to realize just how different things will be this season.
“Our first scrimmage against Windham was like a playoff game,” King said. “They came to knock our socks off. And a light came on. I think the kids figured out, guess what…Justin Cheverier and Chris Jean-Pierre are not walking through that door again.”