MIDDLETOWN >> Middletown’s 21-14 loss to Masuk in last year’s Class L quarterfinals was the elephant in the Blue Dragon’s weight room this offseason.
The defeat, one in which Middletown squandered a two touchdown lead in the second half, still seemed to linger Tuesday at the Keigwin Middle School where head coach Sal Morello pushed his team through some practice drills on a patch of grass that was starved for water.
The Blue Dragons are also hungry. And poised for a big season.
“(Masuk) was a tough loss,” said Morello, “but I tell you what, it’s led into a pretty good offseason in the weight room. We’ve got to learn from that experience. The kids seem to be hungry to get back there but at the same time it’s my job and the coach’s job to understand that there is a process and we’ve got to take it one step at a time.”
Middletown went 8-3 a year ago, losing to Class L finalists Windsor and Class LL champion Xavier before their playoff defeat.
“The big thing we learned from last year too is there has been a real big emphasis on taking care of the ball and on defense going to get the ball,” Morello said. “So we shot ourselves a little bit with that last year and that’s one area we definitely have to get better at.”
The Blue Dragons, who lost Isiah Swain, Otto Marcello, and Akeino Chamberlain to graduation, still possess enough speed to drive defensive coordinators crazy. But they’ve also added some size into the mix.
“We’re bigger than year’s past,” said Morello. “When people see Middletown or hear Middletown they think speed. I think we’re a little bigger and more physical. The weight room has really paid off. We’ve got three running backs over 200 pounds so we’re going to come downhill as well. And we think we’ve got some speed on the outside as well to really put some stress on a defense.”
Leading the way will be junior quarterback Dario Highsmith (5-11, 180), junior running back/linebacker Isiah Thompkins (6-1, 200), senior center Jeff Woodcock (5-11, 215), senior defensive end RaJahn Johnson (6-0, 211), senior receiver Jacob Homar (5-10), senior defensive tackle Sam Rivera (6-1, 280), senior linebacker Cody Carrillo (6-1, 185) and the Bednarz twins, senior linemen David (6-7, 275) and Anthony (6-7, 250).
“Dario is just a terrific leader,” Morello explained. “He loves football. He loves everything about it. He loves to practice and is a student of the game. He’s a terrific athlete. Thompkins also started as sophomore and we’re looking for big things from there. Our center (Woodcock) is back. And David and Anthony Bednarz have had a terrific offseason.”
For Morello, the keys to the season will be staying healthy, and developing depth and team chemistry. “At this point in the preseason we’re trying to have those young kids catch up a little bit because we’re going to need them,” he explained. “You know how it is in high school football. They’re probably just one snap away from being a starter. So we’re trying to develop depth and establish some kind of identity and what kind of team we’re going to be. But I like what I see. The kids are working hard. We’re a little banged up right now but I’m sure that’s everybody at this point.”
Middletown opens its season at Rosek Skubel Stadium against East Lyme on Thursday, Sept. 12. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
The Middletown-Xavier Thanksgiving Day game is a thing of the past but the Blue Dragons, who play in the Central Connecticut Conference, will have their hands full against Windsor (Nov. 27), Farmington (Nov. 1) and Hartford Public (Oct. 11).
Middletown’s schedule also features non-league road games against New London (Nov. 8) and Simsbury (Nov. 15).
“Every week we’re just going to have to bring it,” said Morello. “We can’t look to see whose there or whose that. We’re just going to have to take care of Middletown. Our focus and our preparation are going to have to be extraordinary all 11 weeks.”
Morello has a career coaching mark of 90-22 in 11 seasons at Cromwell and Middletown. He started and began building the football program at Cromwell in 2001 and it took only six varsity seasons for the Panthers to win a state championship.
Now in his fourth season at his alma mater â€“ Morello (Class of 1987) played for the late John Skubel, who lost a courageous battle against cancer a few weeks ago â€“ Morello has the Blue Dragons on the path for what could be a memorable season.
“John was such a teacher of the game and the fundamentals,” said Morello. “I learned work ethic from him. I learned compassion from him too and learned how to motivate and to prepare for practices and games. You love playing for him because you knew he cared about you as a person. He was a tremendous influence on me as a teenager and as a grown-up. I just feel honored (to coach here) and I’m trying to instill some of his teachings, like work ethic and character, to these guys.”