[aesop_character img=”http://www.gametimect.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Ray-Curren-Headshot.png” caption=”RAY CURREN” align=”right” force_circle=”off”]
Handshake lines at the end of high school football games can be long enough, often morphing from something resembling straight into a parabola before everyone can get through and into their postgame huddle.
At Hand games this year, though, particularly as the season winds down, there’s been a traffic jam at the head of the line that has moved slower than the single lane of cars trying to go out of the Surf Club.
After 37 years with the Hand football program and the last 27 as head coach, Steve Filippone is retiring after the season.
As you probably know, his record speaks for itself: 223 wins, seven state championships, 11 state final appearances, president of the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Football Committee for more than a decade, and National Coach of the Year winner in 2014.
But that’s not entirely why Filippone has slowed the postgame line to a virtual stop. There have been many coaches that have come and gone over the years in Connecticut high school football, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone as universally liked and respected as Filippone.
And so as every Hand game has ended this season, everyone – officials, opposing coaching staffs, chain crews, security guards, you name it — has gone out of the way to seek out Filippone and wish him the best.
Friday night brought long-time rival West Haven to the Surf Club, led by Rich Boshea, who has only been in charge for two years, but was an assistant to Ed McCarthy since the Westies joined the SCC.
“I gave him (Filippone) a note before the game which basically said I’m honored to be his friend,” Boshea said. “More guys should coach for the right reasons like he does. His teams play the right way. They play hard, but always with respect for their opponent and the game. We’ve been playing them since 1996 in the SCC and it’s almost even [West Haven now has an 11-9-1 edge]. And that’s probably the way it should be.”
Filippone is just the second Hand head coach in its storied history. Larry Ciotti ran the show from 1971 to 1988 before handing over the reigns to Filippone, then his assistant.
He was just 33 then and was a state champion in his first season, topping Darien. Filippone wouldn’t have a losing season until 2006, but — even now playing an SCC Division I schedule, a far cry from the slate he was playing when he first started — he followed that up with a state title appearance in 2007 and a dominant team that won back-to-back Class L championships in 2012 and 2013.
This, however, will be his second losing season in three years as Hand has struggled in the new Division I format to a 1-7 record, 0-7 in Division I.
If Hand loses to Cheshire this week, it will be the worst record in Tigers’ history.
But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the sidelines. Eventually, unbeaten West Haven — which may be on its way to the top seed in the Class LL playoffs — prevailed 33-23.
But the Tigers put together a couple of wonderful drives in the fourth quarter. If you just watched Filippone’s excitement level, you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was a game already decided in a losing season or a state playoff game. He was thrilled that his kids were improving and competing despite the circumstances.
“It would have been very easy for our kids to fold,” Filippone said. “We got on them hard at halftime, but they didn’t fold. We’re not a great football team by any stretch of the imagination. But honestly, I wouldn’t want to play us the next two weeks and I’m proud of these kids for working hard. We knew what we were up against when we saw the schedule. We knew we were going to have our hands full and we have.”
Filippone actually told his team that this would be his last season back in August.
“I didn’t want this (attention). I didn’t want anyone to believe that I would leave this program because we were losing,” Filippone said. “I would never do that. It would be the exact opposite. I would say if I thought I could help. It’s the right time for me to go and it’s something I’ve thought long and hard about. It’s time.”
Filippone is the rare figure in modern high school sports who was able to maneuver through the maze of adolescents, their parents and the pressures of trying to win and do it with a smile intact for more than a quarter-century, even at a high-profile job like Hand.
He was able to coach his sons to state titles. Even after Friday’s game, Filippone went around and talked to many of his players about their health — including checking Brett Bilcheck’s phone for data on how many impacts he had during the game and how severe they were, something that surely didn’t exist in 1989.
And he didn’t even mind my annoying questions over the years.
“What’s really gratifying to me is that the officials come up and say, ‘Hey, it’s been great working with you over the years’. It’s been unbelievable,” Filippone said. “Even the press. I’ve never had a moment with the press that I was disappointed in and the way you handled it. I can’t imagine it being any better than it was.”
