Today is the final day of the SPB’s High School Football blog, at least as you know it.
After almost nine years, Tuesday will be my last day at Connecticut Post and Hearst Connecticut Media Group, first as its head high school writer, then as its online sports producer and moonlighting high school football writer.
From this post forward, this space will no longer be mine. On Tuesday, I will be turning in my keycards, my Hearst gear, saying goodbye to my friends and colleagues at Connecticut Post and ending the best experience of my life behind.
Almost a decade ago, I walked into the 410 State Street an anxious and nervous 20-something, fresh off a 5-year stint as a sports editor for a bunch of small newspapers in Connecticut.
My boss, the great Gino Moretti, who’d seen and done it all as the Connecticut Post‘s local writer since well before I was born, sat me down at a conference room table and under no uncertain terms spelled out the incredible task I before me: Replacing David Agostino, who’d pretty much transformed Connecticut Post sports page into a must-read for high school athletes, their parents, their coaches and their fans.
I could tell, Gino was skeptical. He had no idea who I was, or what I’d done to that point. He didn’t care. Because as far as he was concerned, I hadn’t done a thing. All he knew was that I wasn’t Dave.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it, you have some big shoes to fill,” he said, shaking his head slightly. “You have a lot of work to do if you want to earn respect around here.”
“I know. I will,” I said softly, almost meekly.
The gauntlet cast from big Gino’s was daunting, to say the least. But, thankfully, Dave Agostino left behind a roadmap, which explained how to attack each season, how to deal with some of the characters I’d meet along the way, and, most important: How to ensure I’d please Gino.
And so I got to work.
Nine years later, Gino reminded me of our first meeting. Under no uncertain terms, said he was proud of me.
It was the best compliment I’ve ever received.
“We’ve come full circle,” he said.
And now the circle closes.
Though this has been a pretty surreal two weeks (I never quite believed I’d ever leave this place), I’m excited to begin a new chapter and tackle a new challenge put before me.
Wha? You’re leaving? …at the start of FOOTBALL SEASON?!?!?!?
I know. The timing is terrible. But this is how it works. Things change, most times unexpectedly. Dave Agostino left a mere month before the 2004 high school season. Sports Editor Gary Rogo, deputy David Wells and Gino scrambled and found me. There were certainly some bumpy moments. But, together, I like to think we did all right.
I’m confident Hearst CT’s talented stable of sportswriters and editors will do a great job. You’re going to have to give them time and be patient, but I believe they’re ready. They’ve had plenty of practice. Whomever steps into this role will do the job right.
So, anyway, yes: This is the end at Connecticut Post.
Sorry if it was unexpected. As to where I’m going, let me leave you in suspense while I officially close the book on a tremendous nine -year run.
In the meantime, let me thank all of the coaches, administrators, and anyone who’s taken time to stop here to get their football fix for the day, and maybe stir up a little trouble. There have been over 1,400 posts since we started the football blog in 2006 and 25,000 responses. I’m honored and humbled by all of your comments, no matter what they said. You were here and you were reading. Thank you.
But most of all, thanks to the thousands of young athletes who’ve allowed me to write the history of the best years of their lives. Because of you and the stories you scripted, these were the best years of my life and they’re the reason I’m here today.
Hopefully, I’ll see everyone soon.
Sincerely and humbly yours,
But what would a send off be without one, last blowout blogpost, right?
Here were some of the great moments and tremendous stories I was lucky to witness and chronicle for Connecticut Post, be it with a newspaper, a blog or a video camera.
Here we go…
2004: Enter Central
Hillhoppers reach school’s first FCIAC football championship
This was the biggest story of 2004, my first year on the job.
Downtrodden Central, which had suffered through years of losing, finally put it altogether during my first year on the job. Behind stars Akeem Wright, Tristan Roberts, Kelleray Gill, Levar Hardison and hoards of others, the Hilltoppers rolled everyone en route to a 9-0 FCIAC West record, including arch-rival and unbeaten Trumbull in an epic Week 9 showdown.
I got weekly calls from Agostino, who couldn’t contain his jealousy and frustration at missing this story by a year.
They arrived at the FCIAC championship at Dunning Field in New Canaan as the ultimate upstarts facing an old guard in Greenwich.
Even though Wright played sparingly due to a high ankle sprain, Central stayed toe-to-toe with the mighty Cardinals. But Tom Brown and Greenwich’s two-platoon system eventually wore Central down in a 43-27 victory. It was a game so big, we pulled Agostino out of retirement to write a sidebar.
Central survived a Harding upset bid on Thanksgiving to secure their first state playoff appearance, but were hammered by Jack Cochran and New Britain in the 2004 Class LL semifinals.
The die had been cast, however, and Central was here to stay.
2004: Take that!
Mike Kielt and Pomperaug run over Branford
Nobody saw this one coming. With do-everything QB Craig Kenney at the controls, Branford finally had a championship-caliber team. They handled everyone in the SCC, including Shelton, and were destined to bring home a long-awaited state championship. Everybody knew it.
Meanwhile, up in little ol’ Southbury, few regarded Chuck Drury’s unbeaten, ground-n-pound squad from the SWC. I picked Scott Lutrus and Brookfield to beat Pomperaug in the SWC championship. But Pomperaug destroyed the Bobcats 32-0.
Being young and having covered the SCC for a majority of my professional career to that point, I (and many others) predicted a Branford rout. Branford had beaten Platt 56-14 in the semifinals. SCC vs SWC? C’mon. It was no contest.
Well, after weeks spent terrorizing the SWC, back Mike Kielt introduced himself to the state that day. He blew up Kenney and the Hornets on defense (14 tackles!), and, combined with teammate Joe Melillo, rolled up over 300 rushing yards.
Final: 30-7. It was a stunning, stunning result, and hinted at what was to come from the little ol’ SWC.
