COACH — BRIAN MAZZONE (5th year, 34-11)
CONFERENCE — Pequot
PLAYOFF CLASS — S (co-op)
HOME — Stafford High School Field
2018 RECORD — 11-1 (Pequot champions, lost to Haddam-Killingworth in Class S semifinals)
2019 OPENER — Sept. 13 vs. Granby/Canton, 6:30 p.m.
TEAM WEBSITES — Maxpreps | TWITTER — @staffordbulldog | INSTAGRAM — @Bulldogsfootballssew
QB/DB Colton Engel; RB/CB Julien Rivas; C/LB Johnny Kopek; WR/S Jeff Kology; LB Cody Gebo; OL/LB Tyler Gilbert; DE/OT Kody Messier.
It was the moment Stafford’s co-op football program had been building to reach for four years: A talented and senior-dominated class, in overtime, stood at the 3-yard line for one, final shot at the program’s first state championship.
But the fates — and Haddam-Killingworth’s defense — snatched it away. Brian Mazzone’s Stafford/Somers/East Windsor program got stopped well short of the goal line in a 21-14 loss. Their journey had come to a tantalizing, frustrating end.
And now that everybody of consequence is gone — Colton Engel, Julen Rivas, John Kopek… “er’body,” Mazzone noted wryly — Stafford Co-Op goes back to the drawing board in 2019.
Though it might feel like it, the Bulldogs aren’t *quite* starting over, however. Four starters on offense and five on defense return from last year’s Pequot League champion and Class S semifinalist. The foundation and the expectations are in place. It’s just that it’s time for the next generation to take over.
So far, so good, Mazzone said.
“I love the cohesion…” he said. “The kids are hungry in the weight room and our work and attendance did not fall off. That continues to impress me.”
Senior Tyler Ouellette assumes command of the offense, deftly run by graduated all-stater Colton Engel, who produced and directed nearly 5,000 yards of total offense in his two years as a starter.
Ouellette saw plenty of time in a backup role over the last two years and even directed SSEW on its two scoring drives in the S semifinals. He has his coach’s full confidence. “(Ouelette) probably would have started any other year if we didn’t have Colton,” Mazzone said.
More of a concern is in the run game, where few saw time beside graduated all-stater Julien Rivas, who accounted for 1,900 yards and 25 touchdowns in his career, not to mention Engel’s own running prowess.
Stafford turns to brothers Brandon and Evan Gardner and even sophomore Logan Briggs to shoulder the load behind a line that returns two senior starters, Ryan Hoefle and Sam Yefko. “I love the team cohesion on the offensive line,” Mazzone said.
Stafford lost just about all of its weapons at receiver. Senior Caleb White figures to be Ouellette’s primary target. “He’s fast, has good hands,” Mazzone said. “He’s a really talented kid who has bought in 100 percent.”
The Bulldogs, of course, play both ways and defense is where Mazzone expects to be strong despite losing its top five leading tacklers, Kopek, Tyler Gilbert and Cody Gebo, especially.
Both Hoefle and Yefko, who made limited defensive contributions last year, will be tasked with holding down the defensive line with returning starter Will Spellman (35 tackles, 7 for a loss, 6 sacks). Both Gardners — “ball hawks,” Mazzone called them, Brian Gardner had a pair of fumble recoveries and an interception last year — assume command of the linebacking unit alongside Cade Raymond.
SSEW, which is working on a fourth-straight state playoff appearance, will no doubt be a target for the Pequot teams out to knock the Bulldogs from their perch. Unlike previous seasons, the Pequot’s divisions have been merged, giving Stafford more former (and historically stronger) Sassacus programs on their schedule.
Stafford begins the new era with a relatively massive early-season showdown with the revamped Granby/Canton Co-operative on Week 1. Two of the league’s best programs, Valley Regional/Old Lyme and Cromwell/Portland, come calling in Weeks 3 and 4. Then Ellington and Rockville after midseason. Finally, a Haddam-Killingworth rematch looms late in the year.
“Our schedule is a lot harder than it’s been,” Mazzone said. “I think we can compete with anyone in the league. But I realize we’ve lost a lot pieces. We have great team speed, but we’re young.”
Sept. 13 — GRANBY/CANTON,* 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 — at Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton/Lyman Memorial,* 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 — VALLEY REGIONAL/OLD LYME,* 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 11 — at Cromwell/Portland,* 6 p.m.
Oct. 25 — ELLINGTON,* 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 1 — at Rockville,* 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 8 — GILBERT/NORTHWESTERN,* 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 15 — HADDAM-KILLINGWORTH,* 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 22 — at SMSA/University/Classical,* 6 p.m.
Nov. 27 — at Windsor Locks/Suffield/East Granby,* 6 p.m.