[aesop_character img=”http://www.gametimect.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Headshot.png” caption=”SEAN PATRICK BOWLEY” align=”right” force_circle=”off”]
It was fourth-and-forever, it seemed, and New Milford was backed up against its goal line in the second quarter of its season-opening game vs. Weston, a team many SWC coaches pegged as a sleeper in 2016.
New Milford didn’t bring out the punt team. Instead, new quarterback Tyler Sullivan calmly stepped back and launched a bomb down the right sideline to his all-SWC receiver Max Vaughey, who caught it ahead of his defender and raced into the end zone.
“(Weston) didn’t really seem to like it at all,” Sullivan said with a smirk. “The ref was like, wow, what did I just watch?”
On the ensuing kickoff, New Milford tried an onside kick. After another touchdown, New Milford did it again. Next fourth down? Go for it. Next touchdown? Onside kick.
And it went on like this. New Milford didn’t just beat Weston, they rolled up 453 yards of total offense in an eye-popping 41-13 victory. Sullivan, in his first game as a starter, went off for 283 yards and four touchdowns. Vaughey caught two passes, both for touchdowns.
“They went for it the first time and I thought it might have been just them being aggressive early in the game,” Weston coach Chris Pace said. “After we had them pinned and they hit that fourth-and-25 from their 15 for a touchdown, I thought, OK, something’s up.”
The next week, New Milford was at it again in a 49-34 win over Bethel. All fourth-down conversion attempts, onside kicks and no punting, all the time (well, there might have been a quick kick or two thrown in there).
This wasn’t a gimmick. This was happening.
If you’re a football coach or fan you might know where the Green Wave is going with this. If you’re an SWC fan or coach, you’ve seen it before. You saw it when Craig Bruno’s Bunnell teams won consecutive state titles in the 2000s. You see it when you watch Bruno’s Naugatuck teams play in the NVL.
In December last year, the political polling website FiveThirtyEight, in conjunction with ESPN Films, told the story of coach Kevin Kelley and his Pulaski Academy team in Arkansas. Tired of being an also-ran in the state playoffs, Kelley applied a Harvard study on statistics and football to his team’s strategy.
Kelley’s teams never punted, no matter how deep it was in its own end, no matter how far it was for a first down, and it always attempted onside kicks, among other things. Kelley crunched the numbers for his team and saw that those strategies, while unorthodox, did give his team a statistical advantage.
A few years after implementing the system, Pulaski Academy last season traveled to Dallas and snapped Highland Park’s 84-game win streak, which had dated back to 1999. Kelley’s team went on to win the Arkansas Class A championship a few months later.
New Milford coach Larry Badaracco, entering his third season with the Green Wave, never thought he’d consider doing something like that, “I just thought it was a cool thing to do,” he said.
But over the winter, the 34-year old coach attended a coaching clinic where Kelley was preaching his newfound religion. Badaracco and his all-star staff came away starry-eyed. Maybe they could try some of this stuff, if only in pieces.
New Milford wasn’t bringing back an exceptionally veteran team, only 12 seniors are on this year’s squad. So when the first preseason practices approached, Badaracco — who knows that New Milford’s 50-year football pedigree is negligent, at best — held his breath and took the plunge: Kelley’s way was going to be New Milford’s way of playing football.
“We’ve been doing things inside the box for 50 years at New Milford and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” Badaracco said. “Why not try something outside the box for a change?”
His coaching staff was on board from start, especially offensive coordinator Sean Murray, who — coincidentally — played quarterback for Bruno at Bunnell and models his offense after his former coach’s full-speed-ahead offense. “He just about jumped out of his seat when I told him we’re going to go with it,” Badaracco said. “The way Sean coaches the offense aggressively, I figured we might as well play aggressively across the board.”
The kids were sold from the beginning.
“No one really believed it at first,” Sullivan said. “But when coach first said it at practice, everyone was like wowwww. It became real when we played Weston and we threw that 85-yard pass for a touchdown on fourth down.
“I love the idea. I thought it was pretty cool to do that. So far it’s working for us.”
Badaracco swore the team to secrecy. Not even their parents could know.
When the first game arrived and it became clear New Milford wasn’t going to punt (though it has drop-kicked on occasion), was going to onside kick and almost always go for it on fourth down, Badaracco caught snippets of disapproval from his stands.
