Football. Sweet, nourishing football, begins this week, kids. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s football teams begin fall practice on Wednesday.
Yes, we’re all very excited.
And if you’re one of those seasonal fans, y’know, those who only make their way to this space when the pigskin starts flying around, we present to you a recap of this wild, wacky, ca-RAY-zay offseason.
We’re still catching our breath after all the happenings since December.
It began with a mass reshuffling of the region’s coaches, including big name and some big programs. It still hasn’t ended even with a whopping 31 jobs changing hands.
It saw a major change in where the state championships will be crowned. It saw cancer take a beloved former coach, a former player and a current player’s younger sister.
It saw UConn gobble up the commitments of four state recruits (two for 2013 and two for 2014). It saw another top back pick Boston College
It saw darkness when two players were arrested and charged with sexual assault of a minor, drawing national and worldwide attention on the heels of the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. And, of course, it saw former all-stater Aaron Hernandez charged with murder.
It saw the President of the United States reaching out to a grief-stricken Newtown community.
It saw more flirting with conference realignment, with the NVL taking center-stage on two major decisions.
And, of course, it saw the massive overhaul of the schedules as the 11-game season goes into effect for two years.
It saw just about everything, really.
So let’s take a look back at what you might have missed since we last departed Rentschler Field nine months ago.
The first major move of the offseason happened at the tail-end of the 2012 season. Dave Cadelina, who in 16 years turned Central into one of the state’s listless programs into an FCIAC and state contender, hung up his whistle just after Thanksgiving. Little did we know his leaving would be the first of many — oh, so many — big coaching names to leave their posts in the next nine months.
Just a day after Hand was crowned the No. 1 team in the state, officially signaling the end of the 2012 season, we received the sad news of the death of former Danbury coach Rick Davis. The affable coach, who took the Hatters to the precipice of the state championship game, died after a yearlong bout with cancer.
Trinity Catholic was one of the great stories of 2012. The Crusaders had their best season in two decades, mucking up the FCIAC hierarchy and reaching the Class S playoffs with a ground-and-pound senior class. Not long after wiping away the tears from their ouster by finalist North Branford, coach and alumnus Peter Stokes resigned on a high note. His top assistant, Donny Panapada, would ultimately take over.
This one came out of nowhere. But suddenly, we all learned that Bridgeport’s three high school, citing a desire to make their sports programs more competitive, asked the NVL for admission. This seemingly crazy and unorthodox move had both public approval from the Bridgeport coaches, particularly Bassick’s Derrick Lewis, and private praying from the rest of the FCIAC. But it was not to be. The NVL, which has been very active in pilfering schools from other leagues over the last few years, decided against bolstering its roster with Bridgeport.
But in a few months, it would pluck someone else from the SWC…
He finally did it. After years of flirting with other jobs while pushing Masuk to statewide prominence, John Murphy resigned after 15 years, 159 victories and three state championships. The move, he said, was best for him and his family. But there were subtle and not-so subtle hints of discontent and frustration between Murphy and the Masuk administration. “There are things up here that I can’t control, things that don’t see changing,” he said. “After 16 years and of a lot of memories, I think it’s time to see if there are other opportunities.” Surprisingly, Murphy stayed in the SWC. Just a few months later he became the head coach at New Milford, which, coincidentally, faces Masuk in Week 1.
Nothing prepared us for the horrifying and tragic events in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012. The community was turned upside-down and became the center of the universe for weeks following the senseless massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Thousands of mourners, tourists and media from all points of the compass flooded this small bend of the Housatonic River, the most prominent of whom was the President of the United States. While preparing Newtown High School for Barack Obama’s visit, football coach Steve George scribbled a plea on his classroom’s whiteboard. And the President paused to respond before his speech to the nation.
In what appeared to be a preemptive move, Stamford’s Bryan Hocter resigned at Stamford just a half hour before a meeting with new athletic director Jim Moriarty. His sudden departure is when we realized this offseason was going to be atypical. After a long search, Moriarty filled the job with Westhill assistant Jamar Greene.
Another family claimed another coach as Mike Tracy, citing a desire to spend more time with his, resigned as coach after 11 seasons, four as the head coach. Alumnus John Limone, who played quarterback in 2001, became one of the state’s youngest hires when he replaced Tracy just a few months later.