Kielt remains one of the best players I’ve ever seen.
Class LL championship: New Britain 39, Greenwich 34
Greenwich had dominated the FCIAC for years to this point. But despite annually appearing in the state championship game, the Cardinals — once again — failed to win their first state title since 1999, losing to Jack Cochran’s final team at New Britain at Ken Strong Stadium.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though. They rallied back twice thanks to a pair of incredible plays by Chad Ingalls, Brandon San Antonio and T.J. Cameron and had 34-33 lead late in the game. But they couldn’t hold down Yale recruit Mike McLeod and the Golden Hurricanes.
Carlos Amaro picked off a pass at the Greenwich 27 and just a few plays later New Britain quarterback Chris Roberts threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Ed Campbell to seal it, 39-34.
New Britain lost out on the state’s No. 1 to Hand and Cochran left New Britain for New London.
Greenwich had to wait two more years before returning to the winners circle.
Brian Levine rallies Staples over New Canaan in final seconds
The frantic final four minutes, which saw Staples rally from 10 points down and win on D.J. Stefkovich’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Brian Levine with tenths of a second remaining, eventually propelled Staples to a second-consecutive state championship.
But it also might have inspired New Canaan. Admittedly crushed by the Week 9 defeat, the Rams were upset by East Lyme in the state playoffs. But the memory of the loss ushered in a new era.
They avenged it the following season and rallied to win the 2006 championship, kicking off a run of four-straight titles, all with a different quarterback at the helm: Curtis Casali, Charlie Westfal, Nate Quinn and Turner Baty.
2005: Trumbull Gets It Done
Eagles win first FCIAC championship since 1989
It was finally Trumbull’s time. It had a large group of seniors, including a burner at tailback, a steady quarterback, monsters on the line and a pair of pickoff artists in the defensive backfield.
After several years of mediocrity, it was finally their time. Their slogan before the season: “Get it Done.”
They almost didn’t. Defending Class L champion Staples defeated the Eagles 13-0 on the road and staked a claim to the No. 1 ranking. The Wreckers were the hands-down favorite to win the FCIAC championship a few months later.
But Trumbull rebounded by spanking Greenwich, then set up a rematch by beating New Canaan 17-13. The stage was set at Boyle Stadium.
This time, the Eagles — led by Jay Youngblood, Anel Montanez, Dave Wowk, Dan Bird and James Devore — were ready.
They intercepted four passes, recovered two fumbles and bludgeoned Staples in a 14-0 victory, their first FCIAC championship in 16 years.
“We’ve had a lot of close calls over the years,” Coach Bob Maffei said. “But we finally got here. And hell, it’s about time, man.”
Trumbull had to survive St. Joseph in a postponed Thanksgiving Day game to reach the state playoffs. But their dreams of a state championship were dashed by Amarie Spivey and Xavier. Xavier went on to win the 2005 Class LL championship and its first No. 1 ranking.
2005: ‘Nicky backed it up, I guess’
Pellegrino runs mouth, goes out and beats Masuk
Of all the characters I’ve had the pleasure to cover over these nine years, Notre Dame-Fairfield’s Nick Pellegrino was on a whole different plane.
The Lancers’ superstar eschewed civility and mercilessly taunted his opponents in the newspapers. Most famously, he challenged Masuk in the weeks leading up to one of the biggest SWC games of 2005.
Just two weeks before, Pellegrino fired a warning shot across Monroe: “We want Masuk.”
In the days leading up to the game, he didn’t back down. “I hope they’re ready because we’re ready. I think we’re a bit faster and have a lot more weapons than they do.”
Turns out, Pellegrino had a grand plan. Yea, he was baiting Masuk but it was all for the good of the game. “It’s all in good fun. Hopefully it’ll get them even more fired up to play and make even more people want to come out and watch the game.”
Masuk wasn’t biting. “If we need quotes in the newspaper to fire us up,” coach John Murphy said. “Then we’re already in trouble.”
Regardless, Pellegrino put his footballin’ where he mouth was. He scored five touchdowns as Notre Dame rolled Masuk 40-21.
“I knew we would win,” Pellegrino said, and then turned his attention to baiting Scott Lutrus and Brookfield in the next week’s SWC championship. “I hope they’re ready, because we’re ready.”
It didn’t go so well for Pellegrino and Notre Dame, Brookfield not only got the last laugh, but they got to laugh twice.
Lutrus ran roughshod over the Lancers to give the Bobcats their first SWC title.
But it was Brookfield’s regular-season victory over ND-Fairfield that ultimately ended Pellegrino’s reign of terror. Even with a 9-1 record, Notre Dame was kept out of the Class S playoffs.
2006: Under suspicion
Central’s Cadelina first to violate ‘Score Management’
This was no simple blowout. Paul Lumfukiandi’ scoop and score put Central’s margin of victory over 50 points for the first time in the ‘Score Management’ era. It meant Dave Cadelina was automatically suspended for the next week’s game vs. Trumbull.
Suddenly, the whole nation was ablaze over this asinine rule legislated the summer before. Wait, Connecticut SUSPENDS its coaches for being good coaches?
Radio, newspapers, and magazines all wanted to know what the hell was wrong with us. Cadelina appeared in Sports Illustrated and took calls from perplexed radio listeners in New Zealand while the CIAC accepted appeals from Central, citywide AD Alan Wallack and Bassick coach George Loughrey.
The CIAC ultimately exonerated Cadelina of wrongdoing and so began a dark chapter in Connecticut football. Only one man has been suspended in six years while the hot lights of suspicion continue to gaze upon those who reach a magic number and other, subtler forms of bad sportsmanship are ignored.
Staples rallies to win on a prayer
In yet another one of those you-had-to-see-it-to-believe it, Keith Carlos and Central appeared to have a massive road win at Staples all locked up.
