Around The State

Profiles of outstanding athletes, coaches and sports figures in the state of Connecticut. Stories of inspiration, perseverance, and the spirit that lives beyond the field or the court.

#TrainingCampTour Day VII: Canton

Installing a New Program in Canton…

Chris Currier is 37 years old. He comes from Montville and currently resides in Colchester. He has two kids and a mane of facial hair that has been touched by hues of grey. He wears a gold chain adorned with a maroon “Tomahawk” that appears to be a nod to the colors worn by his new team, but swears that it is a coincidence as it is a salute to his Native American heritage.

The Warriors are off and running toward a goal of getting back to the playoffs. They have a whole new team and organizational philosophy.

The Warriors are off and running toward a goal of getting back to the playoffs. They have a whole new team and organizational philosophy.

“Coach Philippon left for whatever reasons that he did, but I still think that there is a lot of talent here and it just needs to be developed properly,” reputed Currier. “I’m a young enough coach to where I want to do that and I want to have the time to do that. I want to develop these guys into being great football players.”

Currier was selected by a search committee in Canton this past June to succeed Philippon as head coach. The former coach left in December after the team had made the CIAC playoffs and finished the regular season 10-1. The team graduated 9 all-conference players. Philippon told the Collinsville Press that he did all the could to bring more kids into the program, but left due to the fact that 18 kids were returning and he had no idea if his staff could wrangle in more.

Senior fullback and inside linebacker Matt Bangs was a part of the search committee that chose to hire Currier.

“I think he knows what he’s doing,” articulated Bangs. “He’s established great relationships with the players. He’s very personal and personable. He can connect with players.”

Matt’s 65 tackles on defense in 2014 are the most of any returning player. The team lost three running backs that each rushed for at least 950 yards, so the senior captain, along with Eddie Melton will try to fill-in for a group that accounted for 300 yards rushing per game last year.

It is clearly a team that will change its ways from a year ago. Currier will institute the “Pistol Offense” in 2015, a style of play used to mask play selection for a rush-heavy, but not exactly passing-ignorant team. Coach wants to utilize his team speed to run 65% of the time and dictate possession, but he also wants his quarterback to throw the ball because “passing is a part of the game.”

“My philosophy is a little bit different than coach Phillipon’s was,” challenged Currier. “With low numbers, we condition a lot because we have to. It’s really just getting kids to buy into the program, because that’s what it is now, a program.”

“Compared to last year, it’s a whole new thing to us,” exclaimed Bangs. “This year: sprints before lifting, sprints after lifting. Endurance drills. Running up the field and down the field. Everything you can think of, we are doing it.”

We saw rain for the first time on the #TrainingCampTour forcing us to leave practice, but we got what we needed at Canton practice!

We saw rain for the first time on the #TrainingCampTour forcing us to leave practice, but we got what we needed at Canton practice!

In other words, Currier knows he may not have a lot of football players, but he has some athletes and will take a classic approach to give his kids an opportunity to play. He has teamed with athletic director Craig DeAngelis to create a junior varsity team, three years after a lack of organizational depth forced the school to ditch the program. Currier has 38 kids on his roster, but does not want the young kids to play for the sake of filling out a roster sheet. Those guys will play on the JV team and watch the varsity kids go at it.

Guys like the team’s true leader, quarterback Alex Higley, will show the youngsters how it’s done so that Canton’s future will be a successful one. He is one of three captains, but I have got to say after watching him command the huddle, that he is the unquestioned leader. I was also pleasantly surprised at how quick he has picked up this pistol offense, especially when you consider the fact that coach was hired less more than three months ago! He rolled out well and demonstrated a quick, accurate ball.

Alex Higley has been cleared to throw the ball a year after completing seven passes in 2014 in just 17 attempts.

Alex Higley has been cleared to throw the ball a year after completing seven passes in 2014 in just 17 attempts.

Higley told me what he did for the team last year. “Really just led the team down the field,” explained Higley. “Not much throwing, it was run-first, smash-mouth football. This year is a whole lot different and I’ve got a whole new role. We are throwing it more than last year.”

Higley attempted just 17 passes a year ago on a team that threw the ball 40 times for 302 yards. But there are realities associated with having a low rate of participation. Higley, one of the team’s finest athletes, will not play very much on defense because he has just one freshman behind him on the depth chart.

It is refreshing to know that Currier will be protecting his quarterback’s health, while ensuring that his young back-up can develop on the junior varsity team.

“Our freshman players will not just be tackling dummies.”

That message was brought to you by a coach who seems to know what he is doing as he jump-starts a program less than three months after taking the job. His team seems to be buying in as well…

Follow the #TrainingCampTour as it happens on Twitter. Please check in to nightly for other team training camp recaps. For more on the Canton team, tune in to the 2015 High School Football Training Camp special on September 4, 2015. See Canton battle Coginchaug Regional on CPTV Sports, Tuesday, October 27 at 9 p.m.

