Week 7: Cromwell/Portland (5-0) at OSW (1-3), Saturday, Noon
CROMWELL — As Nick Wright tells it, there was no buildup or drama at the end of last school year when he told friends, best bud and fellow senior Bryce Karstetter among them, that he would be a Cromwell/Portland football player in 2018.
“When he told us he was joining the team, we were happy to hear it,” Karstetter said. “It was in science class. It came out of nowhere. He was pretty nonchalant about it.”
Before Wright entered their world — and his teammates prodded him more than a little to play — the Panthers already had the pieces in place for a playoff run this fall.
In 2017, they won eight games and a share of the Pequot Conference’s Sassacus Division title. Karstetter, their quarterback, again would be the centerpiece of a group of experienced and talented players coming back for more. The four-year players in the program are 31-6 to date.
With the 6-foot-1 Wright’s speed, great hands and leaping ability now in the mix, the Panthers (5-0 and atop the latest CIAC Class S rankings) are playing at a higher level. Karstetter has thrown for 1,399 yards and Wright is closing in on a 1,000-yard season himself as they prepare for Saturday’s division game at Old Saybrook/Westbrook.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” Wright said before a recent practice. “We are a very diverse group. As far as being accepted, the team took me right in.”
Wright said he was 9 years old the last time he played organized football. He laughed remembering that he was a left tackle in Cromwell’s youth program. Karstetter was on that team.
The two first crossed paths in kindergarten, they said. Over the summer, they spent lots of time at Pierson Park learning the other’s tendencies.
“We have trust and a good rhythm, and I’ve really picked up on his speed,” Karstetter said. “He has speed and good hands. I know he’ll be where he needs to be when I put the ball up. Neither of us play defense, so we spend a lot of time working with each other.”
Wright, who leads the Panthers in receptions (31), receiving yards (783) and touchdowns (nine), was a starter at forward on Cromwell’s Division V state championship team last winter. He said his first love is basketball, but late in his junior year, as he started to think about college and his desire to earn a scholarship, he did not think basketball would be the gateway to one.
Football coach Randell Bennett said he stayed out of the way — this was Wright’s decision, after all. Only after Wright talked it through with basketball coach John Pinone were Bennett and offensive coordinator John Bozzi able to envision the offense with Wright in it.
The team did not have a spring practice session, so it’s wasn’t until July’s passer/receiver scrimmages in Wallingford with other high school players that Bennett and Bozzi first saw Karstetter and Wright play together in a formal setting.
“Nick’s abilities became evident quickly,” Bozzi said. “From what we saw in the summer, Nick was going to be our best receiver, and so we put him where we put our best receiver, and that’s the alignment we came up with. Basically, it’s the same offense we have had for three of four years, but the focus has shifted over Nick’s way.”
Wright established himself as Karstetter’s No. 1 target from the outset with nine catches for 199 yards and three touchdowns in a season-opening win over Rockville.
Cromwell’s Week 2 game again brought out the best in both, this time against another good North Branford team, which erased a 20-0 deficit to force overtime. In OT, after a sequence of three consecutive runs, Bennett decided “you’ve got to dance with the girl that brung ya.”
Karstetter threw to Wright on fourth down for the go-ahead score from three yards out. Bennett pushed for the same pass play but on the opposite side for the two-point conversion, and the two connected again. The defense stopped North Branford on a fourth-down play to seal a 28-20 win.
“In scrimmages and the North Branford game, (Bryce) would put the ball up in the air down the sideline for Nick and it worked,” Bennett said. “It’s like being in the back yard with friends. Bryce puts it up there and lets him find the spot.”
Cromwell’s Week 4 game against a 4-0 Haddam-Killingworth team also illustrated Wright’s impact, but in a different way. The Cougars attacked Wright with one high safety to slow down the threat of the deep pass, and the staff quickly caught on to it.
Wright was limited to six catches for 54 yards and no touchdowns, but H-K’s scheme sprung senior Kevin Hinkle, who had 10 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns in a 47-19 rout.
“We’ve built in some flexibility into the offense to take advantage of those skills — both Nick’s and Bryce’s,” Bozzi said. “Depending on the play call, there are different receivers as different primary options. Having Nick out there makes everybody better because people have to worry about him.
“H-K was extraordinarily focused on Nick. His numbers were down, but Kevin Hinkle had 200 and three. I don’t care and I don’t think they care who makes the big catch, as long as we make big catches.”
Said Bennett: “In the H-K game, it was the first time a team was trying to take Nick away. It made us take a step back and say, ‘We’re more than this connection.’”
Wright’s speed also has made the slant route a weapon unto itself, turning many catches into big gains. And in those times when he is forced to scramble, Karstetter said his receivers will break into “silly routes” to potentially create an opportunity for big yardage.
“Especially this year, (opponents) were so geared to stopping our running game, but we have so many weapons,” Bennett said. “So if they’re giving it to use we’ll take it. It’s safe to say we’re a passing team.”
Last season, Wright was part of the student section whooping it up at Cromwell’s games, so he has really come to appreciate his perspective in uniform.
“I don’t think I understood the feeling of what it would be like being on a team like this,” he said. “There is a special connection between us players.”
His biggest game — at least on paper — was against Lewis Mills in Week 3, when he had 208 yards and two touchdowns on just five catches. After the 55-7 win, Karstetter’s father caught up to his son.
“My dad said, ‘Aren’t you glad Nick is playing this year?’ It’s been awesome,” Karstetter said. “Every day we go out there and we’re having fun playing the game we love.”