“If you could have put a microphone in the stands, you would have thought I shot the president,” he said.
It’s not just limited to parents and fans. Badaracco, who teaches at New Milford, says he gets ribbed mercilessly by fellow teachers in the hallways.
“I suspect people are going to get aggravated and disappointed with the way we’re playing football,” he said. “But you know what? I’m not coaching football for them. We’re here for our guys. And I think this is the best thing for our team.”
It’s only been two games and Bacaracco says he won’t begin to pour over his statistics until after Week 3. But he has an idea of how it’s going. New Milford has missed just three of its fourth-down conversion attempts, two because of dropped passes. So that’s going well. However, New Milford’s onside kick percentage, which needs to be about 20 percent recovery Badaracco said, is in the low single digits.
“It’s trial and error, we need to get better at it,” Badaracco said. “We’re trying to find kickers who can do different things. We also need to learn how to scheme better as coaches. It’s an evolving process. There’s a lot to learn.”
But, make no mistake, this is New Milford’s 2016 script and Badaracco is sticking to it. “This isn’t going to be a thing where we get cold feet if we’re 3-0 or 5-0, or something like that,” Badaracco said. “We’re in it. Our coaches and players understand that. We’re having fun with it.”
It didn’t take long for New Milford’s opponents to get wise, especially after the Weston result. Bethel, Badaracco said, came prepared with their hands teams on kickoffs and knew what to expect on fourth down. Bethel made New Milford pay for its risks and had 28-25 lead early in the third quarter. “They came and smacked us in the mouth,” Badaracco said.
But it helps that New Milford has talent. And while wacky strategies might improve New Milford’s prospects, the players still need to perform.
The key so far has been Sullivan, the junior who came into the season hearing all about how he couldn’t possibly replace three-year starter Tyler Hansen, who had shattered just about every school passing record.
Sullivan’s merely thrown for 693 yards in two games. He had an awesome performance in the win over Bethel. He completed 30 of 58 (fifty eight) passes for 410 yards, three touchdowns and running for two more. Two key fourth down conversion passes led to touchdowns to help the Green Wave pull away, 47-34.
“I couldn’t be happier for Tyler Sullivan,” Badaracco said. “All off season it was, how are you going to replace Tyler Hansen? Sully’s not your guy. You should start Max (Vaughey) at quarterback. That fueled Sully’s fire all winter long. He didn’t miss a lift, didn’t miss a passing camp. He didn’t miss anything. He’s been a leader. He’s a program guy and I can’t say enough nice things about him.”
On the other side of the coin is Vaughey, who was definitely not a program guy when he showed up and tried out for the team last season. The senior had never played football until Hansen, on the suggestion of Badaracco and Murray, coaxed his best friend to come out for spring practice. “To be honest, I just wanted to get out on the field and get a feel for it,” Vaughey said.
Vaughey is a svelte 5-10, 175 pounds and sports goggles, making look more like the titular character in the ’80s teen football movie Lucas rather than one of the best receivers in the league.
Had Vaughey starred in that film, however, he would have won the girl. He caught 47 passes for nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, in — and we can’t stress this enough — his first year playing football. “Yea, I was shocked,” Vaughey said. “You could say it worked out pretty well.”
Through two games, Vaughey has caught 12 passes for 328 yards and three touchdowns.
“He just torched kids,” Badaracco said. “Not even knowing what to do half the time. But he loved it. He put the work in the summer, he went to passing leagues. Now he’s a force people are going to have to recognize.”
New Milford has also been sparked by sophomore Kendall Greene, junior Matt Bervard. Linebacker Nate Capriglione is averaging 8 tackles per game.
New Milford is 2-0 heading into its home opener vs. Pomperaug Friday night. We don’t have records showing the last New Milford team that went 2-0 to start a season. Even New Milford’s 8-3, SWC runner-up season in 2001 — which remains the high watermark of the program’s success — didn’t start off 2-0. Update: The last 2-0 start was 1998.
In fact, the team has spent 10 of the last 12 years beginning seasons 0-2.
So this is truly uncharted territory for the Green Wave.
“(Fans) can’t say anything about how we play,” Vaughey said. “They see our record. We’re 2-0. We trust what we’re doing. We’re committed to it.”
So far, it’s been vindication for Badaracco, who was an unknown in the coaching community when he took over the program on the fly for John Murphy just before the start of 2014 season.
