Pop quiz, hot shot.
Which SCC team currently holds the longest streak of consecutive winning seasons?
Has to be Xavier, doesn’t it? But then your astute recollection of SCC past remembers that the Falcons didn’t win a single game away from Palmer Field in 2007 and finished 5-5. Hand? The Tigers also struggled to a 5-5 campaign in 2009. North Haven and West Haven actually have five straight seasons with more wins than losses, and Hillhouse had a long streak broken last year when it finished 5-6.
The somewhat surprising correct answer? Shelton, with eight winning seasons in a row, dating back to 2005. In fact, in the now two-decade history of the SCC, the Gaels have had only two non-winning campaigns, one of which was way back in 1994, the first year the conference existed.
But even though Shelton continues to be consistent, it has now been seven years since its last CIAC postseason berth. Since then, 10 of the other 19 SCC teams have made the playoffs, including seven of Shelton’s other nine Division I rivals (only Amity and Wilbur Cross haven’t).
Like everyone involved with Shelton football, Jeff Roy thinks it’s about high time to end that streak and chase the Gaels’ first state title since 2003.
“Eight winning seasons in a row in this league is tough to do, especially in Division I,” Roy said. “We’ve been right there every year and we just have to take it to the next level. It seems like it’s been one or two points here and there. Sometimes we’ve had some injuries or a bad break. We just can’t quite get there, even though we’ve been right there every year.”
Last season, the Gaels finished 7-4 with losses to Hand, Fairfield Prep, West Haven, and Xavier, three of which were in the postseason, and Xavier perhaps should have been. All four of the contests were in doubt late in the game, with the Hand and Xavier contests not being decided until the final seconds. None of Shelton’s wins were by less than 19 points.
“Staying healthy is most important because it’s tough enough in this league if you don’t have your best players,” Roy said. “Then we have to win those close games. Last year, we finish 7-4 and all four of those games we were right there in the fourth quarter, including a couple that went down to basically the last play. So a play here and a play there, but we have to make those plays in the end and finish.”
Finish. Finish. Finish.
The Shelton players have heard and seen that word every day since last Thanksgiving. Every time in the weight room. Every 7 v 7 passing league game. Probably in many of their recent dreams. The message has been far from subtle.
“Last year we seemed to have it until the fourth quarter, so we just have to finish games,” senior Troy Vasilescu said. “Our motto this year is ‘Finish’. There’s what, nine million pictures of the word ‘finish’ in our locker room? They’re everywhere.”
Plenty of skill position players graduated, including leading rusher Jason Thompson, but quarterback Mark Piccirillo – now in his third year at the helm – returns, and like Fairfield Prep QB Colton Smith, will pose a dual threat, having thrown for 19 touchdowns and run for 18 more last season.
Shelton was given a boost in the offseason with the addition of 6-foot-5, 270 pound senior lineman Hal Haller from University Christian in Jacksonville, Fla. Hal’s father (Hal Haller III, which is why the younger Hal is nicknamed “Hal 4”) is a long-time church planting consultant in and around Jacksonville for the Baptist church.
Earlier this year, Haller accepted a similar position as state director of missions in New York, based in New York City. Soon after, Roy’s phone was ringing.
“I got a call out of the blue, the parents had called the school and the kid was interested in playing football,” Roy said. “The father got a new job in this area, and the first time I looked at him, I said, ‘Okay’.”
Haller is expected to anchor what was an already formidable line, likely on both sides of the ball. Might that be enough to allow Shelton to finally return to the playoffs (and with eight titles at stake, any team in the postseason has a decent shot at a state title)?
With Fairfield Prep and Xavier two of the likely hurdles between Shelton and the promised land, a little “extra” help can’t hurt, can it?
LAST RIDE FOR McCARTHY
If it can come as a surprise that someone in their 44th year as a head coach is hanging up his whistle, it was last month when Ed McCarthy announced 2014 would be it for him. His numbers speak for themselves: Twelve years at St. Joseph and another 32 at West Haven, 326 victories (as we know, an all-time state record).
Many thought that McCarthy might try to remain through his sons’ high school career. Tim, a sophomore, will see time at quarterback this season, and James will be a freshman. But McCarthy decided it’s time.
West Haven will not begin the season as heralded as it was last year when now-Syracuse running back Ervin Philips led a potent offense that saw the Westies a point away from the Class LL finals before losing to Fairfield Prep. But maybe McCarthy knows something we don’t. While it’s hard to see West Haven being as diverse on offense this season, they have looked very strong in the trenches in the preseason and might be heard from yet in the always crowded Division I race.
