After allowing an average of 56 points in three games, including a 52-21 loss to Pomperaug after Week 3, coach John Murphy knew something had to change at New Milford.
“After the Pomperaug game, we had to take a good, long look at ourselves,” said the former three-time state championship coach at Masuk. “We said to ourselves, it’s been three weeks, is what we’re doing working? Clearly it wasn’t. So I turned it over to my defensive guys and we changed the entire scheme.”
The overhaul in defensive philosophy and a change at quarterback on the offensive side, not to mention some key turnovers and some big plays, New Milford earned itself a 35-20 victory over Weston on Saturday.
It was Murphy’s first victory as New Milford’s head coach. “All and all, it was a good day for my kids,” Murphy said.
Now the confidence which preceded the season is slowly starting to come back to the Green Wave.
“At little bit,” Murphy said. “We were excited about the Masuk game and we felt good about ourselves. But I don’t think we were ready for that stage. Once we took that beating any confidence we had was gone. The second game (a 45-0 loss to Barlow) we didn’t even show up. It’s hard to play with confidence when you’re getting beat up like that.”
Against Weston, a playoff condenser a year ago, bacl A.J. McDonald got the Wave going in the right direction with a kickoff return touchdown. The defense forced a turnover and the Wave had a 14-7 lead.
The biggest play came later in the second half, with New Milford facing a 4th and 2 from the Weston 48. “My thinking was, if we can get this thing over with right now, I have to give my kids that chance,” Murphy said.
He gave the ball to 5-9, 200-pound defensive end Johnny Nepomucheno, who ran 48 yards for what turned out to be the clinching score. “He’s a bowling ball of a kid, not exactly Adrian Petersen,” Murphy said. “So to watch him score that touchdown was kind of comical.”
Murphy said junior defensive linemen Denzel Phillips, Stefan Ceconi and Nepomucheno, along with junior linebacker Isaiah Jenkins, have stepped up defensively. “We’re pretty loaded with juniors on the defensive side,” Murphy said. “We’re hoping to build good things on that.”
Another fix was the move of senior receiver Nick Kimball to quarterback, replacing sophomore Tyler Hansen, a backup pressed into service when junior starter Jamie Portunado fractured his arm in the preseason. “We needed to make plays on the offensive side,” Murphy said. “It wasn’t fair to the kids to keep throwing Tyler out there when he wasn’t ready.
“Nick is our best, all-around athlete. He can throw, but he can run a little bit, too. That gives us something we didn’t have before.”
But the biggest change has been attitude. Murphy, whose first team offense and defense practice against each other, witnessed his first team tussle at a recent practice.
“We’re still learning to compete. We’re still learning how to practice,” Murphy said. “We had our first fight at practice last ween and I was saying, my God, it took seven weeks before we finally had a fight at practice. Now we have to tone it down. But it was a good sign that they were getting after each other.”
There are other signs, too. New Milford’s freshman and junior varsity teams are both 3-0, which Murphy says is good news for the future. “I don’t know if the freshman team or junior varsity teams ever won more than one game combined over the last four years,” he said.
New Milford faces Newtown on Friday, but the schedule becomes less daunting after that. “It’ll be tough Friday, but if we can keep this up, we might be able to win some games in the second half,” he said.
Masuk is 4-0 under first-year coach Dave Brennan. But the team hadn’t been truly tested until last week’s 28-21 victory over Oxford.
After having its way with opponents in the first three games, Brennan said he was glad the team was in a fight vs. Oxford.
“When you turn the ball over four times as we did, and still win, that tells you a lot about your team,” said Brennan, whose team saw Oxford rally from 14 down to tie the game at 21-21. “We could have folded, but we kept fighting.”
Senior P.J. Kokkoros has been the team’s best and most consistent player, Brennan said. In an offense which Brennan says he tries to establish both run and pass, Kokkoros has been dominant in both avenues. He leads Masuk with 970 all-purpose yards, including a team-best 355 yards rushing and 449 yards receiving, which ties him with Newtown standout receiver Julian Dunn.
He caught six passes for 196 yards vs. Bunnell and five for 118 yards and two touchdowns, including the eventually winning 62-yard TD vs. Oxford.
“He’s a special kid,” Brennan said. “He’s all-around one of our better athletes and a go-to kid. People have to find ways to defend him. But he’s a very humble, unassuming kid. He just tries to do his best.”
Masuk has outscored its opponents 198-81, an average of almost 30 points a game — most in the SWC. It’s in the middle of a four-game road trip, including this week at Pomperaug and next week’s vaunted match with unbeaten Ansonia at Jarvis Field. “It’s a nightmare to have to load up the busses week in and week out,” Brennan said. “It’s a tough stretch.”