#TrainingCampTour Day VII: Torrington

“The Throwback Raiders” are looking to take a simple, but loud journey to the postseason in 2015.

A New Vibe In TTown

Appetite for Destruction (1987), License to Ill (1986), and Kill ‘Em All (1983) each were seminal albums that were produced in the 1980’s. “Paradise City” (Guns N’ Roses), “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” (Beastie Boys), and “Seek and Destroy” (Metallica) were all featured in a loud fashion at Red Raiders football practice Monday.

1980’s were a simpler time when citizens of the Earth looked to their heroes to defend their way of life. A little girl from Chicago defied the odds after being neglected. Michael and Madonna dictated what clothes you wore. Ronald Reagan, the country’s astute grandfather, shielded your eyes from a horrendous future by telling Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

Many of the Torrington players were upset when the volume had been turned down momentarily and refused to get back to their jobs until order had been restored. “Turn up the music, man.” “Let’s bump, Dawg.” These were cries made aloud to keep the rhythm up for the Red Raiders, many of whom wore old, ragged jerseys that exposed their stomachs, like you would see in…the 80’s.

This 1980’s diatribe is not some cheap attempt at bringing popular culture into a Connecticut high school football team preview. It’s a nod to the past when Torrington football meant something. You see, the Red Raiders have not won a Naugatuck Valley League title since 1987. They have not played in the state playoffs since 1982. Coach Gaitan Rodriguez is hoping to change that by taking a simplistic approach with his team.

“We have certain packages that we are going to implement offensively to take advantage of our size and defensively, we are keeping it simple so that these guys can react and play and not think,” said Rodriguez.

There is a buzz on the banks of the Naugatuck River. People are talking up and down East Main Street about the 2015 football team. More than half of the players currently in camp are seniors (16/29). Senior captain quarterback Connor Finn is a year older, one year removed from a decent season where the completed 53% of his passes for a 1,072 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He is also very familiar with a lot of his teammates.

Connor Finn has been tapped to play behind what he calls a “skillful” offensive line. He’s hoping that on the other side of the ball, the defense won’t score, because then obviously “they can’t win!”

“Well I played with them forever, since 3rd or 4th grade, so a lot of kids I have known and have been good friends with,” stated Finn. “I’m just excited to play with them and really prove something for our senior year.”

I asked coach Rodriguez if the team chemistry, senior leadership, and knowledge of the system will lead the team to the playoffs. He laughed me off as if to say, “oh you outsider, it’s much simpler than that.”

“You know what? This is our approach: we take one game at a time,” exclaimed Rodriguez. “What we worry about is today. We have to have the best practice that we can have today and we want to have an even better practice the next day. If we put all of that together, good things our going to happen.”

Running back Newton Frias collected just 491 yards and 8 touchdowns for the Red Raiders last year, but wait a minute, he did that in just 3 games played!!!  Flashy return man and receiver Zack Mancini got in the end zone 5 times in just four games played. Everyone returns on the offensive and defensive line as well including 6’0″, 300-pounder Kobe Covington.

A key building block from last year was a 5-game losing streak in the middle of the season. They were outscored 220-57 from October 11th to November 8th. Torrington was outscored by 90 points last year and managed 300 yards per game on offense when they know they could have done better.

“Last year was a disappointment to us,” intimated Finn. “We wanted to come out and prove something and we just didn’t do that. We will use it this year as fire just to drive us and something to fuel the fire.”

The team suffered a few injuries during that stretch, but none more debilitating than a right foot injury that sidelined TE/LB Nate Bresson. He is a go-to receiver for Connor Finn and the anchor of Coach G’s defense.

Torrington’s 33-year state playoff drought may come to an end this year thanks to some senior leadership.

“His character, not only his leadership, but the energy that he brings to practice, the energy that these guys are feeding off of a kid like Bresson has been incredible,” said Rodriguez. “That’s been also part of the buzz that has been created around here.”

That buzz, along with a natural approach to playing the game of football and a positive attitude toward a 2014 losing streak, have made the Red Raiders believe in themselves.

“We started getting healthier near the end of the year,” announced Rodriguez. “A lot of those kids that were getting experience at the time of those injuries were starting to play better, which has carried over to this year. There’s a lot of depth and there’s a lot of competition, so it has made things exciting.”

What would it mean to this team if they could break tradition and skip into the playoffs?

“It would be the best feeling in the world,” claimed Bresson. “We are just going to take It one game at a time and hopefully we end up there.”

Of course they are!

Follow the #TrainingCampTour as it happens on Twitter. Please check in to nightly for other team training camp recaps. For more on the Torrington team, tune in to the 2015 High School Football Training Camp special on September 4, 2015. Finally, the Red Raiders will play LIVE on CPTV Sports September 25th at 6:30 p.m. against Naugatuck.