“We will play hard,” McCarthy told Mike Madera of westieblue.com. “We will compete every week. We are very, very young, but very talented. We have some good young players. Can we do it physically? That remains to be seen.”
Already the injury bug has hit some Division I teams hard. It’s an unforgiving world out there, let’s see how they stack up as the season starts Wednesday night:
If anything, Colton Smith’s 2013 campaign was underrated. He had plenty of help from his line, but he ran for 1899 yards, averaging 9.6 yards per carry, in addition to throwing for 1708 more. Unfortunately, seven of his 10 interceptions came in the postseason, but in a three-week span, he ran for 851 yards against Xavier, West Haven, and Glastonbury. Yikes. Prep will have to replace a few of their bigger bodies, but they should be just fine, thank you. As you don’t have to tell them, they will be tested, though.
At some point, you have to think the law of averages catches up to the Gaels and they win some of these close games. But for now, it’s a huge mental barrier. The back end of the schedule is vicious, but Shelton should be able to gain some confidence early before they face the top part of these power rankings. They’ll show up eventually, though, and Shelton knows it as well as anyone.
Tommy Wilson’s injury stands to make things much more difficult for the Tigers this season. Nick Van Dell threw for 2214 yards and 20 touchdowns, but also threw 15 interceptions. Hand was extremely young on defense last year and the number of points they gave up proved that; it was fairly miraculous that Hand was able to make the playoffs at all, and they nearly knocked Darien off in the Class L quarterfinals. Hand is going to need to run the ball to take some pressure off Van Dell, and if they can do that, they are state title contenders.
Take reports of the Falcons being down at your own peril, I guess. On paper, Xavier may struggle a little this season, although they are expected to throw more this season with quarterback Mike Scherer taking over. But they will still have plenty of athletes, and will not be a team people want to play by the end of the season.
5) West Haven (10-3, Season Opener: vs. Greenwich):
The Westies will have to do it old school style this season, using its line to bully opponents as best it can. But West Haven will need to find a way to get the ball to senior Zatrell Lyons somehow. An All-State receiver at Platt Tech two years ago, Lyons caught only 23 passes last season, but is a breakaway threat every time the ball is near him, averaging 24 yards per catch. West Haven usually takes a while to get going, but has looked strong for most of this preseason.
It’s hard to imagine another conference where a team like the Green Knights could fall so low, especially with the optimism coming from the ND camp this season. Heck, they even have a turf field to practice on this season. Junior quarterback Christian Lupoli got plenty of experience last season, as did several other youngsters on offense as the Green Knights look to open up their offense more in 2014. But, man, that schedule. They do avoid Shelton, but play the rest of the top five here, with St. Joseph and Ridgefield in there as well. Their record should improve, but the postseason might be a year away.
Stevie Swinson ran for 1521 yards last season, and the Governors have plenty of skill players returning this season, so you’d think that should turn into a season where Cross could surprise some people. And every once in a while, they do. But putting it together week in and week out is tough, and in Division I, there are no off-weeks. But don’t take those afternoon trips to New Haven lightly.
It seemed like the Rams might improve this season, but without starting quarterback Tucker Ecke and perhaps their best overall player in Jack Cunningham, both out with injuries, things might be tough in Cheshire this season. They did have a very young defense last season, and the young players will perhaps have to mature a year early for the Rams to be competitive.
We forget the Dragons were 3-1 last season before going 0-for-Division I again. They might avoid the same fate this year and should pick up a couple of victories early in the season in crossover games. There were rumors that Hamden athletic director Tom Dyer was going to be able to return to the sidelines, but that idea was nixed and Todd Dowty will stay in charge.
David Ryan had a remarkable statistical season throwing the ball last season, but he graduated and then the Spartans lost this season’s expected QB, Tyler Burns, when he transferred to Choate. So, like Cheshire, the young players will have to step up to the plate. Expect Amity to be better at the end of the season then they are at the beginning.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Number of playoff teams the SCC has placed the last three seasons. While the format has changed, the number of teams has not, so if you want to play in the postseason, you probably have to be in the top four of the conference.
GAME OF THE WEEK
New Canaan at Hand, Friday, 7 p.m. – Most people thought the Tigers might have an edge this season, but with Tommy Wilson now out with an ankle injury, has the pendulum swung a bit? Hand was able to dig out of a loss to New Canaan last season, but with the Division I schedule ahead, the Tigers would make things much easier on themselves with a season-opening win at the Surf Club.