— Hand Tigers Football (@HandTigersFB) August 20, 2019
Members of the Hand football team are not hiding from discussing a potential three-peat as Class L state champions.
In fact, the team will embrace it.
The Tigers return 13 starters, seven on offense and six on defense, in a quest to win that third consecutive Class L state championship in December.
“The opportunity to three-peat, how many times has that presented itself in the last 20-30 years?” Hand coach Dave Mastroianni said. “We use it as a motivator where we say (to the players), ‘If you want to get to that opportunity, if you want to get to this point, here is what has to be done.’”
Hand has gone 25-1 since Mastroianni took over for Steve Filippone following the 2017 season. This includes championship game wins over Masuk and Maloney, respectively.
The Tigers own a 24-game winning streak. Its last loss was to Shelton on Sept. 15, 2017.
Hand averaged 50.2 points per game last season. Its closest game was a 29-point win over New Fairfield. The team finished second to Greenwich in the final GameTimeCT Top 10 poll.
“In 2017, people didn’t think we could do what we did. Those (seniors) set the tone,” Mastroinanni said. “Last year, we refined those little things.”
Two-way starter and co-captain Ben Corniello (OT/DE) is the only player left who started as a freshman during that 2-8 campaign in 2016. Mastroianni said Corniello has started 36 games and will play at Columbia next season.
The other two captains are quarterback Phoenix Billings and receiver/cornerback/kicker Isaiah McNeilly. While Billings has a non-binding commitment to UConn for baseball, Mastroianni said McNeilly is very interested in attending Army next fall.
Despite having the state’s longest winning streak, Hand is by no means resting on its laurels.
“I love what we have done the last two years, but that’s also done,” Mastroianni said. “The big thing for us is to prepare with humility. How quickly we get better will determine how much success we have.”
The road to a three-peat won’t be easy. The Tigers make their return to Tier I in the Southern Connecticut Conference. West Haven, Wilbur Cross and Guilford are the only opponents back on the schedule again this season.
The Tigers face Middletown, Wethersfield, Norwalk and East Lyme on their non-conference schedule.
“The bottom line is our kids like to compete. In the history of our program, we have played everybody,” Mastroianni said.
Two-time state champion St. Joseph moves up to Class L — a steady progression from winning Class S in 2017 and M in 2018. So does Class M runner-up Berlin. Add in Class LL finalist New Canaan dropping into L and you have a very stacked division full of potential postseason matchups.
When those classifications came out in June, Mastroianni wrote down all of the potential L champions on the right-hand side of the board. On the left side was Hand’s 2019 schedule.
One by one, Mastroianni erased all the names except for one: Notre Dame-West Haven. The Tigers host the Green Knights in the season opener Sept. 13 at the Surf Club.
“None of those other teams matter if you don’t go 1-0. Lose that first game and it not only jeopardizes your playoff hopes, but more importantly, it will jeopardize our team psyche,” Mastroianni said. “We are Hand football. We have a very proud tradition. We are happy to get back after it and see what we can do.”