A Day to Remember in the Northwest Corner…

Our first stop in my hometown came at Salerno’s, which is home to my favorite sandwich in Torrington. I am very familiar with the owner and his family. Watch the special to learn more about my cheesy Torrington connection to Salerno’s.

This is THE Italian-American sandwich as cultures clash with tomatoes, lettuce, and mayo on top of meatballs, provolone, and crunchy bread.

The Johnny’s Hero is my sandwich because it includes Italian elements that I cannot ignore such as tender meatballs, sneaky grated cheese, and just-right melted provolone on a big, bad hard roll. It’s also my sandwich because it isn’t traditional by most standards. The meatballs are uniquely fried and then dressed with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. This combination is a winner though because the bread tastes wonderful when layered with mayo and tomatoes, while the meatball makes its way into your heart when touched by the provolone and grated cheese.

It was a nice time reconnecting and rekindling on North Main Street. Brian Brennan, the owner of Salerno’s, is also a huge fan of the Amazin’ Mets, so that makes things even better (especially with a 5.5 game lead in the division heading toward September!!!).

We had a little time before football practice, so I directed driver/camera man Mike Dunphy to 139 Turner Avenue: casa di Graziano. I surprised my mother Rosie and my father Francesco Sr. with a visit, but wouldn’t you know, they were ready to go at a moment’s notice with home-made soppressata (dried meat, Italian- style).

It was a successful day in Torrington because I ate well and received all of the necessary footage. It’s that much better when you are greeted by your mother’s beautiful smiling face!

I’m holding Soppressata. I ate it already. Thanks, mom and dad.

#TrainingCampTour VI: Southington

Jasen Rose will look to connect with a fresh receiving corps after a most prolific trio graduated in June.

A Blue Knight Dynasty in the Offing?

Before a victory in the 2014 CIAC Class LL-Large championship game, Southington had never won back-t0-back titles. In fact, the only title that the Blue Knights had ever captured occurred back in 1998. Coach Mike Drury has built a program on Fontana Field’s turf, which is important to follow in 2015 as Drury and his staff aim to move on toward a third straight state title without some key parts from last year’s team.

Alex Jamele graduated from Southington this past June with an all-time Connecticut high school football mark of 50 touchdown receptions. He will play for the Blue Devils of CCSU instead of the Southington Blue Knights this fall. The trio of Jamele (18), Kyle Borawski (13), and Matt Maxwell (12) collected 43 touchdown catches in 2014. Borawski and Maxwell have also graduated.

Jasen Rose has not. He may play for either Syracuse, UConn, Wake Forest, or Wisconsin, among other NCAA FBS schools next year, but first, he will look to improve upon a remarkable 2014 campaign that saw him toss 47 touchdowns and just 9 interceptions. That means he essentially threw five touchdowns for every one interception.

Mike Drury called for his quarterback to get louder in 2015. Upon my visit to Southington, it seems like Drury is getting the most out of his guy,

“He’s captain now, he’s been taking control of the team,” said wide-out Austin Morin. “It’s Jay’s team this year. He definitely got bigger and better. His throws are there and I haven’t seen him make any mistakes.”

It was clear upon my arrival that the lead vocalist of the Blue Knights football team was Rose. He was quick to inform teammates of their assignments before the execution of plays. Mike Drury and his offensive coordinator wore headsets to simulate play-calling, relied that information to Rose, and watched as he organized the huddle. The situation pushed me to approach Rose about his confident demeanor.

“Something that I had definitely needed to pick up this year was leadership,” offered Rose. “We are coming in with kind of a new team and not a lot of returning players so one thing that needed to be picked up was the vocals. I know we lost a lot, Jamele, Maxwell, Borawski, but we’ve got Austin returning.”

Morin caught 36 balls in 2014 and averaged 15.8 yards per reception, good for second on the team. He also picked up 5 touchdown receptions.

“It was a prolific receiving corps, but we have one of those guys back and Austin Morin is looking to have a huge year,” said Drury. “He’s tremendous out there.”

How huge of a season is Morin expecting to have?

“I’m trying to break records this year,” exclaimed Morin. “I’m trying to have the biggest season of my career. I’m trying to go out there and win every game and win a state championship. A ton of touchdowns, a ton of yards.”

One area from 2014 that the Blue Knights essentially keep intact is the run game. The passing attack accounted for 273 yards per game last year. You must be thinking to yourself…how many yards per game could the running backs have contributed? The answer…a lot: 179.5. Alessio Diana and Vance Upham put up eerily similar numbers in 2014.

Diana: 121 car, 958 yds, 11 TD
Upham: 149 car, 1059 yds, 11 TD
Yards per carry/game - Diana: 7.8/79   Upham: 7.1/88.2

“We strive to push each other to be our greatest,” stated Upham. “If one of us slacking is on something, the other pushes us to be the best we can. I say that I am more of the power back and he brings more of the speed, but we can bring both to the table.”