Badaracco played at Immaculate during its heyday under coach Steve Kaplanis in the late 1990s. In 2005, Kaplanis died of a heart attack as Badaracco was preparing to play medical sixth year at WestConn. Days earlier, the coach had called Badaracco, tempting him to join his staff.
“I loved that man,” Badaracco said. “He’s the reason why I got into coaching.”
In a hat-tip to his mentor, Badaracco has assembled a staff with a distinct Immaculate taste. Defensive coordinator Chris Mascolo played with Badaracco and coached at the school before starting the program at Abbott Tech. Assistant Sean Mahon was Immaculate’s head coach for a few years after Kaplanis’ death. “It’s a special coaching staff and they’re dedicated to this team and to this community,” Badaracco said.
Still, New Milford was typical New Milford in his first two years: 3-8 and 4-6.
“It wasn’t easy taking over for John Murphy, who’s a great football coach,” Badaracco said. “I’m sure everyone was like, who’s this guy and what does he have to offer? I’ve had a rough couple of years — not getting the kids to buy in — but getting the rest of the community and others in the football world to understand what we’re trying to do.
“Now with the community support, the next thing we need to do is get our two youth programs involved because it doesn’t work for us. Getting them on board will be very important.”
If all goes right against Pomperaug, Badaracco’s team could be 3-0 heading into a showdown with Newtown at home in Week 4. He’s pumped. The players are pumped. There’s a long way to go but the attitude has already changed.
“It feels a lot better because nobody believes in New Milford football these days,” Sullivan said. “It makes winning 10-times better than what it should be. We all know we’re good, but nobody thinks anything of us. And this year we’re out to prove them wrong.”
Rought starts, great finishes
Mike Castelot threw for 269 yards and three touchdowns, two of which went to senior receiver Zhayire Fernandes (5 catches, 114 yards) in the second half as the Bulldogs improved to 2-0 for the first time since 2011. Brett Bogdwicz caught six passes for 127 yards and a score. Linebacker Joe Minopoli and Bogdwicz, a defensive back, had four tackles apiece. Bogdwicz had one of Bunnell’s two interceptions as the Bulldogs’ defense kept New Fairfield scoreless in the second half.
Weston, meanwhile, kept the to the ground to beat the defending Class M champs. Quarterback Alex Fruhbeis ran for 148 yards on 28 carries and scored two touchdowns, including what turned out to be the clincher with 3:40 remaining. George Goetz ran for a 33-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Senior linebacker Zach Spencer was in on 14 tackles as Weston also pitched a second-half shutout.
“At halftime, I told the team we wanted to continue to run the football and we did,” coach Chris Pace said.
But both coaches were left wondering where their teams were in the first half and afterward, both impressed upon their players that they their tardiness was unacceptable.
“We played very, very sloppy in the first half, penalties, offsides, you name it,” Bunnell coach Sean Mignone said. “Our defense played great and kept us in it, but our first half was definitely addressed. We laid into them about playing how they’re capable of playing. We’ve got to play four quarters.”
It was the same message at Weston, especially after the Trojans were stunned by New Milford in Week 1.
“We responded well and I’m happy, especially coming back down 13,” Pace said. “We impressed upon them that the second half is the standard of play we expected from them. The first half against Brookfield was so frustrating. We’ve shown glimpses, we just have to put it all together. Hopefully, we can use this momentum and keep it going.”
…Bunnell senior quarterback Mike Castelot rolled his ankle during the New Fairfield game and, though he managed to finish the game, he could miss this week’s game at Brookfield. Coach Sean Mignone said they were still awaiting word as of late Tuesday night. “He’s the dreaded ‘day-to-day,'” Mignone said of his quarterback. “We’re hoping it’s not serious.”
Castelot, who grew up watching his brother, Bryan, run the Dawgs offense for three years under former coach Craig Bruno, has thrown for 512 yards and six touchdowns against just two interceptions. He spent the last two years as an understudy to Adam Wojenski.
“He’s waited a long time for his turn and he was so pumped to play that first week,” Mignone said. “I told him, look, do you want to start conservative and ease into the game or do you want to chuck it right away?’ He said chuck it. And he threw two touchdowns on his first two passes. That gave him confidence. He had that gunslinger attitude.”