But, sticking to a script that would haunt them for the rest of the decade, they just couldn’t close the deal.
This was a game that fantastically would mirror the FCIAC championship game between these programs just three years later.
After dropping a sure touchdown pass earlier in the game, Mike Samela and the Wreckers looked cooked. A 26-game home winning streak, finished.
But, trying to run out the clock, Central QB Jamarl Hardison fumbled the snap at midfield and Staples recovered with just minutes left. Just a few plays later, Samela beat Carlos, a future D1 star at Purdue, on a fade route in the corner of the end zone to win 17-13, break Central’s hearts and bump Staples’ home win streak to 27.
Stapes rode this win to the state championship game. Central got smoked by Greenwich the following week and wasn’t heard from again until next year.
Ansonia, Holy Cross battle for NVL, state supremacy
The late, great Jack Hunt called it a career after 2005, leaving Ansonia in the hands of rookie head coach and Wallingford native Tom Brockett.
Huh? Who the heck was this kid?
The outsiders hadn’t a clue. But the insiders knew: Brockett knew and understood Ansonia. And if Hunt thought he could get it done, then dammit, he’d get it done.
Yes, it also helped that Hunt left Brockett with one of the best teams in recent state history.
This Ansonia team was that good. They made it easy for the young coach.
Case in point: The 2006 NVL championship game.
Holy Cross was loaded that year. It featured a great quarterback in Mike Croce and an absolute monster named Dan Mulrooney in the offensive and defensive backfield. They were legit. And they had yet to face Ansonia that season. It was like two freight trains barreling down the same track on opposite sides.
I actually picked Holy Cross to win.
But behind the brilliance of junior Alex Thomas, who ran for 280 yards, Ansonia smoked ‘em, 27-13 on a rainy and windy night at Wolcott High School.
For some perspective, Holy Cross went on to dominate the Class SS playoffs, destroying Stratford 40-0 and earning the No. 3 ranking in the state (I think I had them at No. 2 that year). The Chargers went on the beat Bloomfield handily and won the state’s No. 1 ranking.
Steve Smith, Bunnell stun Staples in Class L final
Early in the season, I headed to Stratford to write a front-page story on Bunnell quarterback Steve Smith.
It was supposed to be a modest piece, but thanks to my good friend and photographer John Galayda and my editors at the Post, it turned into a nightmare of presumptuous and overzealous media hype.
Galayda got the idea to get Smith in this invincible pose, complete with cheerleaders and just about everything but the band.
When he caught wind of the brouhaha going on across the field, Craig Bruno came roaring out of practice to cut the session short.
STEVE! GET BACK HERE! GET BACK HERE NOW! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING!?!?! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!?!?
As he ushered Smith back to practice, Bruno screamed at me not to publish the shot. I pleaded with John to try something less presumptuous. But, thankfully, neither he or my editors would budge. And, as if they wanted to kick Bruno for telling us how to do our jobs, they dropped a subhead on the story that read: “Bunnell plans to ride Smith all the way to state title.”
Wha? A state title? To that point, Bunnell hadn’t even won a playoff game. And Class L was stacked with talented contenders.
Hooboy, way to stick our neck out there.
Bruno wasn’t happy.
Yet, the Dawgs took an unbeaten record into Week 10 and whacked Masuk in the SWC championship game even after I’d predicted a Masuk victory, famously saying “Bunnell’s good, but it’s not Masuk-good.” To which, Smith replied, “They weren’t as good as me.”
A week later, however, Bunnell got lambasted 40-8 by Torrey Mack and Stratford on Thanksgiving. It was only be the grace of God that they squeaked into the playoffs thanks to a 14-14 tie between Bristol Central and Bristol Eastern.
The Dawgs again beat Masuk again to reach their first state championship game.
Standing in their way was two-time defending champion Staples, which had smoked James Alford and West Haven in the semifinals and had been ranked No. 1 earlier in the year.
Bunnell came in as massive underdogs. They were relatively unknown from the SWC, in just their fourth state playoff game.
But the Legend of Steve Smith was born that night at Ken Strong Stadium. He threw four touchdown passes (one on fourth down, after a penalty had wiped out a touchdown pass on the preceding play), picked off a pass in the end zone with 4:01 left and Bunnell hung on to beat the mighty mighty Wreckers, 28-26. It was the also the first time Brunoball, coach Craig Bruno’s unorthodox style, entered the mainstream.
It was the best state championship game I’d ever seen. And it’s implications reached further than that.
This game proved that leagues are leagues, but great teams are great teams. The SWC, which had earned some respect with titles from Masuk and Pomperaug in the years previous, finally proved it was legit.
And, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, Bunnell went 13-0, beat Staples in the semifinals, and repeated the next year.
If anyone has a video of this game, please upload it to YouTube. Please.
2006: All for One
Bunnell, Stratford reach state championship games
Not to belabor the point, but having both Stratford and Bunnell in the state championship game was awesome. This cover, taken by Autumn Driscoll (nee Pinette) was inspired.
Alex Thomas rushes for 518 yards, 7 TDs vs Woodland
Not long after his funeral in Waterbury, I ran down to Jarvis Stadium to catch Ansonia vs. Woodland. There, we all witnessed one of the most incredible night in state history.
Alex Thomas ran for a state-record 518 yards and seven touchdowns as the Chargers dusted Woodland 62-35. Every time he touched the ball – every time — Thomas scored. He scored so often, you could hear the exasperation in the Jarvis PA announcer’s voice.
Just WATCH: He. Was. Ridiculous.
Were it not for a pretty heroic night by Woodland’s Will Volage, whose performance brought then-coach Chris Anderson to tears afterward, Woodland would have been run off the map. Woodland kept up with Ansonia as long as it could. But, like many of Thomas’ would-be tacklers, the Chargers just pulled away.
