Week 2: St. Thomas More at Choate, 2 p.m.
MONTVILLE — They’ll rise early Saturday morning, rise out there near Gardner Lake among the woods of Eastern Connecticut. They’ll have their breakfast, pile into the team bus at 9:30 and arrive in Wallingford an hour later.
Box lunches will be served.
“We’ll rest a little,” St. Thomas More coach Jeff Moore said. “And then we’ll rock.”
The best high school game in the state this weekend is a prep school game: St. Thomas More at Choate at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
The last time Choate Rosemary Hall lost, Simon & Garfunkel had just released the album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” OK, that was 1966. Still, the Wild Boars haven’t lost since Nov. 2, 2013, against Loomis Chaffee, a staggering win streak of 39 games.
L.J. Spinnato, who played at Hand-Madison and Amherst, is 38-0 and won four consecutive NEPSAC Class A titles since taking over as Choate head coach in 2014.
“L.J. has been the best coach in prep school football for a while now,” Moore said. “He’s a class act. They play incredibly hard. They don’t make many mistakes. The two most important things when it comes to winning games.”
Yet here’s the storyline: A school known for decades as a basketball powerhouse under Jere Quinn has emerged as destination for major college football coaches. More and Moore have the most high-level college talent in Connecticut. Five of the top 13 players ranked by 247Sports in Connecticut’s class of 2019, prep and CIAC, play for the Chancellors. Among his 35 players, Moore, who arrived in Oakdale in the winter of 2017, counts 13 players with Division I (FBS and FCS) offers.
Yet as we saw last week with preseason No. 1 New Canaan (with four FBS commits) in its 28-0 loss to St. Joseph-Trumbull, the team with the most scholarships doesn’t always score the most points.
The Chancellors lost to Choate, 49-27, last year. Moore said it was 91 degrees. The high-tempo teams combined for a whopping 198 plays. St. Thomas More had 23 players dressed, Choate more than twice that. The Chancellors gassed out.
The temperature will be cooler this time. Moore will have more players. He’ll have defensive back Tyler Rudolph, from Waterbury, who’s headed to Penn State. Linebacker Charles Thomas from Georgia, headed to Michigan; cornerback Maurice Gaines, from Sacramento, Calif., going to Arizona; offensive lineman Anthony Red of Bloomfield, headed to Syracuse; and cornerback Tyrik Henderson, from the Chicago area, looking at Syracuse and UConn, among others.
In 2017, Moore brought in 25 players, including 10 from all over Connecticut. Among them, James Makszin of Norwalk went to Rhode Island, which plays UConn on Saturday. Freshman defensive back Jeremy Lucien, who played for Choate last year, will make his first start for the Huskies.
With only nine players returning for 2018, Moore brought in 25 more players. Six are from Canada.
“The toughest thing when you’re bringing in so many kids every year is creating a culture of success,” Moore said. “Last year set a foundation.”
In this bucolic setting are stories from all over. Defensive lineman Masay Ozaki is the grandson of the great Japanese golfer Jumbo Ozaki. Central Connecticut has offered him, and UConn is in the mix. Eric Hegamin is the son of former NFL lineman George Heagmin. Triston Ward from Griswold is an eighth-grader. Cormac O’Brien showed up at St. Thomas More weighing 410 pounds. He is down to 347. From Norwalk and Trinity Catholic, there’s 6-foot-6 punter-kicker David Broncati. From Notre Dame-West Haven, there’s long snapper Donato Crisanti, committed to URI.
“They come for all different reasons,” Moore said. “Some to get a little more academic support to get ready for college. Some might need another year to qualify through the NCAA. Some feel they are a little unproven and want to prove themselves.
“Every kid we brought in was a day student somewhere. This is a a culture shock for a lot of them. They’ve done a really good job of handling it.”
The Chancellors opened with a 47-0 victory over Nordrhein-Westfalen from Germany last week. Chalk that one up as a terrific cultural experience. St. Thomas More already won next week’s game. Hun School, a couple of days ago, suddenly decided to forfeit. Moore said Hun was concerned about playing a team with eight postgrads and wanted to concentrate on its conference schedule. Cheshire Academy, which lost to Hun last week, uses postgrads, too.
Later in the season, the Chancellors will play St. Francis of Baltimore, ranked No. 4 in the nation last year.
“The toughest thing in the prep school world is the best teams don’t always get a chance to play the best teams,” Moore said. “We’ve had difficulty scheduling. I really appreciate L.J. and Dave Dykeman (Cheshire Academy). They’re willing to play anyone.”
If Putnam Science Academy can win a national prep championship with a tiny gym, who’s to say St. Thomas More can’t win big with what many visitors think is a practice field? A tiny section of stands, a half-dozen rows high, a couple of goal posts, and that’s it. No lights, so the St. Francis game will be played at Trinity College.
What there is, however, is talent.
During the last recruiting cycle, 100 colleges visited, including 50 Division I schools. Jim Harbaugh of Michigan was here. James Franklin of Penn State and Josh Heupel of UCF were here. Assistants from Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, et al.
Moore was a walk-on at UMass. After two years, he worked as a student assistant under Kevin Morris. He coached at Amherst for a year after graduating in 2012. When Morris went to Yale as offensive coordinator, Moore went to New Haven.
It was Tony Reno’s first year. He was defensive coaching intern and video coordinator. In at 6:30 a.m., Moore said, leaving at midnight among the Harry Potter-like houses. He marvels at the job Reno and his staff have done incorporating “athletics, academics and character.”
While completing his master’s degree, Moore returned to Amherst and coached the running backs. He left football for three years. The St. Thomas Moore job opened. Moore got it. He doubles as assistant director of admissions and athletic director. His goal? To “reinvigorate” the program. His ability to attract top talent has been eye-opening. His secret?
“Have a plan, believe in it,” Moore said. “And blunt honesty with parents about what’s a realistic fit for their son. We have 100 boys in the school. Our average class size is 11. We’re one of the few schools that’s 100 percent boarding.
“This is a totally different experience from a public school. All but one of our faculty live on campus. Every dorm has at one least football coach living there. We’re a little out in the sticks here and it’s very different from L.A., Chicago or Waterbury. But for the kids it’s about a little sacrifice and seeing the bigger picture. One or two years can drastically change their future for the next 40.”