At the time, this resignation came out of nowhere. Dan Dunaj, the head coach of five relatively successful years, left suddenly citing a desire to spend more time with his family. His departure, however, came with the revelation of a midseason hazing incident that was still under investigation at the school. In the subsequent weeks, we’d learn of more troubling incidents within the program that also might have factored into the decision.
This was a shocker. Reports pegged Woodland assistant
and Naugatuck alum and Ansonia alum Tim Phipps to take over the troubled football program. Then, suddenly, an upset: Craig Bruno, Bunnell’s wildly unorthodox and successful coach of 11 years, got the job. Bruno’s stunning departure for the NVL left two of the SWC’s most successful programs of the last 10 years without head coaches, signaling a dramatic shift in the league’s makeup.
More coaching hires…
UConn nabs Ormsby, then Boyle
UConn was very busy in-state during the 2013 offseason. First, it usurped Windsor standout Cole Ormsby from UMass, then grabbed Xavier QB Tim Boyle away from Boston College when he realized new Eagles coach Steve Addazio’s system wasn’t tailored for the pro-style quarterback.
I was skiing in Vermont when this news hit. In an ultra-brief email, Notre Dame announced it had fired Dawon Dicks after just one season. Why? Well, Notre Dame didn’t say. It never says anything. It’s extremely annoying and only led to rampant rumor mongering and speculation. Dicks, who still works at the school as a teacher, also kept quiet, though we understand he wasn’t pleased. Neither were his players. Get a PR director, Notre Dame. Jeez. Longtime assistant Ted Boynton eventually took over.
Known by many of the state’s eastern fans, Marcus Outlow burst onto the scene late last year as the Wildcats stunned everyone by reaching the Class LL state championship. Boston College wasted little time securing the senior standout’s verbal commitment.
Masuk flirted with Weston architect and former assistant coach Joe Lato but was unable to lure him away from the Trojans. But its administration was pleased to hire Monroe teacher and Ridgefield assistant David Brennan, who now faces the tough task of keeping the program at the level established by former coach John Murphy.
Meanwhile, Central stayed in-house and promoted assistant Brian Gordon to replace Dave Cadelina.
Oxford’s long courtship of its neighboring league finally bore fruit when the NVL voted to accept the board of education’s advances and bring the All-American Naugatuck Valley town into its ranks beginning in 2014. The NVL also voted to realign into three divisions to accommodate its new member, putting the Wolverines into a grouping with Seymour, Ansonia, Derby and St. Paul… (huh? St. Paul? Because that makes total sense. Good job, NVL). This will be the final season Oxford competes in the SWC.
1995 1994 Ansonia graduate replaced longtime coach Keith Tautkus as head of a program that has recently dominated the Uncas half of the Pequot (which, incidentally, has realigned into three divisions: North, West and South.)
In the middle of massive coaching realignment came another stunner, this time from the CIAC: The state championship games would no longer be held at Rentschler Field, which was deemed too expensive and too cavernous after three years spent as the pinnacle of Connecticut High School Football. The championships will now be held at Central Connecticut State’s refurbished Arute Field in New Britain.
This started as a vague report from Shoreline Sports editor Jimmy Zanor one basketball evening: The ‘Shoreline 8’, aka the Shoreline League members of the Pequot Sassacus Division, were considering a move to the SCC, where they’d inaugurate a third division in that league. But guess what. It was all talk. Though there were brief discussions, it’s not going to happen. Carry on…
The Torrington Register-Citizen dropped this bomb on us on March 20: Two football players had been arrested for rape and their accuser was bullied online. It also detailed a string of misbehavior in the football program, leading the Register-Citizen to editorialize that the football culture had run afoul under former coach Dan Dunaj and the school’s administration. National media, which was still focused on the aftermath of the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial, pounced on this tale, leading to weeks of madness, criticism and a reexamination of social media at the high school level. As of this writing, one former player, Edgar Gonzalez, has pleaded guilty. The other, former back Joan Toribio, will decide on whether to accept a plea deal during an August 20 court date.
Bunnell wasted little time in hiring the Newtown defensive coordinator as its new head coach. A few weeks later, 26-year old Jordan Panucci took over at Fitch as the state’s youngest hire. After an exhaustive search, Ludlowe finally named its new coach: Platt Tech’s Vin Camera. None of the coaches were older than 34.