Thomas was, as usual, low-key and humble. He credited his blockers, his family, and the Lord above for all of his success. Other than that, he couldn’t tell you how he did it.
Neither could the rest of us.
2007: “They should be afraid of us”
Prep’s Ryan Nolan vs. Shelton’s Geoff Schultz
I couldn’t believe my ears when Fairfield Prep’s Ryan Nolan uttered the famous words that would set up an epic fight at Finn Stadium early in 2007.
“They should be afraid of us. We’re the best team in the SCC and we can’t wait to prove it.”
But we had to wait a week riding the ripples from that one. Though they kept their lips zipped, they heard it. Loud and clear.
And then I did a PODCAST about it (Remember those?) LISTEN.
Hooboy. Game On.
The showdown, amazingly enough on our end, was trumped by a pretty big battle between Masuk and defending Class L champion Bunnell just up the road in Monroe. In fact, our Friday preview pumped that game up even more. I didn’t go to Finn, I went to Masuk.
What was I thinking?
As good as Bunnell-Masuk turned out to be — a 16-8 Bunnell win thanks to some typical Craig Bruno fare — it came nowhere near close to matching what occurred at Finn Stadium.
In a see-saw battle, Fairfield Prep had a 21-14 lead late. But Shelton rode Geoff Schultz and Andre Henderson and was about to tie the game in the fourth quarter. But Nolan blocked the extra point, giving the Jesuits a chance to win it outright with a 1-point lead.
Cue Schultz again, who (I was told months later) was furiously bouncing off the walls when he read Nolan’s pregame comment. On the next possession, he carried Shelton all the way down to the goal line. From the 3-yard line, he ran left and slipped through a last-ditch tackle by — who else? — Ryan Nolan to score the winning touchdown with just over a minute remaining.
The guys on the MSG broadcast (there was no MSG Varsity back then) were absolutely ecstatic, not just with the game, but with the storyline that made the game sing. “It was one of the best games we’d ever broadcast,” said MSG’s Mike Quick afterward.
After watching it on TV a few days later, I publicly kicked myself for not going.
Here’s how all of the action from the games sounded on the next week’s Podcast.
Shelton rode this victory all the way to the state championship game, where they were taken out by Jonathan Meyers and Greenwich.
2007: A mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad Week 9
Ansonia tops Seymour, Staples beats New Canaan in OT, Bassick finally wins, Law beats Hillhouse, Greenwich plays Naples
Rob Moir and Seymour were ready for unbeaten Ansonia, except when Alex Thomas threw the winning touchdown pass.
Bassick beat Harding for its first victory in 62 tries.
Law beat Hillhouse to inch closer to 9-1.
Greenwich went to Naples, Florida for a ballyhooed cross-country battle.
And Staples beat New Canaan 14-7 in overtime to punch their tickets to the FCIAC championship.
Week 9 of 2007 was when everything happened all at once. The high-watermark of my high school experience.
2007: Ansonia the Great
Ansonia wins showdown with New London, I claim it’s No. 1 before the Greenwich-Shelton final
In 2007, Greenwich and Ansonia were awesome, awesome teams. They were both undefeated in Connecticut, destroying everyone in their path.
The Cardinals, led by great linebacker/tailback Jonathan Meyers, were big, fast, quick and — worse — dangerously balanced.
The Chargers had an all-state line, a great defense and, perhaps, one of the best backs in Connecticut state history: Alex Thomas.
Greenwich, however, agreed to play Florida 3A juggernaut Naples in Week 9 and were defeated, 31-10. Ansonia, meanwhile, just barely managed to escape Seymour that same week.
So we were set for a No. 1 showdown on two separate fields. Greenwich had to face Geoff Schultz and Shelton. Ansonia had to face future NFL draft pick Jordan Reed and New London, coached by their bestest buddy in the whole world: Jack Cochran.
New London was unstoppable, said our friends from out east. And, sure enough, the Class S state championship game wasn’t a contest.
Ansonia 35, New London 0.
So there I sat in the pressbox at Ken Strong Stadium, waiting for that evening’s Bunnell-Masuk state championship game, trying to think of a good way to show how impressed I had been with Alex Thomas and the Chargers.
I know: Declare them No. 1. Right now. Before the Greenwich game.
The Cardinals won their second-straight title, handling Shelton 28-14. A fine performance, but by no means boss. I felt a little vindicated as the newspaper went to press.
Yea, well, Greenwich didn’t take too kindly to that snub. I heard about it for weeks, months and years to come. I still hear about it.
I would have loved to see that game. Everyone would have.
But that’s the way it goes here in Shangri La. I’d be on the losing end of the argument just three years later.
2008: Dueling Banjos
The Great Masuk-Brookfield debate of 2008
This debate raged the day Brookfield stunned Masuk on the road. It raged when Brookfield lost to Newtown a few weeks later. It continued to rage when they avenged that loss in the SWC championship. And it boiled when both teams won state championships a few weeks later.
Who was the best? Well, Masuk, which brought hordes of talent into the 2008 season and was a clear-cut favorite to win the SWC, was missing a few key starters in the regular-season meeting.
Once their players returned, the Panthers went on a dominating run, culminating in a 56-14 victory over Newington for the Class L title.
But so what? Brookfield, led by the effervescent Treibt twins, cut Masuk notch on their belt, had the SWC championship and beat Ledyard for their state championship — albeit on a field goal that just ticked over the crossbar.
But Masuk would have won the SWC championship had the arcane point system not made them the odd-man out in a three-team tiebreaker. They were just that good and, by then, on a serious roll.
And, look, Brookfield barely beat Ledyard, while Masuk crushed Newington. C’mon.
Too bad, Brookfield beat Masuk. Case closed.
And it went on like this, both in the papers and online.
I’m convinced: the a debate will never be settled, and will never end until everybody’s gone and the whole thing is forgotten.