One thing that hasn’t kept up with the times is Filippone’s once perfect eyesight. In pregame warmups, he had to finally concede and reach for his glasses to see his play chart.
“I make them big, the letters are in the biggest font I can make them and I always think I can read them without the glasses. But by the time we get going, I can’t read them,” Filippone said. “Maybe that’s a sign.”
As a parting gift, Boshea and McCarthy gave Filippone — whom they knew was a big Bruce Springsteen fan — a copy of The Boss’ new autobiography, “Born to Run”.
Filippone did not take Springsteen’s advice of “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap; We gotta get out while we’re young”, but both Madison and anyone who came across him over the last four decades are better for it.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished here,” Filippone said. “When you look around at this stadium and this field and what’s going to be going up here still. This is going to be one of greatest places in Connecticut to play and watch high school football. I’ll be here still somewhere, but it’s time for someone else to coach.”
????kiss that streak good-bye. Prep wins 38-15
— Ffld Prep Football (@Prep_Football) November 5, 2016
With just two games left for most teams, the postseason scenarios are starting to come into some sort of focus. Fairfield Prep put a giant swerve to the script by not only beating Shelton, but doing it handily, 38-15, putting an abrupt halt to Shelton’s 29-game regular season winning streak in the process.
Sophomore Doug Harrison only had 49 career attempts coming in, but finished with 331 yards on 32 carries and five touchdowns to lead a Prep offense that has struggled mightily for much of the season.
Xavier (710), Fairfield Prep (710), and Cheshire (700) now all stand at 5-3 and 10th through 12th, respectively, in the Class LL standings. Only eight make the final cut after Thanksgiving. Fairfield Prep plays West Haven and Cheshire meets Southington on Thanksgiving. Those will be extremely tall orders for both teams, obviously, but also a treasure of points should they pull off the upsets.
Xavier has a showdown with Notre Dame Friday in West Haven that might serve as a knockout game. The Green Knights, with a couple of results in their favor last week, are suddenly in very good shape to qualify for the Class L playoffs if they win. The Falcons, after throttling North Haven Friday, will be heavy favorites in their season finale against Wilbur Cross. They will need a little more help than ND at 7-3, but it’s certainly possible.
Meanwhile, Shelton would probably still be safe at 8-2 (if it loses to West Haven this week), but would likely be on the road — hopefully not at West Haven because that would stink for obvious reasons.
If Shelton beats the Westies, there is a decent chance of a rematch at Shelton after Thanksgiving, which would also stink.
Hillhouse, which held off Zach Davis and Sheehan Friday, will likely get a home game at Bowen Field if it wins out, while Foran — lurking in 12th in Class M — is not eliminated quite yet, but obviously must beat two teams that are playing really well at the moment (Amity and Creed) to get to Thanksgiving. If Foran does that, it will likely be close.
Everyone else not mentioned here? Well, you’re out of luck. Sorry.
Zach Davis suffered a quite bizarre injury in the first quarter against Hillhouse as he was stepped on, opening up a gash on his lower back that kept him out for the remainder of the half. Sheehan was able to hang in there with the Acs anyway behind Danny James and others. Davis finished with 177 yards on 27 carries and three touchdowns.
… Foran rolled over Branford 42-12 Friday, but it wasn’t all bad for the Hornets as former New York Giant Brandon Jacobs made his way to Senior Night from Atlanta to be with Griffin Lynch, whom he met while playing “Call of Duty” a few years ago.
Jacobs, who ran for 1,000 yards with the Giants in both 2008 and 2009, called Lynch “like a little brother.” Jacobs also took pictures with the Foran team and fans before departing.
… Notre Dame held off Cheshire 27-21 as Mike Millea was tackled on the 1-yard line on 4th-and-goal late in the game. The Green Knights led throughout, but as with everything else in Division I, it was far from easy.
… Sometimes the cumulative toll of playing a Division I schedule can be underrated and North Haven showed signs of fatigue in Xavier’s 42-10 rout at Vanacore Field. The Indians get to go to Fairfield Prep this week. Xavier’s Will Levis completed 21-of-25 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns while Glenn Cunningham ran for 181 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries.