“There’s always room for improvement. We’re still hoping really elevate ourselves to play with the better teams in the state.”
Oxford can’t catch a break. The Wolverines were solid candidates to at least contend for an SWC championship in their last season in the league, but find themselves 2-2 with losses to New Fairfield and Masuk already.
The 28-21 loss to Masuk particularly hurt. Oxford forced four turnovers and rallied back from a 14-point deficit to tie the score 21-21. It had ball at the Masuk 17 with a minute left and drew pass interference penalty. First and goal, right? No. Under new National High School Federation rules, pass interferences does not award a first down to the offense.
So Oxford wound up a fourth and goal at the 9. Masuk escaped when referees ruled Owen Diaz stepped out of bounds with the potential tying touchdown pass.
“I don’t want to beat dead horse, and (referees) are doing their job enforcing the rule, but I don’t see how it makes any sense,” coach Joe Stochmal said. “How do you not give offense a first down on pass interference? Why wouldn’t defenses just continue to mug people and draw pass interference at the end of halves and at the end of games. It’s a shame, but that’s the rule. I hope they come to their senses and realize it’s a horrible rule.”
That’s the least of the team’s problems right now. The Wolverines have also lost several key players to varying injuries. Left guard Liam Fay and senior captain and receiver Kevin Loschiavo have both torn their ACLs are are done for the season. Defensive lineman Brandon Carothers tore his MCL.
“We got hit with the injury bug, bad,” Stochmal said. “We’re just trying to get healthy. Our motto is ‘Next guy in.’ We need the younger guys to step up and perform, even if they’re not ready.”
Loschiavo’s loss was significant. Not only was the senior a captain, his presence and 332 yards receiving took pressure off all-state receiver Chris VanKamerick (372 yards, 7 TDs).
“Now teams will be able to double on Chris,” Stochmal said. “We went to his house, he’s still in the dumps, but he’s still our captain and our emotional leader. Always has been.”
Stochmal credits senior quarterback Kyle Chudoba and senior FB/LB Jeff Haney (9.3 tackles/game) for “being the glue that keeps the team together.” Chudoba took over for former all-state QB Brennen Diaz this season and is “more of a pocket passer” than Diaz was, Stochmal said. Chudoba, the Class S championship-winning pitcher last spring, has thrown for 839 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Senior back Steve Persson, who Stochmal said is a “real physical, tough runner and two-way player for us,” leads the team in rushing and is second on the team in tackles. Linebacker Marcus Esteves is second on the team in tackles.
At 2-2, Oxford finds itself in the same position it was a year ago. The Wolverines won their final six games of 2012 and had a shot at a playoff berth. “We can still do that,” Stochmal said. “Plus we have an extra game. If we run the table again, we still have a shot. But it’s one game at a time. We can’t even think about playoffs yet.”
Odds and ends
Pomperaug’s Wade Prajer attempted 61 passes in a 41-20 loss to Bethel, good for a tie with Foran’s Jake White for fifth-most in Connecticut history. The record-holder is Southingtons’s Matt Kelleher, who attempted 69 in 2004. Prajer completed 40 for 382 yards and a pair of touchdowns. …With 406 yards passing vs. Barlow, Newtown’s Drew Tarantino went over 1,000 yards passing for the season. He leads the SWC with 1,108 yards and 13 touchdowns. …Tarantino’s 406 yards was the best passing performance in the SWC last week. The team’s best rushing performance came from counterpart Jack Shaban, who ran for 246 yards and three touchdowns. He also tossed a touchdown pass (his fourth completion of the season) and intercepted a pass. The 49-39 loss to Newtown was the last Barlow will play on its home field for 2013. Newtown was just glad to get out of there alive, “We will not miss Barlow’s grass field and we will not miss Jack Shaban,” coach Steve George told his team. “We will not miss those two things.” Barlow will play the remainder of its home games at Western Connecticut State University as a new turf is installed. Its remaining home games are vs. Pomperaug (Oct. 25), Oxford (Nov. 1) and Brookfield (Nov. 15) … Thanksgiving rivals Masuk and Newtown are the only unbeaten teams remaining in the SWC. … Next week begins the SWC-NVL challenge.
Friday, Oct. 11
Masuk at Pomperaug, 7:00 p.m.
New Milford at Newtown, 7:00 p.m.
Immaculate at Oxford, 7:00 p.m.
Bunnell at Bethel, 7:00 p.m.
Joel Barlow at New.Fair., 7:00 p.m.
Stratford at Brookfield, 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 12
Weston at ND-Ffld, 1:00 p.m.
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