Mignone said he has two or three options should Castelot be unable to go against Brookfield.
…Newtown junior Mark Hall is now No. 1 in your program, the number worn by former two-year starter Ethan Carpenter (now at Marist). Yet, two games in Hall has already made three interceptions — two in last week’s 42-19 win over Stratford — which leads the SWC and matches Carpenter’s 2015 total. He’s not the only new name stepping up for the Hawks’ defense. End Jack Phelps leads the league with three sacks. Linebacker Thomas Hall has made 13 tackles.
…Matt Hersch completed 15 passes for 252 yards in the first half, seven of those went to Nick Dellapiano and three for touchdowns as Masuk continued to flex its muscles with a 48-8 victory over Pomperaug. Masuk also forced three fumbles on defense.
…Mike Bevino caught eight passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns from Micah Brantley as Notre Dame-Fairfield won its first game, 20-13 over Barlow. Freshman Taevian Jackson ran 19 times for 120 yards and a touchdown.
… Brookfield senior back Harrison Manesis, who is expected to be a featured player, missed his second-consecutive game due to a hand injury. Quarterback Nick Merkel has so far led the team with 91 yards rushing. Niko Droukas has led the Bobcats in receiving with 7 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown.
Player of the Week
Hunter Cobb, Newtown
There were plenty of worthy candidates — Alex Fruhbeis, Mike Bevino, Tyler Sullivan, Zhayire Fernandes or teammate Mike Castelot — but, for the second week in a row Newtown’s Hunter Cobb has earned laurels in this spot for accounting for all six Newtown touchdowns in a 42-19 victory over Stratford.
This time, he did the bulk of the work, rushing 31 times for 196 yards and five touchdowns and catching a touchdown pass from Justin Dunn. He also made seven total tackles on defense.
It’s going to be hard to top that, so consider this the retirement of Cobb’s name on this spot for a while.
Game of the Week
BUNNELL at BROOKFIELD, Friday, 7 p.m.
Bunnell won this game last year, using a goal line stand in overtime to topple the eventual Class M champions, 28-21. The roles are reversed, somewhat, this time around. Bunnell has a veteran lineup which is trying to stamp itself as a contender. Brookfield has an overhauled lineup trying to find its identity.
“That was our biggest one last year,” Bunnell’s Mignone said. “But what did we get for beating Brookfield last year? We got a good moment. They went on to get a state championship. Both teams are much different than a year ago, so this game has a different feel.”
Mignone has been impressed with his new defensive line — Jason Milfort, Richard Dufront, David Vereen, Taalmyn Stanton and Howard Powell — which held New Fairfield to 60 yards on the ground. It will be charged with keeping Brookfield’s rushing attack under wraps, especially if Manesis returns. “One of our biggest weak spots was our line last year,” Mignone said. “These guys have been stepping up and when our line plays well, it allows our linebackers and DBs to make plays.”
As mentioned, the game will hinge on the availability of Bunnell’s Castelot at quarterback and if Brookfield’s Manesis is able to return after missing the first two weeks of the season.
Inside the Numbers
1Total victories by three of last year’s four SWC state playoff teams — Brookfield, Stratford and New Fairfield. Combined they are 1-7 to start the season. Brookfield is 1-1, Stratford is 0-2 and New Fairfield is 0-2. That, of course, includes New Fairfield’s and Stratford’s losses to Newtown, the fourth of last year’s SWC playoff teams.
The Top 5
- 1. NEWTOWN (2-0, LW 1) — Moving right along, footloose and fancy-free…
- 2. MASUK (2-0, LW 2) — So far everything is proceeding as we have foreseen.
- 3. BUNNELL (2-0, LW 3) — Just put a full game together and you’re good to go, Bunnell.
- 4. NEW MILFORD (2-0, LW NR) — Sully has been a surprisingly steady hand in a sea of controlled chaos
- 5. WESTON (1-1, LW NR) — That second half is the Weston we were expecting.
- JUST MISSED — Brookfield (1-1), Notre Dame-Fairfield (1-1)
Pomperaug at New Milford, 7:00 p.m.
Bethel at New.Fair., 7:00 p.m.
Barlow at Newtown, 7:00 p.m.
Bunnell at Brookfield, 7:00 p.m.
Stratford at Weston, 7:00 p.m.
Masuk at Notre Dame-Fairfield, 1 p.m.