BURLINGTON – What is going on in Burlington?
Since the announcement in 2018 that Lewis Mills would be moving to the Central Connecticut Conference for this athletic season, chorus of critics — from media, to students, parents, coaches and faculty members alike — believed the school was making a mistake, across most sports.
It particularly seemed to be an ominous move for the football program. How could one that struggled for nearly a decade in the Pequot League — comprised of some of the smallest schools in the state — compete in one of the state’s largest conferences.
“They were saying the football team would do even worse,” senior lineman and linebacker Nick Romano recalled this week.
Perhaps it was a fair question, considering that the nine-year old Spartans program had only gone 20-72 (.217) in the Pequot League, including an 0-10 season a year ago and one-win season before that.
Only once in the Spartans’ history have they finished over .500. That was in 2015 when they went 7-3.
Yet, Lewis Mills has defied the expectations, so far. The Spartans have won their first four games of the season, three coming against CCC opponents and one against Bethel out of the SWC.
“For me, specifically, I knew that coming to the CCC we couldn’t use the attitude of they’re a lot bigger and they’re going to beat up on us,” senior quarterback Colby Nordstrom said. “If we couldn’t win in the Pequot, how are we going to win in the CCC? That was a big motivating factor for me.
“All of that combined made us more motivated that we’re not an 0-10 team again.”
The Spartans haven’t just won, they have beaten up opponents, outscoring them 129-13, including two shutouts.
“It’s definitely exciting being on the other side of it,” Nordstrom said.
It’s a complete 180-degree turn from last year, which saw the Spartans score just 87 points all season and get shut out three times.
“(We’re) experiencing some wins, beating Bulkeley (Co-Op) 46-0,” Nordstrom added. “Last year, we were on the other side of it, not scoring touchdowns.”
After knocking off the co-op from Hartford, the Spartans then beat Rocky Hill, a program that was in the Class S title game in 2016. That win that not only doubled the program’s win total from the past two seasons, but gave them more hope and confidence.
“The second win felt a little better, against a good program,” Romano said. “They have a good team, better than their (now 1-3) record.”
Next, the Spartans shut out Bethel on the road and then beat Avon.
“We’re not used to winning, so we didn’t know how to feel,” Romano said. “I think we’re doing the right thing, we’re not feeling satisfied.
“After we win, we’re thinking of the next game.”
What has changed to make the Spartans go from a winless team to one that is starting to believe they can at least match or surpass the program’s best win total in 2015.
They hit the gym.
“The past two years we had mindset that we’re going to move through things in the offseason, not caring that much,” Romano said.
Two years ago when coach John Oko came over from Nonnewaug, one of the things that he wanted to push was offseason weightlifting.
“I really got to know these kids last year,” Oko said. “They were frustrated. They were upset. They wanted to be a winner.”
The team says they starting caring about the person next to them in the locker room.
“When I am on the field now, I know they all have my back no matter what happens,” junior tight end and defensive end Tyler Kolenda said. “I want to play better for them.”
With their game last week on a Saturday, a group of them took in the Bloomfield vs. Plainville game. Then they went to get dinner afterward.
“We’re bonded together. We want to work together. We’re friends,” senior running back and defensive end Cade Cormier said.
The winning has not only helped the team’s confidence, it has made the locker room and practice camaraderie better.
“You walk through our locker room and the heads aren’t down,” Oko said. “They go out to practice and their heads are held high. They want to be at practice.
“…For the most part,” he added with a laugh.
It’s got to the point where being a member of the football team comes with a sense of pride.
“We used to be getting made fun of for being terrible,” Kolenda said. “Everyone respects us now.”
With the team on a bye this week, the Spartans have said they remain focused for their upcoming games. The Spartans have dates with Berlin, Tolland, Plainville and Northwest Catholic to finish up the season. After that, who knows?
“Just have to keep up our attitude, keep the chip on our shoulder,” Nordstrom said. “Keep going at every game like every team we suck, so we have to prove something every time.”