As for the defense, Drury’s band of Blue Knights return just two starters. You can learn a bit more about that side of the ball for Southington inside of the 2014 High School Football Training Camp Special that airs Friday, September 4 at 7 p.m. Follow the #TrainingCampTour as it happens on Twitter. Please check in to nightly for other team training camp recaps.

Southington appears LIVE on CPTV Sports against Glastonbury, Friday October 2 at 6:30 p.m.


#TrainingCampTour Day VI: Ansonia

The Chargers, led by Tyler Bailey (left) and Tajik Bagley (right) are poised for a run at a 20th state title in 2015.

Adversity and Ansonia Share A Sentence???

Don’t expect the proud Nutmeggers that live anywhere, but Ansonia to shed a tear for the Chargers. Since the CIAC started sanctioning championship football games in 1976, Ansonia has appeared in 27 such contests. They have won 19 titles.

It could have been 20. Senior quarterback JaiQuan McKnight decided to take off and made it 93 yards into the end zone to put Ansonia up over Valley Regional 20-6 with 5:01 left in the game.

“It really was the worst loss that I have ever been apart of,” lamented Ansonia head man Thomas Brockett. “There’s no way to cut it. It has been a long offseason.”

Brockett intimated to me that he does not think much about his five state titles in the wake of last year’s championship loss to Valley/LOL. A sixth title may help him forget that blemish.

It took The Warriors one minute and 35 seconds to answer. When Ansonia got the ball back, Valley/LOL forced a turnover on an unbelievable Dan Figuenick play on Chargers RB/WR Tyler Bailey. A Chris Jean-Pierre touchdown scamper followed by a Jared Roche extra point sealed the victory for the Warriors.

“It wasn’t a good feeling,” added Bailey. “I would never want to go through that again. I kind of take some of the blame because I shouldn’t have ever fumbled, but I gotta get over it and move on, but that’s a bad feeling.”

Bailey is doing his best to make sure that no one cries for him either. He has put on a whopping 17 pounds this offseason to push himself to 195 pounds. He collected 14 rushing touchdowns and 6 receiving scores in 2014. Bailey is determined to go for more in 2015. So much so that when he touches the ball in practice, his teammates are sure to try as they might to rip the ball from his death grip. That is per Tyler’s request.

Tajik Bagley was the team’s top running back in 2014 and heir apparent to Mr. Ansonia, Arkeel Newsome. I told Bagley that he looked a bit bigger than last year. He responded by telling me that he has gained 7 pounds in an effort to add more bulk to his exceptional rushing frame.

“I’m working a lot harder than I did last year because we lost in the state championship game and that motivated me,” said Bagley.

Bagley contributed eight yards per carry (158 handles for 1,259 yards) inside an Ansonia rushing attack that averaged 292 yards per game! He also crossed the goal line 22 times for the Chargers.

“I think I am close to where I need to be because I have been working hard, but there’s always room for improvement,” claimed Bagley. “I should be getting better as the season goes along.”

Ansonia has long been known to produce pulse-pounding rushers (ie: former Yale RB Alex Thomas) and powerful offensive linemen (how does SCSU T Matt Simon grab you?). The next great Charger linemen may currently be in camp and if he is, he has yet to start a single game on the offensive line. For the first time in at least Brockett’s tenure, he will line up five starters on the o-line who have never began a high school football game on the field.

Ansonia’s coaching staff will rely on some new blood up front to protect a new quarterback and some outstanding running backs.

Will coach Brockett choose Jake Palmieri to replace JaiQuan McKnight at quarterback?

Mike Caple, Frank DeLibro, Artie DeLibro, Joe DeCiucis, and one more player will make up a fresh offensive line. They will block for a new quarterback: either Bryson Cafaro or Jake Palmieri.

Palmieri suffered a torn ACL in 2014, abruptly ending his season. He spent the season on the bench learning from McKnight.

“His speed was unbelievable out of his cuts and everything, so I have just been picking up his moves, but his dropback mainly, his accuracy… so I picked up a lot from him,” recounted Palmieri. “Now that he’s gone, I have to lead my team like he led the team.”

Those are confident words from a young man determined to not lose the starter’s job. Brockett pushed his men through intense conditioning Monday, which included a session where the team took turns hustling up and down a hill beyond Nolan Field. Palmieri stood out with his knee brace clinging to his right leg. He also looked good at defensive back during passing drills, where he may play if he loses out to Cafaro.

“It’s just been hunger all offseason, passing, running just to get this knee back, but now I feel like I’m where I need to be just to get this team back,” said Palmieri.

Ansonia will also feature a defense with just four starters who have starting experience. But, the 19-time state champs don’t expect you to feel bad for them.

Follow the #TrainingCampTour as it happens on Twitter. Please check in to nightly for other team training camp recaps. For more on the Chargers, tune in to the 2015 High School Football Training Camp special on September 4, 2015.

