STRATFORD — A group preaching togetherness huddles around to talk about their new football season after a scrimmage at Penders Field.
“We’re family,” Stratford senior lineman Anthony Davis said.
“Everyone’s on the same page,” junior receiver and defensive back Jasen Docteur added.
They’re finishing each other’s thoughts: That’s a good start.
The Red Devils took a step forward two years ago, then took a step back last year. This year feels like a fresh start.
“The big thing we’re focused on here is changing the culture,” said Jack Petion, who took over at Stratford after two years on the staff of his alma mater, Southern Connecticut.
“The big thing is seeing how they respond to pressure.”
Stratford is only two years removed from an appearance in the state playoffs, the program’s first since 2006. The Red Devils were eager to build on that quarterfinals loss in the December rain at Killingly, to get stronger in 2016 and change the result.
Five regular-season results changed instead, and after a 2-8 season, coach T.J. Cavaliere resigned.
“He did a great job putting guys in position to play well,” Petion said. “A lot of what we’re doing is having guys in similar positions.”
The new staff, led by Petion, who also has experience as an assistant coach at a couple of state high school teams, will look to put its own stamp on the program, and Petion said making sure players are held accountable is important.
“They’re pushing us to our limits,” said receiver and defensive back Toure Hall, a senior.
“It’s about getting better every day,” Davis said.
“But there’s a reason behind it,” Docteur said.
“If we get something wrong,” added fullback and linebacker Kyle Long, “we do it till we get it right.”
That might not be exactly how Petion would put it. There are limits, he emphasized. Most important to him is getting across the staff’s message for the day.
“We’re working hard,” Petion said. “We’re trying to bring Stratford back where it needs to be. There’s plenty of talent in Stratford.”
Junior Jack Ryan, who takes over at quarterback for two-year starter Connor Anstis, said they’re an athletic group, “faster than ever.”
Hall was first-team All-SWC last year. The line, Petion said, is solid.
“We have the core we need,” the coach said.
The Red Devils open with a couple of road games, at New Milford and at East Lyme in the new SWC-SCC-ECC crossover.
“We’re just trying to be the best in the state,” Hall said.
“And,” added Docteur, “have fun while we’re doing it.”
STRATFORD RED DEVILS
COACH: Jack Petion (1st year)
CONFERENCE, CLASS: SWC Division I, M
2016 RECORD: 2-8
TOP RETURNEES: Sr. WR/DB Toure Hall (5-6, 160); Sr. TE/LB Dan Cox (6-1, 200); Sr. OL/DL Anthony Davis (6-1, 300); Jr. WR/DB Jasen Docteur (5-8, 150); Sr. FB/LB Kyle Long (5-7, 185); Jr. QB/FS Jack Ryan (6-4, 180)
REASON TO SMILE: There’s always optimism around a first-year coach. The players, two years removed from a state quarterfinals appearance, are stressing togetherness. There is talent in key spots, including Hall, an All-SWC selection last year.
REASON TO WORRY: If you’ve ever been around high school kids, you know actually getting them to pull together can be tricky. Petion said a goal is establishing a no-excuses attitude.
DID YOU KNOW?: Before spending two years on the staff at his alma mater, Southern Connecticut State University, Petion also was an assistant football coach at Newington and Northwest Catholic. He also coached track at Newington.
KEY GAME: Nov. 23 (Thanksgiving) vs. Bunnell, 10 a.m. at Penders Field. If Stratford manages a year like it had in 2015, waiting at the end of the gauntlet will be their crosstown rivals.
OUTLOOK: Last year was a big dip for a team that hoped to be on the rise. A new coach and some young players stepping up will look to reset things. Stratford’s last four games are at Newtown, at Masuk, home for Pomperaug and home for Bunnell. If the Red Devils are going to have a season like two years ago, it’ll probably take a heck of a finish.