Sweet… nourishing… football.
It’s back, baby.
The 2014 season’s first practices begin on Wednesday for those programs that didn’t engage in spring football. We are 28 DAYS away from the 2014 kickoff. Ridgefield vs. Cheshire and Harding at Law on Sept. 10.
And, if you’ve been somewhere tropical, or you don’t pay attention until we start talking about football on this space, or you’re just ‘Mr. Short-Term Memory,’ how about we recap what’s happened since we left West Haven High School’s Ken Strong Stadium all those months ago.
So, what happened? We saw a fair amount of coaching turnover, including the retirement of two legends, the return of a championship coach and the sudden resignation of another.
We saw heightened national awareness of concussions and player safety drastically change the way football is practiced and played in Connecticut, including a bizarre, last minute overhaul of the state playoff system.
We saw conference realignment rear its head again, this time the CSC took a small bite out of the FCIAC. The ECC, meanwhile, managed to keep itself stitched together with masking tape. We saw some new co-op football teams band together. And, finally, we saw the first of many state talents choose their college destinations.
Also: After you peruse this be sure to get a gander at the 2014 Top Returning Leaderboards. (We’re still attempting to fix some discrepancies on some stats, but it’s a decent enough snapshot at who’s who.)
And, of course, check out the 2014 football schedules.
OK, let’s get everybody caught up, shall we?
This is what happened in 2013. (Video. Make popcorn)
Here’s what happened afterward…
(ADD: Yea, so it slipped past us that Norwalk’s Sean Ireland is taking the year off. It’s been added to the May section.)
Svatik resigns at Stratford, Robinson at Law
Days after a heartbreaking 12-10 loss to crosstown rival Bunnell Stratford’s John Svatik resigned after four seasons having gone 10-31. “…The biggest thing is we just didn’t win enough games,” he said. He was the first coach to resign heading into the 2013-14 offseason.
The Stratford brass wouldn’t take long to find his replacement
The day after, Mark Robinson brought his 13-year tenure to a close at Law. He was 43-90, his best season having been a glorious 9-1 record in 2007. But it was a season that will be forever tainted by an inadequate playoff system that failed to reward his club with a state playoff berth.
See? It took just two weeks to get the new guy in place. It was the most logical choice. Cavaliere had been an assistant with the Red Devils during their last great playoff runs in the mid 2000s and had paid his dues.
“I feel like I’m coming home,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the journey to get here, but I am very much looking forward to this opportunity.”
Dave Brennan never really had a chance, did he? Selected from Ridgefield to replace three-time championship coach John Murphy, Brennan’s takeover of the program rankled parents and caused a mutiny of players and at least one coach before the season even began. Though things eventually settled down, Masuk went 7-4, drifted into mediocrity and missed the state playoffs for only the second time in 10 years.
Though he’d hoped to continue, Brennan’s contract wasn’t renewed and the Masuk search began anew.
Meanwhile, things just never came together for Pomperaug in the years following former coach Chuck Drury’s departure. Roach’s first year started well, with Pomperaug narrowly missing the playoffs at 8-2 in 2011. But, like their arch-rivals in Monroe, the Pomperaug Panthers also drifted into mediocrity.
Two legends hang ‘em up: Conard’s Cersosimo and H-K’s O’Rourke
A pair of 30-year coaching careers came to a close after their 2013 seasons concluded.
In West Hartford, 30-year coach Rob Cersosimo stepped down at Conard in favor of his son, Matt. He’d been hired from UConn before the 2013 season and had already begun to drastically change the personality of his father’s program from ground-n-pound to grip-and-rip.
Over in Higganum, Dennis O’Rourke, the only coach Haddam-Killingworth had ever known, quietly retired after 37 years and 142 victories.
Though the Cougars went 0-11 in his final year, just two years earlier his program rewarded him with his second state playoff berth.
Alumnus and H-K physical education teacher Mike Baklik was (just as quietly) named his replacement.
This was a bit of a mess.
In early January, New Britain legend Tebucky Jones angrily resigned as the school’s head football coach and then complained that he’d been forced out by the board of education. He particularly directed his ire at board member Carlos Pina “It’s like the Garden of Eden and he’s the serpent,” Jones told the Hartford Courant.
Two weeks, 500 signatures on a petition and a meeting with New Britain superintendent Kelt Cooper and longtime AD Len Corto later, Jones happily announced he’d return as head coach.
Nothing to see here. Carry on.
Dan Donovan resigns at Danbury
Dan Donovan stepped down after five years at Danbury, saying the demands of his administration job and his family took too much away from his desire to coach.
