It wasn’t that long ago that Central football was one of Connecticut’s most downtrodden programs.
Then the school hired Dave Cadelina and began one of the great turnarounds in state football history.
Now, after 16 years, 93 victories, a pair of state tournament appearances and two FCIAC championship game appearances, Cadelina has decided to hang up his whistle.
The 47-year coach, who’s came to be known for his flair for drama, using movie themes, quotes and even game-day makeup to help motivate his players, made his decision after several months of mulling it over with his family.
His decision made, Cadelina met with his players this afternoon.
“Feel that it’s time for me to step aside,” said Cadelina, a math teacher at the school. “Throw Excalibur back into the lake if, you will, and open it up for somebody new to come on in.
“Have had nothing but enjoyment being here for 16 years serving players and the community at Central.”
Cadelina, a Bethany native and Amity graduate who was a freshman on the Spartans’ 1979 state championship team, was an assistant coach for nine years, including time spent at Harding under Bob Cole.
When Cadelina took over in 1997, Kennedy Stadium was a dump, Central hadn’t had a winning season in 25 years, nor had it beaten crosstown rival Harding in recent years.
It didn’t take long for Central to smash down barriers.
“My first goal when I got there was beating Harding,” said Cadelina who was 93-71-1 at Central. “I really wanted to help even out that series. We accomplished that goal fairly early.”
Central beat Harding in his first season. It went on to win 15 of 16 meetings, including the last 14 years, under Cadelina’s watch.
“Our next goal was to have a winning season,” he said. “We took care of that too.”
Central went 6-5 in 1999.
In 2004, Cadelina and the Hilltoppers stunned the rest of the FCIAC by going 9-0 in the regular season and reaching the school’s first FCIAC championship game. Central lost to Greenwich 43-27, but also reached the state playoffs. Kennedy Stadium hosted its first state playoff game, but Central got hammered by eventual state champion New Britain, 59-7.
Three years later, Central returned to the state playoffs. But they were defeated twice by Greenwich. First in the season opener, than in the Class LL semifinals.
In 2009, Cadelina had one of his best, most physical teams. The Hilltoppers defeated Greenwich and New Canaan on the way to a second straight FCIAC championship. They led Staples 10-7 with 1:55 remaining, but Brendan Rankowitz broke their hearts with the winning 66-yard touchdown catch-and run.
“I was dying to win that FCIAC championship,” Cadelina said. “We came close.”
That was Central’s last, great team. Though the last three Central teams didn’t win as consistently as Cadelina would have liked, he said his decision to leave had nothing to do with wins and losses.
“Some of my losing years have been the enjoyable,” he said. “I’m 100 pct proud of accomplishments we’ve had at Central in 16 years.”
“But as most coaches will tell you, it’s a year round job and I’ve been thinking long and hard about this. Only the future will tell if this is a good decision. For me and for team, I believe I’m making right one. I will miss it terribly and I have no aspirations on coaching anywhere else but at Central High School. I’m sure it’ll be in good hands.”