2008: The Red and Blue sea
Over 10,000 witness New Canaan beat Darien for FCIAC championship
I’ve never seen such hype for a regular-season game. I’ve never seen so many people at a High School Football game. For those young’uns among us, we constantly hear stories from the old timers about the glory days of high school football, where thousands would pack places like Ansonia or the Yale Bowl. We’d wonder what it would be like for tens of thousands to watch a game because, frankly, it just doesn’t happen anymore.
We finally got to find out on Thanksgiving as approximately 10,000 showed up to witness a game so big, New Canaan was forced to give up its home game to accommodate the masses. Anybody who was anybody showed up and were treated to a good one.
New Canaan, behind the brilliance of Kurt Ondash, defeated Darien 28-20. The two teams would meet a week later in the state championship at McDougall Stadium, with New Canaan winning again. But not even that game came close to topping this. It was a sight to behold.
New Canaan ultimately captured its first No. 1 ranking, winning the vote over an excellent Glastonbury team.
2008: Spoony calls it a career
Seymour rolls into Class SS final, squashed by Cochrans
Coming off a 2007 state championship, Seymour’s Paul Sponheimer had decided enough was enough. The Wildcats’ coach announced he was hanging up his whistle after a long and prosperous career.
And the Wildcats desperately wanted to give him a proper sendoff.
So the Chargers, led by back Mike Osiecki, rolled to a 9-1 record, losing only to Tristan Roberts and Ansonia in Week 9.
Standing in Spoony and the Wildcats’ way of a second-consecutive state championship was a familiar face: Jack Cochran and New London.
Many years before, after Sponheimer’s 1993 Seymour team pounded Bloomfield for the Class SS title, a young Jack Cochran voiced his displeasure at Seymour running up the score. “Don’t worry,” the elder coach said. “You’ll never get back here anyway.”
Years later, as Cochran’s teams grew stronger and began bullying the rest of the state, Sponheimer called Cochran “an embarrassment to the coaching profession.”
So here were were for one, final showdown.
New London, starring freshman QB Casey Cochran at quarterback, pounded Seymour and sent Sponheimer into retirement on a losing note.
Sponheimer and Cochran shook hands.
“Jack showed class,” Sponehimer said. “He could have pumped another one in there. He didn’t. So that’s a sign of maturity. I wish him the best in the future.”
Spoony then turned to his team and his program and bid them a final, emotional farewell.
Of all the coaches I’ve covered, Spoony was always great for a quote and could stir up controversy on a whim. He once lamented an September trip to Torrington, saying the trip wasn’t worth it unless there was fall foliage to look at.
Though he can still be found watching games from the end zone, he is missed on the sidelines.
2009: Enter Cochran, exit Cochran …for now
Casey causes stir by parachuting into Monroe
Despite winning the state championship, Jack Cochran was forced out at New London after being charged with an offseason baseball practice. Just a few months later, we were all stunned to learn he’d packed his gear and taken his sophomore son, Casey, with him to Monroe.
Suddenly, the rich got richer as the defending Class L champions had a bona fide superstar in their midst.
The Panthers went 9-1 in his first year, raking up all kinds of yards in the process as people screamed with charges of recruiting.
But Year 1 ended with a whimper as Masuk lost its final two games of the year: The SWC championship to Pomperaug (above) and Thanksgiving to Newtown. That last lost kept Masuk from competing in the state playoffs.
2009: “That’s @#$%! Balls!”
Lou goes for 2, New Canaan edges Greenwich in thriller
I haven’t really touched on the Turner Baty saga at New Canaan, yet. But, woah, it was quite the scene.
Like Cochran, QB parachuted into New Canaan after his family grew dismayed in California and Florida. He beat incumbent QB Willie Ouelette out for the job and New Canaan ultimately bumped its state championship run to four straight.
This game, an incredible battle with arch-rival Greenwich, helped New Canaan get there.
New Canaan trailed 34-21 in the fourth quarter, but rallied with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull within 34-33 and the extra point pending.
Behind me, an MSG sideline reporter thought New Canaan should kick the point and play for overtime. “He’s not gonna go for two.”
Then Marinelli sent out Baty. “I’m fired up about this! #$%&! yeah!” the reporter screamed, captured on my microphone. “That’s #$%&! BALLS!”
Baty tossed a short flea-flicker pass to junior Kevin Macari for the 35-34 lead with 1 minute left. Then Greenwich came unglued and was hit with a pair of controversial penalties that made a last-second field goal almost impossible.
“Unfortunately, the better team didn’t win this one,” Greenwich coach Rich Albonizio lamented afterward.
As a side-note, Ouelette went on to save New Canaan from what would have been a disastrous loss to St. Paul in the state semifinals. New Canaan would top East Lyme for its fourth-straight title.
2009: Upset Central and the Big City Beatdown
Central beats Greenwich, No. 1 New Canaan
Central had spent most of the 2000s a-knocking at the door of the elite FCIAC Players’ Club. Over the years it had beaten Trumbull, Darien, New Canaan. But it never beat Greenwich or Staples and it certainly never beat all of those teams in one year.
Though they suffered an ignominious defeat at Trumbull, Central shocked everyone over the next few weeks. Behind quarterback Christon Gill, they came awfully close to pulling off a Greenwich-New Canaan-Staples trifecta.
Central first nipped Greenwich in a 14-13 thriller at Kennedy Stadium.
That planted them right back in the thick of the FCIAC hunt.
Then, they wiped the floor with QB Turner Baty and No. 1 New Canaan in a stunning 42-7 rout that secured a date with Staples in the FCIAC championship.
The stars seemed to be aligning for the Hilltoppers.
2009: Redemption Rankowitz
FCIAC Championship: Staples 14, Central 10
Few games matched this bone-shattering and mind-blowing classic at McDougall Stadium.