Elsewhere in the Naugatuck Valley…

“Beyond this wrapper…is a little taste of Heaven…”

I called in a favor to the Nardelli Family and asked if CPTV Sports could come in for one more dance with the Italian combo to end all Italian combos. Diane obliged my request and it was on from there.

The longest standing Nardelli’s Grinder Shoppe in Naugatuck was the site of my date with prosciuttini, capicola, salami, provolone, mayo, lettuce, the Classic Mix of diced veggies, tomato, olives, and hot sauce. Tune into the special to find out which of the ingredients is my favorite!

I could not resist adding a savory Cannoli to that delicious dish.

It was a good day.

Holy Cannoli!

#TrainingCampTour Day V: Capital Prep-Hartford

There is a lot of work happening in-and-around Hartford to improve the city. The defending Class S-Small champs are also under construction!

Blazing A New Trail…

We told you on Monday that the Capital Preparatory Magnet School had hired its second head football coach in school history. Jason Manson, last year’s defensive backs and receivers coach at CPMS, has gotten to work this offseason without last year’s starting quarterback Rayshawn Phillips (transferred to Bloomfield) and some great leaders that led the Trail Blazers to a title in 2014, like Sidney Jones, a linemen who played on both sides of the ball.

Manson told me that losing a Sidney Jones is always going to hurt because he was an ambassador for their football program. Jones forced 4 fumbles, sacked opposing quarterbacks 7 times, and made 79 tackles last season. He was named one of three CHSCA senior all-stars from Capital Prep and played in the Super 100 Classic this past June. Jones played for three Constitution State Conference championship winning teams at Capital Prep.

I believe it was the great American lyrical artist, Tupac, that once exclaimed: “…but life goes on!”

The Trail Blazers return two guys on defense that made over 50 tackles in 2014, Daniel Lebron and Edgar Torres. Lebron is 6’2″ and weighs over 220 pounds. I was told by a Capital Prep assistant coach that the goal for LeBron is to pick up 17 sacks this season. That is a lofty goal considering that the best defensive player in the state last year Zach Allen, notched 13.5 and Lebron collected 8.5. Lebron smirked at the thought of getting collecting 17, but the logic was simple: the junior wants to double his total from 2014 in his effort to be great for Capital Prep.

There is a leadership search underway at Capital Prep in the wake of the changes from last year’s Chris Fulton-coached championship squad. I was told that the Blazers had a very productive Camp Niantic National Guard Training Camp this past weekend. They were able to practice with other teams like the New Britain Golden Hurricanes. Coach tells me that a lot of the kids stepped up in a leadership role. Senior WR/DB Jakai Gill is looking at one guy in particular, Kyle Zajack.

“I’m just looking for him to be a leader,” said Gill.

Zajack was just 2 of 4 for 6 yards at quarterback last season, but he will get a lot of attempts in 2015,

Zajack will replace Phillips at quarterback this season, but only attempted four passes in 2014. He is a pure-pocket passer with a live arm entering his sophomore season. Manson put on an impromptu showcase for me so that I could obtain some footage for our 2015 High School Football Training Camp special that airs September 4, at 7 p.m. Let’s keep in mind that the boys had just been dropped off at school Saturday afternoon at 2 following an intensive Camp Niantic session that began Thursday morning. He could have thrown a pass or two and then went home, fatigued by the weekend’s events.

He made every throw. His accuracy was solid considering he had been practicing all weekend. His arm strength, though, was on-point. I can’t remember a throw that he did not make. He will have a good group of guys to throw to as well once the season begins.

“I’m a great rout-runner,” proclaimed Gill. “I can run every rout, but I like posts, go’s.” Gill is certainly not the most humble player, but he does not need to be when you factor in his resume from 2014. He collected 1,085 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns.

Gill (right) and Ross (left) were leading offensive contributors at their respective positions in 2014.

Jourdayne Ross should be a guy to look out for to catch passes out of the backfield as he does a great job of exploding to the ball. He was last year’s leading rusher with 808 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Manson should be very pleased that he maintains some integral parts from last year’s team. He should be able to improve his team right off the bat as he boasts an impressive resume in a very short time period. The former 3-time state champion Bloomfield quarterback is only 30 years old. He was Drew Tate’s understudy at the University of Iowa. Tate plays professionally for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. Manson has coached at several schools like Becker College and Central Connecticut State. He also has built a kinship over the past few years with the Trail Blazers.

In other words, Fulton has passed on the team to very capable hands.

Follow the #TrainingCampTour as it happens on Twitter. Please check in to nightly for other team training camp recaps. For more on the Trail Blazers, tune in to the 2015 High School Football Training Camp special on September 4, 2015. Finally, Capital/Achievement will play in a game that will air on CPTV Sports Tuesday, November 3rd at 9 p.m. against Harding-Bridgeport.

It’s a new year at Capital Prep with a new coach: Jason Manson (left). They have a new goal: defend the state title.

