- COACH — DAVE MASTROIANNI (2nd year, 12-1)
- CONFERENCE — SCC Tier II
- PLAYOFF CLASS — L (567 boys enrollment)
- HOME — Strong Field at The Surf Club, Madison
- 2017 RECORD — 12-1, Class L Champion
- 2018 OPENER — Sept. 7 at Hillhouse, 7 p.m.
- TEAM WEBSITE — TigerPrideFootball.com | TWITTER — @HandTigersFB
- JACK FLANAGAN, OL/DL (6-1, 235)
- MACKEN MCDONALD, OL/DL (6’1, 250)
- KEVIN GIRARDI, LB/RB (6-0, 230)
- JULIAN BANERJI, S/RB (5-8, 175)
- IAN BUTLER, CB/WR (5-10, 180)
- CHRIS BARTOSIC, WR/CB (5-9, 170)
- TOM FERRICK, S/WR (6-1, 180)
- PHOENIX BILLINGS, QB (6-1, 190)
- BEN CORNIELLO, OL/DL (6-2, 235)
LB Brian Casagrande (All-State First Team, Trinity College); OLB Ryan Coady (All-State)
A year ago, Hand was coming off a disappointing 2-8 campaign and had a new head coach in charge of its legendary football program.
There were no expectations except for improvement.
After a few weeks, it was obvious a young Tigers team was a team to be reckoned with and had a chance to do a lot of damage. With then-sophomore quarterback Phoenix Billings leading the resurgence on offense and Brian Casagrande heading a stout defense, Hand rolled to a 12-1 record and captured the CIAC Class L championship with a dominating 35-21 blitz of Masuk.
“The thing about Hand football is that the expectations are always the same,” head coach Dave Mastroianni said.
“In town they want to see a winning product on the field regardless of the season before. With regards to the expectations and the outlook around our team and the rest of the state in the town, it’s the same year in and year out.”
This year, Hand will go into the season as the Class L favorite. With New Canaan having moved up to Class LL, the main competition in Class L for the Tigers are Masuk, Naugatuck, Notre Dame-West Haven, North Haven and Windsor. Xavier dropped from Class LL to L and also could compete for a state playoff spot.
“It’s definitely a different position than a year ago and I think the kids realize a target is on their back,” Mastroianni said. “Our kids read the papers and they hear people talk. All that is happening is we’re being compare to is past Hand teams, but I tell them we’re 0-0 right now.”
His players realize that as well.
“We went from 2-8 to winning the state title, but now we are the target,” tri-captain Julian Banerji said. “There’s good pressure and we embrace the pressure now. We just don’t want to be complacent.”
“There’s a different mentality,” tri-captain Chris Bartosic said. “We’re supposed to know everything in practice and we have everyone watching us and will be trying to knock us off.”
The big loss will be All-Stater and 2017 Connecticut Player of the Year candidate Brian Casagrande, who is now at Trinity College.
“Brian is one of the best defensive players and leaders ever to come through Hand football,” Mastroianni said. “You don’t replace him and I’ve had that conversation with the team more than once.”
“People always ask how we replace Brian,” Banerji said. “You can’t replace a player of that caliber. He was an incredible leader. We just need to groom younger linebackers. It’s their time now.”
Offensively, things will start with Billings, who returns for his junior season. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder helped lead the Tigers to the Class L title. He’s also a star baseball player, who has already verbally committed to play college baseball at the University of Connecticut.
“I wanted to get my decision done before football, so I couple weeks ago I decided to make my decision,” said Billings, who played for the Clubhouse in Fairfield this past summer and will play shortstop for Hand next spring.
On the football field, he’s a rarity as few sophomores around the state ever lead their school to a state championship.
“It’s definitely different coming into camp than last year,” Billings said. “Last year, we had confidence along ourselves. This year, we have a plan right away, but on the outside, there are more expectations.”
He burst on the scene against Hillhouse and then turned the ball over 5 times against Cross in Week 9.
On the field, Billings has settled in. He had some up and down moments in 2017, but by the time the state playoffs arrived, he was a seasoned veteran.
“It’s nice that we will have him for two more years,” Mastroianni said. “In the 13 games he played, there wasn’t a situation he didn’t get exposed to. He had some incredible ups and some incredible downs.”
Bartosic and Ian Butler are senior receivers coming back, along with junior tight end Ian Haberman. Junior Isaiah McNeely will get time at wide receiver as well and is the backup to Billings at quarterback. Junior Jesse Lutz will return and start at running back with Colin McCabe getting playing time.
On the offensive line, returnees include seniors Jack Flanagan and Macken McDonald and junior Ben Corniello. They will also see time defensively as well on the line.
Banerji and Butler, who was an All-State defensive back last year, return to the secondary, along with senior Tom Ferrick and McNeely. Hand will have to replace the entire linebacking corps and that will be decided during preseason with McCabe probably grabbing one of the spots.
Schedule-wise, Hand dropped Shelton and Bunnell off its schedule and will play New Fairfield and West Haven instead.
“We have Hillhouse (Sept. 7) to open the year and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Mastroianni said. “That’s always a scary team for us.”
- Sept. 7 — at Hillhouse,** 7 p.m.
- Sept. 14 — at New.Fair., 7 p.m.
- Sept. 21 — HAMDEN,** 7 p.m.
- Sept. 28 — at Harding,** 7 p.m.
- Oct. 12 — WEST HAVEN,* 7 p.m.
- Oct. 19 — at Foran,** 7 p.m.
- Oct. 26 — LAW,* 7 p.m.
- Nov. 2 — at Cheshire,* 7 p.m.
- Nov. 9 — WILBUR CROSS,** 7 p.m.
- Nov. 21 — GUILFORD,* 7 p.m.
Home games in CAPS