It was equally exhilarating and heartbreaking for the two teams. Just when you thought you’d seen it all, you were back on the roller coaster, only in reverse. Central, which stunned Greenwich and New Canaan in back-to-back weeks, looked poised to finally spear its white whale, Staples, and win the schools first FCIAC football championship.
For three quarters, the teams took turns killing each other and Central managed to take a 10-7 lead into the final two minutes of play.
The Hilltoppers could just feel the weight of the championship trophy when Staples’ senior receiver Brendan Rankowitz dropped the winning touchdown pass at the goal line. All the Hilltoppers needed was to run some clock and stop the Wreckers deep in their own end.
They did neither.
Electric quarterback Christon Gill was stopped short of a first down. Then, Central inexplicably called time out after tackling a Staples player in-bounds with just under a minute left. Backup QB Keith Gelman tossed a quick flat pass to Rankowitz, who juked a defender and had nothing in front of him but turf for the winning touchdown with 1:05 left.
And, for an exclamation point, Rankowitz sealed it by picking off Gill on Central’s last gasp.
Staples eventually catapulted into the Class LL championship game. Crestfallen, Central was never the same. Coach Dave Cadelina’s program spent the next three seasons under .500.
2009: What coulda, shoulda, woulda been…
Notre Dame-WH tops Pomperaug’s dream team on controversial call
Pomperaug’s 2009 team was one for the books. It was big, fast, physical and scary — with a bruiser named C.J. Elser at back and linebacker, a burner named Ben Crick, and a cast of all-stars rarely seen in coach Chuck Drury’s tenure.
Pomperaug destroyed all comers in the SWC, held off Casey Cochran and Masuk in a wild SWC Championship game and barreled into the Class L championship to face Notre Dame-West Haven.
As usual, the SCC fanboys dismissed Pomperaug heading into the battle at Shelton’s Finn Stadium (remember that?). But many of us knew this team not only could win, but had a good shot to be the No. 1 team in the state.
And this game certainly exceeded expectations. It was back and forth, with each teams trading blows in the ice and snow.
But Notre Dame, led by Conor Keniry and QB Sean Goldrich, hounded Pomperaug into five turnovers. It was ahead 21-14 when momentum violently shifted Pomperaug’s way.
And then… suddenly, it hadn’t.
Crick picked off Goldrich in the end zone, halting a drive. But Wade McNamara was flagged for pass interference on Tirell Young, even though it appeared as if Young had actually shoved McNamara on the play.
Regardless, Notre Dame retained possession and scored a few plays later.
Final score, Notre Dame 28, Pomperaug 21.
Afterwards, in what would be he final day as Pomperaug’s coach, even classy Drury called the call ‘questionable.’ Others weren’t so diplomatic.
But, hey, five turnovers are five turnovers. For Pomperaug, it was a day of coulda-shoulda-woulda. For Notre Dame, it was the culmination of a long, eight-year wait to reclaim their place atop the football world under Tom Marcucci, who’d returned for a second stint as head coach.
2009: The Legend of Matakevich
St. Joseph wins first title since 1990
The Hogs squeaked into the Class SS playoffs by the hairs of their chinny-chin-chins. They anxiously awaited word by watching the Connecticut Post football blog’s Twitter stream posting the scores throughout Thanksgiving and celebrated when they learned Watertown had lost to Torrington, giving them the final spot over Wolcott.
The championship, played in the bitter rain and cold at the same time as Pomperaug-Notre Dame, was there for either Montville or the Cadets to take. St. Joseph had a winning thoroughbred in Tyler Matakevich. The Hogs grabbed him by the reins and never let go until the long-awaited title was theirs.
2009: Ripped from their grasp
Fumble dooms Staples’ comeback, Cheshire wins Class LL
Staples scraped, scrapped and clawed its way to the 2009 title and were favorites to win it all over Cheshire.
But, truth be told, the team was exhausted from consecutive battles with Central and Greenwich. Their quarterback had long been knocked from the season and the rest of the club was stitched together with masking tape heading into the final.
It showed as Cheshire, a year removed from the Billy Ragone era, jumped on the Wreckers from the start and led 21-7 at halftime.
In the second half, however, Staples battled back behind the singular talents of Brendan Rankowitz. They scored twice to tie the game late and went to overtime.
Cheshire scored first. On the second play of Staples’ overtime possession, however, somebody the ball was from back Matt Kelly’s hands and the Rams celebrated their first state title since the 1990s.
It was, quite possibly, the most bitter defeat in school history.
The Wreckers would take another year to return to the spotlight.
2010: The Blue Wave crashes (on me)
Darien wins 2010 FCIAC championship
I swear, I really wasn’t trying to disrespect Darien. I was just trying to tell it like it was: The Blue wave were good, real good. But they really hadn’t impressed me in beating a few cupcakes on the road to the FCIAC championship game.
But, boy, when they beat up a pretty good Trumbull squad and raised the FCIAC trophy, did I hear all about it. It was like I was wearing a Trumbull uniform the whole season.
Darien and I… we made up. I wrote a nice piece about their impressive title and anxiously looked forward to how’d they fare in a stacked Class L state playoff alongside Hand, Masuk and New Canaan.
Then a few knuckleheads decided they’d paint New Canaan’s tower in Darien blue the night before their annual Turkey Bowl clash and all hell broke loose. Several key players were suspended and the FCIAC champions’ season came to a sputtering end, first at the hands of Kevin Macari, then at the Hands of Masuk.
2010: Dueling Banjos II
The Great Masuk-Xavier Debate of 2010
I said it then and I’ll say it now: Masuk was a machine in 2010. It was the best team in the state.
It had Cochran at QB, Colin Markus at tailback, the electric Jon Testani an unstoppable force at defensive back, returner and receiver, Jeff Wright anchoring both line, Joe Diaz at one receiver slot and a young Thomas Milone on the other.