#TrainingCampTour Day V: Ellington

Ellington hopes to exude this type of strength this year as they set out alone in 2015 without former co-op partner Somers.

They Will Not Be Wearing Yellow Jerseys On September 12…

The Purple Knights will kick-off their season on 9/12 at against the co-op of Windsor Locks, East Granby, and Suffield in a game that will air on CPTV Sports Tuesday, September 15, at 9 p.m. Ellington will go at it alone on that date for the first time since 2003.

There was a time when the Purple Knights were flourishing as a football program, collecting regular season wins at a high rate, while enjoying substantial participation numbers for a small school situated in Tolland County, Northeast of Hartford. That was around the turn of the century, when Ellington had been as high as Class LL in football as late as the year 2002. The following year, Ellington dropped to Class S. In 2004, as participation numbers dwindled, the team buddied up with its northern neighbor Somers to form a cooperative (co-op) squad. There are many benefits to a co-op relationship as schools have the ability to share resources including budget dollars and manpower.

The CIAC mandates that once a school can furnish a squad made up of at least 36 football players, they can no longer enjoy the benefits of that relationship. The bad news is that the Ellington and Somers are splitting up in 2015. The good news…numbers are up for Sean Byrne’s Ellington squad!

Ellington suffered a bit of a scare on Saturday, before I showed up to practice, almost losing another key piece from their 2014 squad: quarterback Christian Rider. He was in the defensive backfield during a drill and came down very awkwardly on his ankle after attempting to nab an interception. Rider rolled his ankle.

There is the taped ankle of Christian Rider, which is a very important factor for Ellington to watch this year. Rider threw 7 TD passes and rushed for 10 scores in 2014.

“It was the worst five minutes of pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” recounted Rider. “Just a little setback. I’ll be alright, though.”

“He doesn’t normally play defense, but we let him go out there to play defensive back, and that’s what happened,” bemoaned Byrne.

He was already wearing a yellow “YOU CAN’T TOUCH ME!” jersey because he came into practice as the team’s starting quarterback. That’s where he will stay as he, along with his coach, expects that he will be in the lineup on September 12 despite sitting out the rest of practice icing his wrapped up ankle. Quarterbacks coach Adam Morgan stepped up to the role in practice in lieu of Rider. I am proud to say that the young man, walked away from practice on his own accord and participated in an interview with me whilst standing at attention to speak to me. It is also important to note that he led and joined in on a team stretch at the end of practice.

Mark Hickman was the only other Purple Knight in a yellow jersey. He sprained his ACL at a football camp two months ago.  He is on high alert to ensure that he will be okay this season.

Hickman is two touchdowns shy of the school’s scoring record, which he break week one in a game televised on CPTV Sports.

“Coming off from injury, making sure the leg is all strengthened up, working on speed, working on making holes and finding the cuts,” said Hickman. “I’m all cleared right now.”

Hickman showed no signs of injury during my team at camp. He played corner during a simulated team game of offense versus defense. He did not allow one reception while playing defensive back. The senior will be challenging various school receiving, returning, and scoring records this year. Should Hickman make it into the end zone twice during game one, you will see a graphic populate on your TV screen that promotes him as the school’s all-time leading scorer.

“It’s cool to have, but I’m more focused on the team succeeding,” intimated Hickman. “Touchdowns will come. Yards will come, as long as you work together and work hard. We lost Somers. We lost a lot of key players, so it’s a team coming together, playing together and becoming real tight with each other.”

Side note: I saw Wellington Silva, a tough Ellington tackler, nearly break a teammate in half during a play in the simulated game. That play right there will be worth watching our 2015 High School Football Training Camp Special on Friday September 4 at 7 p.m. Expect him to improve upon his 78 tackles from 2014. Additionally, Tyreik Noel is an athletic specimen at linebacker. You will probably see an uptick in tacklers (56) and sacks (3.0) from what he put up a year ago.

Trekking Down Rt. 140 to the Chuck Wagon…

These guys were very welcoming to CPTV Sports, but I was more excited than they, spending time with the family and scarfin’ down some breakfast.

I am pretty much an Italian gimmick at this point. I mean, I am Francesco Graziano Jr. and both of my parents are proud natives of Calabria. So guess what, I eat Italian a lot. Additionally, I SWEAT sausage. Every time I dine out for breakfast, you can expect there to be some sausage involvement. It is probably the only meal that I go “create- your-own” for: egg white omelette with italian sausage, roasted red peppers, onions, and swiss cheese. I am not a dessert guy, but I always order one chocolate chip pancake for breakfast.

I was pleased to enjoy this food in a family setting. Gus and Louis co-own the restaurant. Gus’s son Alex is a defensive assistant on the Ellington football coaching staff. Alex’s mom Tina is the star of the show and a member of the wait staff. I never met these people before the day I walked into the Chuck Wagon for the first time. I was embraced with open arms.

