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On a cold, rainy night last October, Reggie Lytle visited Ken Strong Stadium for the first time as a head coach, and Hillhouse was beaten so badly by West Haven that only a couple of late Academics touchdowns kept the then-50-point rule from being an issue.
Four weeks later, Hillhouse tried again at Ken Strong Stadium, this time as the “home” team against North Haven. And got whooped 45-12.
The Academics would finish 8-2 last season, but other than possibly Foran, they didn’t exactly have a quality win to speak of. Therefore, for the third straight year under Lytle, there would be no playoff appearance.
While the record was better than the first two seasons, which both ended in losing records (after Hillhouse had just one in this century prior), there was going to be plenty of pressure to make this season count.
They did just that in 2016, finishing Saturday morning with a triumphant return to Ken Strong Stadium, beating St. Joseph 42-21 in the Class M title game with a dominant second half.
But things were looking up even before last season ended. Hillhouse got to play Wilbur Cross last Thanksgiving at new and improved Bowen Field, which had mostly been a persistent mirage for the current Hillhouse senior class. It was there, but it wasn’t be touched. And, after several construction delays, there seemed to be no guarantee that the venerable stadium would ever see another high school football game.
“My first two years, they took away our weight room as well as not having a field,” Lytle said. “So we had to fight and scramble for everything we had. Then we started getting some things and the program started picking back up. Give the kids opportunity and they will perform.”
After practicing on a deteriorating baseball field (on a good day), and playing home games everywhere but a shopping mall parking lot (East Haven High, West Haven High, Veterans Stadium in West Haven, and Wilbur Cross were the sites for the record), Hillhouse could finally be a real varsity football team again.
“The conditions were rough, but I still believed,” senior Matt Brehon said. “Even when I was younger, all I wanted to do was play Hillhouse football. We stuck together and worked hard.”
Still, even with all the facility issues resolved, Hillhouse was forced to deal with a different kind of adversity when senior Derrick Smith was shot on Sept. 15, the night before Hillhouse was to host Hand.
When it became clear Smith’s injuries were not life-threatening, the game went on, and the Academics posted an emotional 30-24 win. Lytle had spent much of the night and day at the hospital.
“All these kids are like my sons,” Lytle said.
It wasn’t the first time he got a harrowing phone call about a member of the current senior football class being shot.
Just days before the 2014 season was set to begin, rising sophomore Jacob Craggett was killed by gunfire in New Haven.
Hillhouse dedicated the 2014 season to Craggett, but he was still on the minds of many this year.
— Frankie Graziano (@FrankieGrazie6) December 10, 2016
The Academics lost to Fairfield Prep in Week 3, but seemed to get stronger as the season progressed. When they needed some big plays against New Fairfield in the Class M playoffs, they got them, the most important a Brehon 86-yard touchdown run in the final minutes. Saturday, Brehon dominated with 231 yards rushing (most of which came in the second half), including a pair of touchdowns.
“Hillhouse pride is huge,” Brehon said. “We’re a family. That’s what we do. So it was us against everyone else. My friend Derek Smith (who was on the sideline Saturday, but did not return to play this season), that’s who I play for. I play for Jacob Craggett. I play for everybody in this city that’s watching us and supporting us.”
The Academics (12-1) trailed at the half, but held St. Joseph to negative total yardage for much of the second half and never really had to sweat the fourth quarter, winning 42-21.
Running backs like Brehon and David Harris got most of the publicity (and rightfully so), but seniors like quarterback Damien Henderson and receiver Chase Kinzley, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown, played a big role in Hillhouse’s return to glory.
“We’ve been playing on a baseball field with nothing but dirt,” Kinzly said. “Practices were tough that way. We didn’t really feel like we were a respected football team and we had to travel everywhere. To come out here and beat one these private schools in the state finals is a pretty good accomplishment for us.”
And so Hillhouse is back. To be fair, they never really left. At least not for long.
This is their third title in seven years (2010, 2012), although it is the first for Lytle as a head coach, who played on Hillhouse’s first state championship winning team. Saturday he became the first African-American SCC head coach to win a football title. Reports of Hillhouse’s demise indeed had been greatly exaggerated.
“You find out quickly who your friends are,” Lytle said. “Our friends have been here the whole time. They never left.”
Video, above, via CPTV Sports.