They destroyed everyone. Everyone. Not just in the SWC, but Masuk housed FCIAC champion Darien in the semifinals and de facto champion New Canaan in the state championship. New Canaan hadn’t lost a state final in four straight years to that point.
It was one of the best teams I’ve seen during my time at Connecticut Post.
Xavier, meanwhile, had Graham Stewart and Austin Ahearn at linebacker, massive offensive and defensive lines, opportunistic defensive backs like Kosi Broderick and a bruiser at tailback, Mike Mastroianni. It was a great team, it went unbeaten in the SCC then bullied Trumbull in the state championship.
But, as one voter so succinctly put it during championship weekend: “With Xavier, there’s too much futzing around. Masuk puts a bullet in your head.” That year, I couldn’t have agreed more.
The voting pretty much came down to New Haven County vs the Rest of Connecticut. The geographically more balanced Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance poll cast its vote with Masuk.
But the one that counted, the one run out of New Haven featuring more New Haven-centric media types, cast its vote with Xavier.
As much as I disagreed, and had all of Xavier nation on my case, I lost this argument.
Now, as far as the next year’s Xavier team goes… that was a No. 1 football team.
2010: Anything you can do…
Matakevich, St. Joseph outlasts Dobbs, Ansonia in Class S final
Class SS champion St. Joseph came into 2010 as one of the favorites to repeat, even in the new 4-division setup the CIAC finally agreed to create after years of lobbying.
The Hogs were loaded. But fullback/linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who’d singlehandedly brought St. Joseph its first state championship, chipped bones in his foot during a scrimmage with Pomperaug and, suddenly the whole season seemed in doubt.
The Hogs struggled without him, especially during upset losses to Wilton and Darien. They were 1-3. But then came the remarkable, storybook turnaround: St. Joseph rallied, beat New Canaan in a thriller and barreled into the state championship game against, oh boy, Ansonia.
The Chargers, still smarting from their 2009 semifinal ouster, countered with Montrell Dobbs and a young group of underclassmen. Dobbs set state records in 2010 and, though the Chargers lost the NVL championship to Naugatuck, looked like a worthy adversary.
Back and forth the two small school powerhouses went in a football game of can-you-top-this? The best moment was Matakevich leaping over a pile of Chargers to score a touchdown. Then watching Dobbs to the exact same thing on a 2-point conversion.
St. Joseph finally put Ansonia away, claiming its second-consecutive state championship.
Though Dobbs was out the door, it wasn’t the last we’d hear of Ansonia…
2011: McDougall’s gracious, final bow
Trumbull coach’s emotional speech before dying
The Trumbull patriarch been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia just months before and, though he still looked stout walking into a banquet hall in Norwalk for the Fairfield Hall of Fame Football chapter’s annual awards banquet, he did so gingerly.
McDougall was given the lifetime achievement award by the chapter and a long standing ovation before a brief and touching speech that pretty much summed up he legendary coaching philosophy. It was a magical night.
It was also the last time I spoke with him. McDougall died the following October.
I was honored to eulogize him in the Connecticut Post’s pages.
Though I never saw him coach a football game, I was lucky enough to cover McDougall’s final year as Trumbull baseball coach. I loved taking trips with him to the annual Governor’s Cup meeting in Cromwell every year. I was blessed for knowing him. He was a good friend and great coach.
Newtown outlasts Bunnell in OT, reaches SWC final
This had to be one of the nuttiest games of all time, or at least during my time. Newtown, which had been knocking at the door for years, never could quite get over the hump. Bunnell, meanwhile, was trying to return to the top of the league.
Both teams were in top form in late 2011. Bunnell had quarterback Bryan Castelot and a great band of backs and receivers. Newtown had the great Lou Fenaroli, and a scrappy bunch of stars led by Dan Hebert.
Combine all of that and heavy doses of Brunoball, this was an epic shootout, one that went deep into a November Saturday night.
It ended on a fumble by Bunnell and the reliable Fenaroli bringing Newtown back into the SWC championship.
Bunnell was never quite the same after this. They died in 2012 and Bruno took his brand to Naugatuck.
Newtown got smoked by Masuk in the SWC final and, though they had Staples on the ropes in the state semifinals, were knocked from the playoffs.
2011: Where’d these guys come from?
Staples roars back to win FCIAC championship
We didn’t expect a whole lot out of Staples heading into 2011. They were a pretty junior bunch and it appeared as if their best days lay ahead.
But they grew up fast, and, once again faced Greenwich in a great FCIAC championship game. There had been a few tremendous battles between these two heavyweights. Besides 2009′s classic Thanksgiving battle, won by Staples in the waning moments, this game was probably the best of the bunch.
Down a pair of scores, Staples rallied to win the game with a 14-yard touchdown pass from junior Jack Massie to Peter Bonenfant, one of the few seniors on the roster.
Greenwich missed the playoffs for the fourth-consecutive year. Jubilant Staples ultimately ran into a buzzsaw: The 2011 Xavier football team.
2011: Arkeel Newsome – The Adventure begins
Ansonia (14-0) obliterates record books
Ansonia became the first team in the history of Connecticut to go 14-0, and it was thanks in no small part to their junior tailback, Arkeel Nwesome, who obliterated the single-season rushing record with 3,763 yards in his sophomore season, signaling a new era in Title Town.
Ansonia had a dominant senior class that year, as well, including Jake LaRovera, Tyler Wood, Hakeem Martin and Dylan Vano. They buried eventual Class S champion Holy Cross in the NVL final, their first league title since 2008 and ripped Ledyard in the state championship, their first since 2007.
This was just the beginning.
2011: Pile on Masuk
Hand rolls Cochran and Co. in semifinal showdown
A good portion of 2011 picked up right where we left off in 2010. It was all about Masuk-Xavier. Who was No. 1? Who was No. 1? Who was No. 1?