The sausage was cooked very slowly and neat. The roasted red papers were the cornerstone of this omelette project, finely cooked for a soft bite! Oh yes there were onions and swiss cheese that provided a terrific compliment, but there was also a bit of Parmesan cheese that provided a pleasant surprise.

“Give me sausage or give me death” — Frankie Graziano circa 2015



#TrainingCampTour Day IV: Darien

The Blue Wave have the right guys to pick up the pieces from a devastating 21-20 New Canaan state championship victory.

Darien Motivated By The Ultimate Defeat

“I still haven’t gotten over it. It’s going to hang with me for awhile. Just seeing them celebrate on the field…that stings a lot. -Mark Evanchick, Darien Defensive End.

A reporter rarely has the opportunity to speak with a young athlete that possesses such a gift to answer a question with powerful words in a succinct manner of speaking. Mark Evanchick will give you what you need off of the gridiron and leave you speechless with his performance on the field.

The 6-foot, 228-pound senior has collected five forced fumbles, 201 total tackles, and 43 sacks in a terrific career at Darien High. I can assure you that he does not want to finish his career with the Blue Wave without nabbing one ring.

Evanchick’s (center) 2014 season was his best yet: 80 tackles and 25 sacks! What does he have in store for 2015?

I floated this question to Mark and his coach Rob Trifone: “Have we seen the best that Mark Evanchick has to offer?”

“I think this year’s determinant is that usually seniors perform at their best in their last year. Hopefully, that is the case.” This a simple answer posed in a profound way by Evanchick.

“Hard to tell. Mark has about 20 different speeds. Depends on how P.O.’d he is on any given day.” This is a sincere answer from an authentic man, Rob Trifone, who has come so close in the past few years to bringing a state title to Darien for the first time since 1996. Trifone followed up that answer by recounting Evanchick’s four-sack, first half performance in 2014 state title game against a New Canaan linemen who supposedly had shut him down in the Turkey Bowl two weeks prior.

But what happened in the second half to Darien?

“Obviously, you do pay attention to it, but it is part of life,” said Trifone when looking back on the harrowing loss. “In that FCIAC championship, {a game Darien trailed 21-0 in the 2nd quarter} you go back, that’s a game that New Canaan should have beat us and we were able to beat them {28-21 in overtime}. Vice versa. The tables are turned in the state championship, we should have beat them because we were out playing them at times, but they were able to come back to win that game.”

“It was a bitter taste in our mouths,” added defensive back/wide receiver Colin Minicus. “We all wanted that game, especially for our seniors. We just watched it fall out of our hands. Most of the returning juniors know what feeling feels like. Nobody likes that feeling. We are all fighting hard to redeem ourselves.”

Minicus (pictured right) has a state championship ring in boys lacrosse. Can he use that experience to empower his teammates this season?

Minicus watched as great two-way players like George Reed, Will Hamernick, Jack Tyrell, Jack Griffiths, Peter Archey, and Griffin Ross moved on from Darien without an elusive CIAC crown. He’s also watched the 1996 team, that last Darien team to taste state championship success.

“{They were} great leaders, great teammates to each other and I think that’s what we are trying to focus on this year is to bring every one up to the stage and get as many bodies out there as we can,” said Minicus.

This may be the last best chance for the Blue Wave for a while, with all of the turnover from these amazing early 2010’s Darien teams. This current senior group holds a special place in Rob Trifone’s heart.

“This particular group is a group that has been with me since 3rd grade because my twin sons {Christian and Bobby} are seniors as well,” noted Trifone. “And so we’ve been through the ranks. In the youth leagues, they were able to win a championship and they have always said that they wanted to win a state championship in high school, so that’s the carrot before them this year.”

Timmy Graham is a rather large part of that group. He completed 206 passes for 2,525 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. Big-time security blankets such as Reed (OL), Hamernick (OL), Tyrell (OL),  Griffiths (OL), Archey (RB), and Ross (WR) are gone, but his leading receiver in terms of yardage (645) is back for more and that is Colin Minicus.

Expect Shelby Grant to join the Trifone brothers as new sensations with more playing time in a fast-paced Darien endeavor in 2015. Grant is likely to be the quickest member of his team, but with what I saw today, it may not matter. The Blue Wave spent half of the session sprinting at least 30 yards up field and back. It was timed…very carefully. I believe the best time 00:18:38. It showed me that Darien, led by Trifone’s band of third grade buddies, will do whatever it takes to win the big one this season.

Follow the #TrainingCampTour as it happens on Twitter. Please check in to nightly for other team training camp recaps. For more on the Darien football team, tune in to the 2015 High School Football Training Camp special on September 4, 2015. Watch Friday Night LIVE Football on CPTV Sports beginning September 11 at 7:00 p.m.