Donovan’s teams were 15-35 and rife with heartache, from the sudden death of assistant Bo Williams in 2010, to the death of former, beloved coach Rick Davis in 2012. Last year, his wife’s battle with breast cancer diverted his attention away from the team.
“I know there’s somebody out there who can give 100 percent commitment,” Donovan said. “He’ll have a good group here and a lot of community support.”
Saying it was “100 percent mutual,” Watertown athletic director Roberto Medic told the Republican-American that coach Mike Verroneau was out as coach. Watertown went 1-10 in 2013.
For its handling of the weather that plagued championship weekend, forced St. Joseph-Brookfield, New Canaan-Darien to play on glaciers and pushed the Class LL final not once, not twice, but thrice to the following Thursday and at another, ill-prepared venue, the CIAC got slam-dunked by fans and media alike.
Would there be ramifications for future playoffs? That was the big question of the offseason.
A month later, it looked as if we’d get our answer when the CIAC football committee promised big changes at an upcoming meeting in January.
When they emerged, the CIAC announced that the 2014 season would be reduced by one week, leaving just two playoff rounds. The catch was the committee didn’t want to reduce the playoff teams, nor did it want to change the divisional structure. So, at it’s next meeting, the CIAC declared it would crown eight state champions out of four divisions.
The outcry that followed was born of confusion over the decision. All because of a little snow and a late ending of the season, we’re creating a playoff monstrosity?
This was something completely different and had been brewing behind-the-scenes for a while.
The CIAC made the emergency change on “strong advice” from the state’s medical society, which said the three-day layoff between quarterfinals and semifinals were unsafe.
Attitudes about football were (and still are) changing nationwide. With a concussions bill making its way through the Connecticut legislature, the CIAC had to ensure it was putting safety ahead of anything else, including a fair playoff system that kept Thanksgiving as a de facto state football holiday.
“In the end, it was just not advisable to do what we had been doing,” associate executive director Paul Hoey said. “Even coaches agreed that playing Tuesday and Saturday after Thanksgiving is tough. Those aren’t lightweight games. You’re playing better teams. And when the medial society gives you that advisement, you really need to change what you’re doing.”
The CIAC also passed a restriction on full-contact practices to 90 minutes per week. Later, the National High School Federation added a ‘targeting’ penalty for 2014.
In the coming months, the CIAC would eventually get back its quarterfinal round. But 2014, sadly, would remain the year of the eight champs.
A year after failing to court the former assistant coach away from Weston, Masuk finally got Joe Lato to return to Monroe to stabilize its proud program.
Within six years, Lato had guided Weston from 0-10 to its second state playoff berth in school history. His hire at Masuk was met with effusive optimism.
“It just fits. Everything fits,” Lato said. “It’s a lot of things, especially the familiarity. I didn’t realize I had such good roots here and made so many good connections here. I know what the feeling’s like to coach here and what the sport means to the community. It’s a great opportunity to make a difference here and be a fixture in the kids’ lives.”
Palazzolo, Allen, Miller become 2015’s first (major) college commits
Fairfield Prep’s huge lineman Anthony Palazzolo chose Boston College just a few days before Christmas and, just a few weeks after National Signing Day, Windsor Locks/Suffield/East Granby RB Jarvis Miller chose Penn State.
Add: New Canaan LB Zach Allen later added his name to the list when he committed to Northwestern and the Big Ten.
These would be the first of a few Division I verbals from Connecticut’s Class of 2015.
Roberts to Manchester, Brennan resigns at Maloney, Lewis heads to Law, Reed hired at Pomperaug, Velardi goes to Watertown
March was where the 2014 hires started rolling in.
Newington’s Roy Roberts assumed command at Manchester, which was hilarious because he replaced interim coach Clayton Hillyer, who Roberts had replaced at Newington in 2011. …Pierce Brennan became the state’s second Brennan to leave after a season when he split from Maloney in favor of an assistant gig at Avon Old Farms. …Bassick’s Derek Lewis, a West Haven alum, returned to the SCC when he agreed to take over at Law. …Ridgefield defensive coordinator James Reed has the conn at Pomperaug. …Post University’s Luigi Velardi returned to the high school ranks at Watertown. He’d previously been an assistant at Pomperaug and Watertown.
Hand wins SCC weightlifting; North Branford wins Pequot weightlifting; Cheshire wins state weightlifting
This happened, if you’re into this kind of thing.
More hires, more hires, more hires! Some of these were of the exotic variety. …David Hodge, who led Weaver to state championships in 1996 and 1997, was hired to take over at South Windsor. …Maloney hired an alumnus of arch-rival Platt, Kevin Frederick. …Chris Pace, the brother of Wolcott’s Jason Pace, was hired away from East Harlem (N.Y.) to take over at Weston. …Rocky Hill tapped 2006 alumnus Mark Fritz to become the school’s second head coach. He takes over for longtime coach David Coyne, the only coach the program’s ever had.
