MIDDLETOWN >> Amid the drama of Middletown High’s and Xavier’s football playoff drives, the third team in town flew mostly under the radar. But while many of the city’s football fans’ attention may have been elsewhere, the Vinal Tech/East Hampton Bellhawks took a significant step forward.
“As I told the kids after our last game [a 28-20 win over Wilcox Tech last Saturday], this is a big step for our cooperative program,” said Bellhawks coach Joe Cefaratti, whose team finished 5-5. “It’s the best season we’ve had at the varsity level.”
It appears this is not a one-shot deal. The Bellhawks had over 50 players in the program and finished the season with 22 freshmen.
“We lose only one player from our offensive line,” said Cefaratti. “Our sophomores and freshmen got lots of playing time at the sub-varsity level, too. Having 22 freshmen in the program at the end of the year is very good.”
The season started with a thud as Abbot Tech of Danbury beat up on Cefaratti’s injury-depleted team. “We were missing seven starters for that game because of injuries in the preseason,” Cefaratti explained. “We got more kids hurt that day. But we started getting our key players back in week two.”
Cefaratti said that the win in week two, a 19-12 decision over Wolcott Tech in the rain at Torrington, was a turning point.
“We weren’t expecting rain as it was a sunny day when we left Middletown,” said Cefaratti. “And we got soaked. But the kids played through it and we got a win and just like that we were 1-1. That day we began to see our potential.”
After losing at Bullard-Havens, a game in which Cefaratti conceded his club could not match Havens’ speed, the Bellhawks went on a three-game winning streak.
“That’s when our potential became real,” said the coach.
The highlight was a 13-6 overtime win over Platt Tech of Milford, a game won when sophomore tight end Brian Owen caught a touchdown pass in overtime to win it.
“That was thrilling,” said Cefarati. “Dave Curtis [Vinal athletic director] came running up to me and said that an overtime win had never happened in the school’s history and you know, it was the first overtime game I’d ever been involved in as a coach or player. The catch by Owen, who is a good one, wasn’t his last. He had a big touchdown against Wilcox Tech in our last game.”
The Bellhawks followed that up with a 21-0 win in Ansonia against O’Brien Tech, a game in which the club played very well.
Some toughies were on the schedule late, including a game with highly-regarded and state-ranked Capitol/Classical/Achievement of Hartford.
“That is a three-school co-op and there is talk it might be leaving he conference. But a lot of that stuff, including next year’s schedule is still up in the air,” said Cefaratti. “We may get the same 10-game schedule as this year with only the sites of the games reversed. Depending on what the league does, I may be looking for an 11th game next year, a team that is on the same level as us.”
The season ended with Vinal Tech/East Hampton having to beat Wilcox Tech in Meriden last Saturday night to get that .500 record. The Bellhawks broke a 20-20 tie late in the game to win it.
“It was a great night,” said Cefaratti. “The game was 14-14 at the half and the crowd was really into it. It was so exciting to be a part of it. The kids realized the kind of success they could have and it was a great way to end the season.
“I told the kids afterwards that years from now, you’ll be talking to teammates and somebody will say, ‘Remember the night we beat Wilcox Tech our senior year?’ I told the kids it will be a night they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
“I also thought it was a great thing for the underclassmen to experience. It’s a great starting point for next year.”
Cefaratti said that joining the Constitution State Conference was the best thing that could have happened to the program. “I’m just ecstatic,” he said. “I am so happy to be in this league.”
In the old league, the Pequot, VT/EH had to face teams like Cromwell, Valley Regional, Coginchaug and North Branford – a schedule so imbalanced it made getting to .500 an impossible dream. All that has changed.
“This is where we belong, playing teams like us,” said Cefaratti. “The kids were so upbeat after the last game and the support we got from fans, the kids in the schools and from teachers was great.”
The Bellhawks will graduate several key players, notably running back Ryan Fazzino.
“He became a premier running back,” said Cefaratti, of his star who scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 42-yard run against Wilcox with three minutes to play. “He’s not a big kid, maybe 150 pounds, but he became a tough, scat-back kind of runner and as the season went on, he got better and better at reading blocks. He was our go-to guy.
“I also thought our offensive line really came along. The one senior we are losing, Vinnie Langenfeld, was a two-way player who never came off the field. He is a very good right tackle and middle linebacker.”
Along with Fazzino and Langenfeld, the third tri-captain was Eddie Carafeno.
“He was another two-way starter who never came off the field,” said Cefaratti. “He became our fullback in our second game and we used him as the lead blocker often. He was a great leader on the field.”
Cefaratti also said that Mike Greco was a key player. An all-around utility player, Cefaratti said he was used on the offensive line, the defensive line and even in the backfield. “He made some great blocks in our win over Wilcox,” said the coach.
Junior quarterback Austin Mann, who didn’t play in the season opener due to an ankle injury, was crucial to the team’s success, according to Cefaratti.
“He really matured at the quarterback position,” Cefaratti said. “As a sub-varsity player he was mostly a running back and receiver. But in August it was clear he was our best athlete, the one who could be quarterback. As the season went on, he got to the point where he was making audibles on the field. If he saw something in the defense, he was mature enough to change the play.”
The co-operative program has a bright future, said Cefaratti.
“The co-operative is going great,” he said. “The majority of our kids are from Vinal, and I would like to see more kids from East Hampton come out. I think that will happen as their youth football program is established and growing. All of our kids got a lot of playing time and we have a good core coming back next year.”