Pinpointing the exact “key” moment in a game can be a needle-in-the-haystack expedition. Doing so in an entire season can be even worse.
However, with two-time defending state champion Xavier getting its white helmets handed to them on a Friday afternoon adventure to Bowen Field last Oct. 26, it appeared the Falcons’ great run of terror through Connecticut high school football was at an end.
After all, two weeks prior, they had capitulated quite tamely in a home blowout loss to Hand, and a loss to the surging Acs would be their second — and likely fatal — defeat, at least as far as the state playoffs was concerned.
Of course, most of you reading you know by now that reports of Xavier’s demise had been greatly exaggerated, 49-21 Hillhouse after three quarters miraculously turned into a final of 50-49 Xavier, and no one else came within two touchdowns the rest of the way as the Falcons are now three-time defending state champs heading into the 2013 season.
It’s an amazing run, one that should stand the test of time when talking about the great teams in Connecticut high school football history. It’s also important to remember that it wasn’t always this way for the Falcons, in five of the first six seasons of the Southern Connecticut Conference, Xavier finished with a losing record, in three of those campaigns, they managed two, one, and one win, respectively.
But today they are the standard bearer for not only the SCC but the CIAC as they chase their fourth-straight Class LL title.
All good things have to come to an end sometime, though, don’t they? Quarterback Tim Boyle has taken his talents to UConn, and a host of others, including running back DeAngelo Berry, have departed Middletown for colleges around the northeast and beyond.
With the formerly impossible Division I gauntlet to run yet again, this must be the season Xavier trips on a couple of those high hurdles, no?
However, with a week until we kickoff, I have news for you: I’m not betting against them.
And without further ado, the 2013 preseason Division I Power Rankings:
1. Xavier (12-1, Season Opener: vs. Staples):
The answer to whom will replace Boyle falls to senior Joe Carbone, who put together a very nice junior season last fall, but very little of it involved throwing the ball. He threw but one pass (although it did go for a 48-yard touchdown). Expect the Falcons to return to their default setting and rely a little more on their ground game and Andrew Meoli. On the other side of the ball, players like Chidi Broderick and Nate Gonzalez will make it very difficult for anyone to throw against them, and even though they may not have extensive varsity experience, they’ll still line up with some talented players in the trenches. Until someone knocks them off, Xavier is still the king of the SCC jungle.
2. West Haven (8-3, Season Opener: at Greenwich):
Barring a complete collapse, Ed McCarthy will become the state’s all-time wins leader sometime this fall. Which is nice. But as McCarthy heads toward the end of his career, he surely knows that this may be his best shot of grabbing one more state title before disappearing into the sunset. Everyone knows about now Syracuse-bound running back Ervin Philips, but talk to any Blue Devil, and they’ll tell you that the importance of defense has been drummed home over and over in the preseason. The Westies were not only beaten in losses to Xavier and Staples, they were humiliated on the defensive side of the ball, and if they’re going to win in late November and December, that has to be rectified. The answer appears to be to try playing more players on both sides of the ball. Linebacker Jesse Ridgway will help anchor the middle of the defense, and transfer Zatrell Lyons — an all-stater last season at Platt Tech — may help push the Westies over the top. But it won’t be easy, starting with a 2002 Class LL title game rematch at Greenwich next week.
3. Hand (13-0, Season Opener: at New Canaan):
Three years ago, as I sat down to write my preview, I decided that the Tigers — who had gone 5-5 with talented but graduated Nick Merullo at quarterback the previous season, had lost far too much to be a threat in Division I and proceeded to rank them sixth (behind Wilbur Cross) in Division I. Previously unheralded Zach Miller threw for 2,200 yards and the Tigers made it to the Class L semifinals against New Canaan before their season came to an end, long after most of the teams in my original rankings. Hand has not lost since by the way, and will put a 26-game win streak on the line next week against … New Canaan, of course. You may not know the names, heck, no one outside Madison probably knows the names (except for maybe a few JV coaches), but with the program Hand has built, they should be right there in the playoff hunt in the end. As always.