It wasn’t quite Jack Cochran-to-Harding from a year ago, but this was the biggest head coaching hire splash of the 2013-14 offseason.
Mark Ecke, the former championship coach at Cheshire who was forced to resign before the 2012 season, was hired at Danbury.
Ecke’s hire brought instant credibility to a program that hasn’t made the state playoffs since 2003.
“I’ll be frank about this: We want to compete here,” Danbury athletic director Chip Salvastrini said. “And by competing I mean we want to win the FCIAC championship. We want to win state championships. We have a shot now to compete with Mark.”
As one of Connecticut’s biggest high schools, Danbury, like Hamden in the SCC, is thought of as a sleeping giant… without the actual mountain looming over it.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Ecke said. ”You take a look at Danbury, it’s the biggest high school in the state, it has proven success in a lot of other sports, so you know there’s athletes there. They’ve had success in football, they have a great youth football program, now we have to regenerate interest in football.”
Speaking of Hamden…
This had the potential of making an even bigger splash than Danbury.
But rumors that athletic director and former Hillhouse championship coach Tom Dyer would assume control of the dormant Class LL program were dispelled when the school district, with Dyer on board, elevated interim coach Todd Dowty to head coach.
Under Dowty, Hamden went 3-8 in a bizarre season in which former Tony Martone quietly resigned days (months?) before preseason practices and Dowty silently took over with Martone serving as assistant. Hamden started the year 3-1, beating Danbury, East Haven and Law, before dropping its final seven games by an average score of 35-9.
“Todd is definitely our guy,” Dyer said. “The kids like playing for him. We are excited to have Todd at the helm.”
ECC sings ‘Let’s Stay Together!’
The never-ending issue of competitive disparity made a scheduled offseason appearance in — where else? — the motherland of class struggle: The ECC.
ECC athletic directors met in late April presumably to voice their grievances about the infrastructure of the league which features the biggest disparity between large and small schools in the state.
More specifically, it matched what The Day of New London’s Mike DiMauro hysterically and sarcastically referred to as “The Evil Six” — a.k.a. the larger or/more resourceful schools of the conference, NFA, Waterford, East Lyme, Ledyard, Fitch and New London — vs. the Quiet Corner and other assorted smaller schools.
When they emerged, they announced they were still one big happy family. There would be no burning of the ECC charter or revival of the old Quinebaug Valley Conference, as DiMauro recommended.
No, in the end the ECC’s infamous ‘Opt Out’ clause, which allows teams to decline playing another member school, won the day to again. “They’re used here more than iPhones,” DiMauro quipped.
As pleasant and productive as the ECC made it sound, the running joke was that every one of the “Evil Six” athletic directors speed-dialed SCC Commissioner Al Carbone while heading to their cars.
Maybe it’s funny ’cause it’s true.
Connecticut’s schools are now required to give concussion education for all athletes and parents, report suspected concussions to parents within 24 hours and report concussions to the state’s department of public health.
But let’s be honest, the legislation wasn’t as strong as the bill’s supporters were hoping for.
The Parents Concussion Coalition, the grassroots organization of parents whose kids suffered debilitating concussions, wanted full-contact limitations written into state law.
But the CIAC successfully lobbied to keep those limitations out of the bill while passing its own contact legislation for 2014. It subsequently tightened them for 2015.
Still, this law was progress toward increasing concussion awareness and prevention.
“This really is the first step,” said Diana Coyne, a member of the PCC whose son’s career at Yale ended due to numerous concussions suffered in high school. “It’s an important step, but we are very far behind. Education is key. That’s where it all starts.”
From the ‘How the #$%&! did we miss this?’ department: Norwalk announced in May that head coach Sean Ireland would be taking a year off from coaching the team for personal reasons.
Assistant coach and 2000 Norwalk grad Pat Moffett was announced his replacement. “It’s personal,” then-Norwalk athletic director Wayne Mones told The Hour of Norwalk at the time. “We’ve been really pleased with the job Sean has done here and we’re looking forward to having him back.”
Ireland had been the head coach since 2011. In his first year, he took the Bears to the Class LL semifinals.
Norwalk has gone 7-13 in the two years since.
This coaching move came pretty late in the game. But after 12 years, Shea said goodbye to the program he helped build into a state champion in 2004 and 2005.
Though Shea never won a state title as head coach, he did take the Hawks to three state playoffs in six years, including last year’s Class S final.
The Hawks wouldn’t look far to find his replacement.
Viva Conference Realignment!