Sports stars from nearly every major league in the nation took turns visiting Newtown. Few trips were more ballyhooed than the one the Patriots made in early May, trumping a nice, but very hush-hush appearance by the New York Giants a month earlier. Newtown’s returning members from the 2012 defending SWC champions were there for all of the appearances, doing their bit to help bring cheer to a town wrecked with sadness. Among the highlights of the Patriots’ visit: tight end Rob Gronkowski having fun with the kids, and owner Rob Kraft passing a phone around for kids to talk to Tom Brady, who couldn’t attend, and Kraft giving a ‘Newtown’ Patriots’ jersey to Newtown Youth Football president and Jets fan Sean Dunn.
The former Weaver star who played fullback at the University of Notre Dame and for the Hartford Colonials, died of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma after a year-long battle. The 26-year old was the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2004. He was publicly eulogized by former ND coach Charlie Weiss and ESPN personality/ND alum/Connecticut resident Mike Golic
Theriault takes over Platt Tech, Lucibello at East Haven, Boynton at ND-Fairfield, Ladyga at St. Bernard…
Chris Theriault, whose experience coaching was limited to a few clinics, was hired from within Platt Tech. Journeyman assistant Anthony Lucibello came over from Cheshire in hopes of reviving the Easties sluggish program. Boynton, meanwhile, was hired after spending the previous decade under all four of Notre Dame-Fairfield’s previous hires. After flirting with Jack Cochran, St. Bernard/Norwich Tech ended a long search by rehiring a coach it fired just three years prior.
Just when you thought UConn couldn’t possibly recruit more quarterbacks, St. Paul slinger Logan Marchi verbally committed to play for the Huskies. Hence, UConn moved a step closer to realizing the world’s first #11QBOffense.
Say what??? Yup, Jack’s back. The journeyman head coach, who is equal parts football genius and statewide pariah, stunned everyone by getting the job at long-downtrodden Harding. Cochran’s arrival in Fairfield County suddenly has everyone thinking big on the East End and, admitted or not, has the FCIAC establishment concerned. Remember, New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli was an architect and a champion of the ‘Cochran Rule.’ This was easily the biggest hire of the offseason. Just how long it will take for Cochran to turn the Presidents into a powerhouse is the only question. Game on, FCIAC. Game. On.
Stephen Barmore, who’s expected to lead Southington deep into the playoffs this year, became the first state quarterback to land a college. Meanwhile, West Haven back Ervin Phillips took a visit to Syracuse. In addition to an offer from Temple, the Orange are the highest profiled team on Phillips’ radar.
You really have to see the video of 6-year old Matthew Jaques scoring a touchdown at the Indians’ spring brawl, melting the hearts of millions.
Perhaps the most recognizable former Connecticut football star today, Hernandez became the focus of one of the summer’s biggest sports stories when he was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd and was named a suspect in a double homicide committed a year before. He was quickly jettisoned by the New England Patriots as police arrested two alleged accomplices and converged on Bristol to dig up more evidence.
The Rams, early favorites to contend for an FCIAC championship, filled their biennual bye week with this unknown from Massachusetts. By accounts, it looks like a good enough opponent. Still, now you understand why the FCIAC would have loved to see the three Bridgeport teams leave. The FCIAC remains a 19-team mess.
First it was the impending retirement of Conard’s Rob Cersosimo in favor of his son, Matt, who left his job as a UConn assistant. Then it was Manchester’s Marco Pizzoferrato, who resigned in early July to — yup — spend more time with his family. Those two brought the total coaching vacancies to 30 (yow!) and we’re still not sure who’s on the job at Manchester, or a couple others. But it’s still early, yet.
Expect some extra oomph out of West Haven this year. The Westies will be playing with a guardian angel on their shoulders. Casey Ridgway, the younger sister of Westie linebacker Jesse Ridgway, died after a long battle with a a rare bone cancer in July.
UConn got its man. The Huskies aggressively pursued Ansonia’s standout back Arkeel Newsome, widely regarded as the state’s best, and secured his verbal commitment on July 10.
Hand quietly moved its mega Week 1 game vs. evil twin brother New Canaan from the Surf Club to Hand High School’s turf field. What? Why? Well, reportedly, the Surf Club reconstruction project didn’t have enough funding to install bleachers in time for the big game. So they moved it to another site that also doesn’t have bleachers? Makes little sense. Stay tuned.
In an offseason full of surprises, this was one of the biggest. Just a week before the official start of fall practices, Hamden announced it was hiring the two-time championship coach to be their athletic director. He was quickly replaced by assistant Reggie Lytle, who faces the unenviable task of attempting to keep back Harold Cooper and the Academics performing at a championship-level.
Consider yourself up-to-date.