4. Shelton (6-4, Season Opener: at Trumbull):
For each of the last few seasons, we’ve looked at the proud Shelton program and said, “Hmmm, is this the year they break through?” And it really hasn’t happened yet. Last season’s playoff run was derailed by a 59-17 thumping at home to Xavier on a night where the Gaels couldn’t even force a third down, let alone a fourth out of the Falcons. But sometimes hard lessons can by painful, and most of the team that was on the field last season returns to the fold for Shelton, including junior quarterback Mark Piccirillo, who threw for 15 TDs against just 4 INTs a year ago. The Gaels like their bruising running backs, and senior Jason Thompson — injured for much of last season — appears to be the guy this season. Of course, like West Haven, the proof for Shelton may be in the defense, they’ll have to make some stops to return to the CIAC playoffs.
5. Fairfield Prep (6-4, Season Opener: at Stamford):
In college basketball, there is the “All-airport” team, meaning a team that can be intimidating just walking through the terminal based on their height. The Jesuits may be the “All-bus” squad this year as they will line up with some big boys on both sides of the ball. But will that translate into an improvement in the win column this season? That remains to be seen. Most of the skill positions are unproven, and Prep suffered a big loss in the offseason when leading rusher John Moten — just a sophomore last year, and who showed plenty of explosive ability — moved to Missouri. It’s easy to forget after what has to be classified as a disappointing finish to 2012, but after going toe to toe with Xavier at Palmer Field, the Jesuits followed it up by not only beating Shelton and Cheshire, but crushing them, 42-3 and 39-6, respectively. If they can find that form for an entire season, a return to the playoffs is a possibility.
6. Cheshire (6-4, Season Opener: at Ridgefield):
It’s Year Two of the Don Drust Era, although technically Year One as he had his interim tag removed in the offseason. Drust did an admirable job in tough circumstances, but SCC Division I does not allow much time for reflection or sympathetic gestures. The Rams really weren’t close against the SCC elite last season and graduated both its starting quarterback and top two leading rushers in Vincent Sansone and Sam Pascale. Jack Cunningham will likely shoulder much of the offensive load, and in addition to talent, he’s got great bloodlines: his grandfather was Cheshire’s coach from 1972-87 and his father played for his grandfather in 1980-81. Cheshire should be its usual solid self, but trying to top the teams above them could be a tall order.
7. Notre Dame (4-6, Season Opener: at St. Joseph):
Cameran Tucker had 215 carries for 1,697 yards last season. The Knights second-leading rusher (sophomore Chris Stanio) finished with 202 yards on just 19 attempts. Needless to say, whatever success ND has this season will likely go through Tucker. But the real key, especially against Division I powers, is how much cover the Knights can give their star. If teams have to respect a passing game or some other threats, Tucker may be set free to do some real damage. But even as good as Tucker is, he’s probably not going to be able to do it by himself. Not in this league.
8. Amity (4-6, Season Opener: at Seymour):
The Spartans had their moments, but were ultimately beaten down by the schedule and a tough loss to Hamden toward the end of the campaign. Dave Ryan transferred from Fairfield Prep last season, and should help Amity be a little more prolific through the air. Tyler Burns had a solid sophomore season and should be good for a few big plays. If Amity can take a step forward, it should be able to be a scare into some of the top teams, but scaring them and beating them might be two different animals.
9. Wilbur Cross (2-8, Season Opener: at McMahon):
John Acquavita has some athletes returning from a team that was probably a little better than their final record. With some of the growing pains out of the way, the Governors should at least be a little more competitive and may be able to make opposing defenses squirm with some young talent in its linebacking core and secondary. Trying to move the ball consistently against good teams may prove to be a tougher task.
10. Hamden (2-8, Season Opener: vs. Danbury):
The Dragons hired a state championship winning coach just last month. Of course, Tom Dyer was hired from Hillhouse to serve as athletic director and won’t actually be on the sidelines this fall. On the field, it’s been a struggle for the Dragons since the all-too-brief Scott Benoit Era ended three years ago, but there were some signs of improvement, including a win over Amity to give Hamden its first Division I victory since Benoit departed. A decent start would do wonders for the morale, but it would be a huge shock if Hamden improved enough to break into the top half of Division I.