… Amity made it two wins in a row by stopping Hamden 40-20 on Friday and may be looking at its final two games (Foran, North Haven) to play spoiler.
… Creed got a 97-yard run from Jhavion Haddock in the fourth quarter to stop East Haven and former coach Melvin Wells 20-17 for its second straight win. The Howling Wolves only have two games remaining.
… Wilbur Cross was blown out by unbeaten New London 52-6 with the Whalers scoring on the final play of the game.
Player of the Week
Doug Harrison, Fairfield Prep
Harrison did rush for 154 yards on 17 carries last week against Xavier, but it was in a lopsided loss so few noticed. They definitely took a look at his 331 yards on 32 attempts in the upset of Shelton Friday. Before Friday’s game, Fairfield Prep had scored just two touchdowns in its last three Division I games and Harrison had five alone.
Inside the Numbers
0Number of undefeated teams in Division III play.
Sheehan currently leads at 3-1 (with a loss in its opener to East Haven) and could capture the inaugural title with wins in its final two games against Creed and Lyman Hall. If you’re looking for parity, five of the other six teams currently have two losses in division play.
Game of the Week
Xavier at Notre Dame, Friday, 7 p.m.
West Haven-Shelton will probably get a little more publicity, but this is probably a bigger game in that the loser is definitely out of the playoff race while the winner might be in.
Both teams are obviously battle-tested and seem to be playing their best football toward the end of the campaign, especially Xavier’s defense, which has allowed just two touchdowns in the last two weeks.
- 1) West Haven (8-0; Last Week 1) – Defense has not been sharp last couple weeks, which could be problem.
- 2) Shelton (7-1; LW 2) – Giving them a mulligan on last week’s game, but West Haven won’t give them another.
- 3) Notre Dame (5-3; LW 3) – Don’t think there are a lot of Class L teams that would like Knights involved in Dec.
- 4) Xavier (5-3; LW 6) – We counted Falcons out of playoff race, but might have been really premature to do so.
- 5) Fairfield Prep (5-3; LW 8) – Was an upset that Jesuits won, but the real shock was how easy the victory was.
- 6) Cheshire (5-3; LW 5) – Rams were thisclose to being 6-2, but shouldn’t be counted out quite yet.
- 7) Hillhouse (7-1; LW 7) – Academics did give up some points to Sheehan, but seem like they’re playoff bound.
- 8) North Haven (3-5; LW 4) – Division I play wearing the Indians down apparently, and still have to go to Prep.
- 9) Hand (1-7; LW 9) – Looks like they’ll get “schedule relief” next season, meaning a move down to new Division II.
- 10) Foran (4-3; LW 11) – Not quite out of playoff race just yet, a win over Amity would start us looking harder.
- 11) Sheehan (4-4; LW 12) – Did put up a good fight against Hillhouse, and are favorites in final two contests.
- 12) Amity (3-5; LW 13) – Spartans have turned things around last couple weeks and deserve some credit for it.
- 13) Wilbur Cross (4-3; LW 10) – Season starting to get away from Governors a bit, would love to beat Hamden.
- 14) Branford (4-4; LW 14) – Same for Hornets, who face a tricky rest of schedule with Jonathan Law and East Haven.
- 15) Hamden (2-6; LW 15) – Last chance for a Division II victory comes Friday in showdown with Wilbur Cross.
- 16) Creed (3-5; LW 17) – Being healthy certainly helps, nice to get a victory over their former coach Thursday.
- 17) East Haven (2-5; LW 16) – Could be 5-2 with a couple of breaks heading down the stretch, but such is life.
- 18) Guilford (3-5; LW 18) – Haven’t had the best of luck when playing against FCIAC squads last few years.
- 19) Jonathan Law (3-4; LW 19) – Was a nice time of year to see Lyman Hall on the schedule and pick up a win.
- 20) Lyman Hall (1-7; LW 20) – Still looks like they’ll have to wait until next year to get another conference win.