KILLINGLY — Cheney Tech of Manchester nearly scored on its first drive, didn’t and the game was over. Killingly led 21-0 after one quarter and 48-0 after two quarters. Coach Chad Neal emptied his bench. Running time was employed the entire second half.
When the CIAC Class M quarterfinal ended, 62-0, in the mud of Windham County, it was clear No. 5 seed Cheney Tech never had a chance against No. 4 seed Killingly.
Killingly, the defending Class M state champion, must turn around to play at No. 1 seed St. Joseph, a private Catholic school, on Sunday. And as the Redmen head to Trumbull as a decided underdog, it also is clear this potpourri of a Class M football tournament must be held up and examined critically for its decided flaws.
One question must be asked: What the heck does school of choice really mean?
“I see a tech school conference, I see a private school conference, and I see a public school conference, that’s what I see,” Neal said when asked about the Class M playoffs. “Very different.
“And we are a public school.”
Only Killingly isn’t seen that way by the CIAC. Because it has a vo-ag program that attracts more than 25 gender-specific students from outside its district, Killingly is a school of choice.
According to athletic director Kevin Marcoux, Killingly has 37 boys from outside the district in the vo-ag program. Two are on the football team. Neither start.
Many don’t know this, but No. 3 Berlin, which defeated No. 6 Brookfield 16-6 in Class M on Tuesday night, also is a school of choice. Berlin is part of the Open Choice Program with Hartford students. Coach Joe Aresimowicz said one Choice player, a senior one-way starter, is on the team and he has 33 total non-freshman players.
Yet with football employing the success modifier used in other sports on a one-year trial, both Berlin and Killingly potentially will be playing in Class L next year. Schools of choice can be bumped up one higher class if they’ve reached at least two semifinals in a row. It happened this year to St. Joseph, moving up after winning the Class S title. It happened to Killingly, which dropped to Class S enrollment-wise, but bumped back up to M.
Class M’s total football enrollment is 378 to 518 boys. Killingly was at 377 and with a chance it will go above the Class M line again would be elevated to L. No. 2 Sheehan, which will play Berlin in the other Class M semifinal is at 379 — only two boys from Class S.
Class M. Class Potpourri. So where to start? How about the top?
“Comparing us to the St. Joe’s of the world is completely unfair,” Marcoux said. “We could make a strong argument that we gain nothing from having athletes in our ag program playing football. The number of starters we’ve had over the years are far and few in between. And if you don’t enter the program as a sophomore, you don’t get in. It’s a strict application process.”
St. Joseph, ranked No. 5 in the state with one loss to Darien, should not be playing in Class M. No, it’s not as all-time egregious as Connecticut’s premier team Sacred Heart, with Mustapha Heron, playing in the Class S and Class M basketball tournament in 2015/2016. But it’s in the same paragraph.
This isn’t meant to slight St. Joseph. The program and coaching are elite. Their facilities are terrific. The way their fans tailgate before games and are so supportive, all good stuff. I’m just saying they’re not Class M. We’d be deluding ourselves if we denied that some terrific athletes chose to attend St. Joe’s to play football.
“The biggest question is what helmet and what uniform are they going to wear (Sunday)?” Neal said. “We’ve got one. (Coach Joe Della Vecchia) down there, they’ve got everything. Big screen TVs, this and that. We’re lucky. We have an iPad. We’re going to bring that with us. We’re going to bring our one helmet. And for 48 minutes, we’re going to play football.”
A member of the football committee, Della Vecchia voted against adding the success modifier. He told Sean Patrick Bowley of GameTimeCT earlier this year, “Every school is a school of choice, in my opinion. Kids go to different schools for many different reasons. Some kids go because of sports, some for religious reasons, academic reasons… They choose by where they’ve chosen to live. Some kids want to live in certain towns because the sports are so good. It happens everywhere.”
That’s a stretch.
It took plenty perseverance, but the CIAC basketball tournament got to a good place last season. Until they put all the Catholic/private schools in one division — a level playing field much harder to accomplish in football than basketball — there always will be criticism. In the meantime, I would submit St. Joseph belongs in Class LL, at the very least Class L playing Hand for the title.
Now, the tech schools. Marc Allard, writing for the Norwich Bulletin, found they are 0-16 since 2000 in the playoffs, 0-24 when part of a co-op team. The average loss had been in excess of 35 points. With No. 7 Haddam-Killingworth beating No. 2 Bullard-Havens, 52-0, in Class S and Cheney’s loss, that’s 114-0, to further figure into the math.
Jonathan Law-Milford, East Haven and Weston all finished 7-3 and out of the Class M playoffs. Law beat Cheshire. East Haven beat Xavier-Middletown. It’s safe to say all three would have beaten Cheney, 8-2.
The tech schools played in CIAC sanctioned schedules and leagues. They didn’t do anything wrong. While Cheney Tech coach Adam Starvish was non-committal about his feelings about potential playoffs change, he was sure his team wouldn’t be defined by one night’s scoreboard and had done so much more this season. Well said.
Yet it has grown apparent that the tech schools, playing against themselves and gaining playoff points not commensurate in quality with other leagues, should play for their own state title. Or at the very least play against the smallest and historically least successful Class S schools. No way Class M.
Killingly, meanwhile, deserves some love. Gone is running back Spencer Lockwood, the state Gatorade and Walter Camp player of the year. Gone are running back/linebacker Zach Caffrey and lineman Alex Fontaine, All-State performers. Neal brought back only four starters on offense. That’s the beauty in what he has done at Killingly. Despite the cyclical talent turnover of small-town public schools, he has gotten the Redmen to four consecutive state semifinals.
And now the ECC is moving Killingly into its Division I next year. That means the Redmen will play much bigger Fitch-Groton, East Lyme, New London and NFA. Stonington is the Division II team designated to play Killingly, according to Marcoux. He said none of the Division III schools — nearby similar schools like Plainfield and Griswold — will play the Redmen. So Marcoux must look outside to schedule an unfathomable five games outside the ECC.
There has to be a better way.