Like the NCAA, it just never seems to go away in Connecticut, does it?
After two decades of being kicked around the FCIAC in every sport except basketball, and a year after being spurned by the NVL, Bridgeport’s Athletic Department finally found a taker for Bassick and Harding: The Constitution State Conference. The schools join in 2015. Bridgeport Central will remain in the FCIAC.
“We think it could be a new day in sports for these teams after a long period of futility,” Bridgeport Citywide Athletic Director Neil Kavey told the Connecticut Post.
No longer just the ‘Tech” league, the CSC has become the island of misfit high school athletic programs that, for a variety of socioeconomic reasons, couldn’t compete against some of the bigger, more resourceful towns.
Nothing emphasized the disparity more than Bassick and Harding’s non-basketball history in the FCIAC. One of Connecticut’s poorest areas, knocking heads with some of the richest towns in the
country world? Yea, no thanks.
So this move makes sense. Harding and Bassick’s kids needed a more level playing field to create some semblance of a positive athletic experience. And now they will.
From a football standpoint, no one will confuse the CSC with the SCC. Heck, they won’t even confuse it with the Pequot.
Nobody… except the CIAC football playoff point system.
And that’s kind of becoming an issue.
Read more on this issue from Doug Bonjour in Connecticut Post: Bridgeport schools facing challenges in leveling playing field
Not quite as well-known as Fairfield Prep’s Palazzolo (Norwalk didn’t win much last year), 6-foot-6, 300-pound Evan Adams is every bit the behemoth. Ginnetti, who’s also a baseball star, followed suit just a few weeks later.
The program that brought you Matthew Jacques inspiring spring game touchdown last year was back at it.
This time, North Haven handed the ball off to Anthony Longley, a 7-year old with brain cancer.
Longley went the final 20 yards on the game’s opening kickoff to score a touchdown and get mobbed by entire the North Haven football as cheers erupted and the ceremonial wail of sirens blared across Vanacore Field.
Immaculate, Sacred Heart find co-op relief
Unfortunately, 2013 was the year of the folding programs. Immaculate and Housatonic Regional had so few numbers, both programs were forced to forfeit half their seasons. Sacred Heart, meanwhile, dangerously toed the line but managed to finish the year.
To survive in 2014, Immaculate and Sacred Heart sought co-op partners. Immaculate merged with Abbott Tech into a program called ‘Abbott Tech/Immaculate United’ which will play in the CSC. Their home games will be on Immaculate’s turf.
Sacred Heart, meanwhile, co-oped with nearby Kaynor Tech-Waterbury. They’ll remain in the NVL.
Housatonic, however, will not field a varsity football team this fall. As a result, the Pequot League returned to a two-division format.
With Immaculate out and Oxford beginning life in the NVL, the SWC, realigned into two divisions and will operate with 12 teams in 2014. Notre Dame-Fairfield and Pomperaug were paired to play on Thanksgiving.
With the Woodland program since the beginning, Tim Phipps nearly got the Naugatuck job a year ago. But even Phipps admitted everything worked out perfectly. He takes over for Tim Shea, keeping Woodland’s short but distinguished tradition in-house.
“That’s what people kept telling me when the Naugy job was done,” Phipps said. “They’d say, ‘Maybe there’s something better waiting for you.’ Well, here we are.”
This was a stunner. Just a few weeks after the conclusion of spring practices, former Masuk championship coach John Murphy submitted a short resignation letter to New Milford.
Murphy said he resigned due to personal reasons. Later, the News-Times reported that New Milford was investigating the coach for reasons that are still unknown, publicly.
With the blessing of the state’s medical community, the CIAC football committee voted to restore the three-round, four state championship playoff format it had abolished for the 2014 season.
The CIAC also limited the season to 10 regular-season games and added much more stringent practice limitations, including no contact after Week 9.
So, all will be well again when this takes affect in 2015.
We’ll just have to suck it up and endure 8 state champs for one year.
He was out of football just over year ago. But after a short stint in New Milford as an assistant, Immaculate and WCSU graduate Larry Badaracco suddenly found himself in charge of the Green Wave’s football program a month after the sudden resignation of John Murphy.
New Canaan finishes 3rd at ‘Grip it and Rip It’
Again, if you’re into that kind of thing. Good stuff here by the Greenwich Time’s Dave Fierro on the FCIAC participants.
Hand tackle Jack Driscoll became the second Division I recruit from the SCC when he cast his lot with UMass.
Whew! We think that’s about it. Did we miss anything?
While we have your attention here at the bottom, check out Ned “Polecat” Griffen’s look-ahead to the 2014’s Top Games at The Day.
Anyway, you may discuss now.