But something just didn’t feel right this time around. Masuk was good and dominated the SWC again on the way to another SWC championship over Newtown, it wasn’t the same team.
Meanwhile, the SCC the fanboys, many of whom were annoyed that we’d even mention Masuk in the same breath as Xavier, were salivating. An referendum was shaping up in the state playoff picture, a referendum on Masuk’s years of dominance.
Yea, they’d beaten two FCIAC teams and rolled to the 2010 state championship. But so what? They hadn’t faced the SCC yet.
Now we’d really get to prove how this Masuk team was, and always had been, a paper tiger.
First North Haven gave the Panthers a battle in the driving rain at Trumbull’s McDougall Field and the fanboys started cooing. What? You struggled with North Haven? But Masuk survived and prevailed, setting up a showdown with Hand in the Class L semifinals.
With derisive invectives raining down on them from all corners of Ken Strong Stadium, Masuk started well behind Cochran, Markus, Milone and Co. It was 14-14 after the first half. But in the second, Hand wore the Panthers down behind Nick Vitale, Joe DeMichele and quarterback Henry Foye and pulled away, 35-14.
Hand went on to crush New Canaan in the state championship and, coupled with Xavier’s 42-7 route of Staples, put the SCC on a golden pedestal, a pedestal it still hasn’t relinquished.
2012: Look, everybody… Stamford
Trinity Catholic, Westhill upset FCIAC applecart (somewhat)
Yeah, ok, it wasn’t quite the resurgence we thought it would be midway through 2012. But, hey, Trinity Catholic and Westhill winning games and making noise in the FCIAC? Say it ain’t so!
Trinity’s upset of New Canaan in Week 3 was one of the best games of the year. It set the tone for the school’s first state playoff appearance since 1993. Westhill, meanwhile, rode Davell Cotterell to its best record in decades.
It didn’t end in roses. Westhill wound up forfeiting a bunch of games due to the use of an ineligible player and Trinity Catholic bowed to North Branford in the first round of the playoffs.
But still… Trinity and Westhill were players for awhile and Stamford felt relevant in football for a few sweet months. It was fun.
2012: The Game of the Century
Hand snaps Xavier’s 26-game win streak
The hype began the previous December, when Hand and Xavier hoisted their state championship trophies. The voters said Xavier was No. 1, and so it was. But like scores of years before this, we were left wishing for one more game to settle everything.
Luckily, in 2012, we knew were going to get it.
Week 5 at Palmer Field in Middletown. Two state champions, one game. Be there.
Everybody was. Thousands packed Palmer Field to be a part of a championship atmosphere. They got their money’s worth as Tim Boyle and the Falcons went blow-for-blow with Matt Walsh and the Tigers. It was 20-20 after a contentious 2 1/2 quarters before Hand turned on the jets. Matt Walsh scored five touchdowns and Xavier had no answer as Hand ran away with a 40-20 victory.
Considering the two teams finished 1-2 in the state polls, it was as close to an overall championship as you were going to get.
2012: Burst the Curse
Newtown finally breaks Masuk in SWC final
It had been a long, long time since Newtown had won anything football-related — Sixteen long years, to be exact. Sure there had been some state playoff appearances, especially under coach Steve George, but they could never quite put together one of those magical years.
This was a giant leap in the direction of a glorious future.
Long Masuk’s doormat save for an upset or two, the Hawks finally beat Masuk in a championship setting. They rallied in the second half behind Cooper Gold, Julian Dunn and some huge defensive stops to finally wrest the title away from Masuk.
Both teams didn’t last long in the playoffs, however. Newtown got destroyed by Norwich Free Academy and the John Murphy era at Masuk came to a close after another loss to Hand in the Class L semifinals.
2012: Farewell, big Jack
Ansonia championship coach Jack Hunt dies on Thanksgiving
It was his favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. The day when his beloved Chargers faced Naugatuck in one of the state’s most storied rivalries. It was a day Jack Hunt lived for.
So it was poetic, albeit heartbreaking, when the great Ansonia coach died of cancer just hours before the clubs renewed their annual Thanksgiving series at Jarvis Stadium. He was one-of-a-kind and was eulogized beautifully by Connecticut Post’s Mike Mayko in our pages.
The Chargers dedicated the rest of the season to his memory and honored him by rolling to yet another 14-0 season and yet another state championship.
2012: What nightmares are made of
NFA denies Staples-Xavier rematch
Heavy favorites to win the FCIAC championship and return to the Class LL state championship game, Staples and its great senior class, led by a tremendous talent in receiver James Frusciante, backs Nick Kelly and Joey Zelkowitz, and lineman Kyle Vaughm, didn’t disappoint in the regular season.
They hammered the FCIAC for 10 weeks, and took out rival Greenwich, once again, in the league championship game.
Could anybody beat this team? We were dying, just dying, to find out. It looked inevitable that the Wreckers would get their coveted rematch with two-time defending champion Xavier and settle this FCIAC-SCC thing once and for all.
Then came Joey Paparelli and Norwich Free Academy in the state semifinals. Then came the bad punt snap and safety, then Paparelli’s breakaway touchdown run, then Ariec Ricks blowing up an option pitch at the goal line.
Staples rallied and had the momentum on its side when it forced NFA to punt with minutes remaining. The punt nicked a Staples player in the back of his foot and Ricks recovered to secure the stunning upset, 30-28.
NFA advanced to face Xavier, but when top back Marcus Outlow was injured early in the first quarter, NFA had no answer for this decade’s most ferocious football program.
Whew. That’s it folks. It’s been an incredible decade for high school football in Connecticut. I loved every minute of it. Thanks to everybody at Connecticut Post who supported me and trusted me to give our readers the very best in local coverage. I’ve had a blast.
That’s the news and I … am… outta here.