Follow @FrankieGrazie6 on Twitter to keep with me on my #TrainingCampTour

#TrainingCampTour Day IV: New Canaan

Rams 3-Peat Hopes Lie In Capable Hands

Lou Marinelli can expect the best yet from Mike Collins in 2015; one that might lead New Canaan to a third straight state title.

Mike Collins is 6’5″, 205 lbs. Teammates and coaches used to call him “Bambi”. He sure began his high school career as a lanky quarterbacking novice, but has bulked up considerably if you factor in a naturally thin frame. Collins no longer goes by the “Bambi” moniker.

“Not particularly, not the biggest fan of it,” answered Collins when approached about the former jab used by his peers. “No nickname. Just Mike.”

Mike enjoyed a coming of age season in 2014. Mike completed 154 passes for 2,624 yards. Mike tossed 32 touchdown passes, while only lobbing 8 interceptions in that first year as a starting quarterback. It was also Mike that tossed two of the most special touchdown passes you will ever see in a Connecticut high school football game last December to overcome a 13-point second half deficit in a 2014 CIAC Class L-Large championship victory over Darien.

“Our line was doing a great job against Darien’s all-state line last year,” said Collins. “I was really pleased with a great team effort. It was just an awesome way to end the season last year.”

Collins showed great command of his teammates during my stay at Rams training camp. He led the pack of skill-position sprinters on the turf field at Dunning Stadium. He implored his teammates to join him for one more go. He inspired his teammates with a pep talk before they headed off to the weight room. Collins should be rewarded for his tenacity in the upcoming season by playing behind a tough-as-nails offensive line. Will Conley (6’6″, 255 lbs), Gardner Read (5’10”, 271 lbs), and Lucas Niang (6’6″, 295 lbs), all stalwarts from the 2014 title team, return in 2015 for another run at a championship.

It’s conceivable that Lucas Niang could have a ring for all three years on the offensive line in New Canaan. The 6’6″, 295-pound giant is poised for a big year.

Speaking of Niang, the guy has like 30 scholarship offers from colleges around the country, at least that is what Coach Lou tells me. He is a very humble young man with an intense work ethic. Squats, crunches, and leg lifts…now that is a super set! Niang’s natural gift, plus the other experience from the incumbent Rams offensive line, should not only give Collins a boost, but also jump-start the running game led by the Cognetta twins. Matt and Mike will take the lion’s share of carries in the Rams backfield in the wake of their older brother Frank’s graduation. The elder Cognetta rushed for 678 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2014. Mike Cognetta did not rush into the end zone, while Matt picked up 3 scores.

Collins can use all of the help that he can get since Alex LaPolice now attends Harvard. LaPolice had 10 receiving touchdowns last year, along with 8 rushing touchdowns. Michael Kraus pitched in with 7 touchdown receptions, but also graduated. Kyle Smith (31 rec, 722 yds, 10 TD) is the lone wide-out weapon of Collins from 2014 to return. Coach Marinelli anticipates that the Cognetta’s will be prove to be valuable in catching passes out of the backfield.

“I have to credit my son,” said Marinelli. “I think Johnny did a tremendous job developing him. He is impressive and he’s a great leader. He’s a great student (will play at Penn). I couldn’t ask anymore of him. He’s a coaches dream!”

This is an opportune time to bring up the fact that the Marinelli’s will be on opposite sides in 2015. John accepted a job at Greenwich as head coach back in April. Which begs the question pondered by many: which side will Lou’s wife and John’s mom choose? Who will win one woman’s affection during the 2015 “Frances Bowl” on October 24th when New Canaan visits Greenwich?

“I know one thing: she will be wearing red,” offered Lou. “She is going to be torn for sure. I think she will be leaning more towards him, but this {New Canaan} has been home for a long, long, long time {1981}, so I know there will not be any winners in the Marinelli house that night,” stated Lou.

Follow the #TrainingCampTour as it happens on Twitter. Please check in to nightly for other team training camp recaps. For more on the New Canaan football team, tune in to the 2015 High School Football Training Camp special on September 4, 2015. Watch Friday Night LIVE Football on CPTV Sports beginning September 11 at 7:00 p.m.

On Elm Street…

The “High School Special”. Can you ask for a better item to be included in a “High School Football Training Camp Special”???

I had been to Chicken Joe’s once before: back in May when CPTV Sports brought you Glastonbury/New Canaan girls lacrosse. But it wasn’t like this…

We showed up today during PEAK summer hours with the place absolutely jumping. The stakes were higher too, as cameraman Mike Dunphy was in the house to capture it all. Yeah I had once eaten a “High School Special”, but not in the name of spreading culinary joy to the masses.

Chris, Mark, and Rich were the perfect hosts for my epic encounter with a paper bag full of seasoned french fries and monstrous chicken nuggets. There were awful jokes delivered (by me). There was a fried food feast. You will have to watch the 2015 High School Football Training Camp Special to see for yourself what happened today in Ramland. Just be sure to have some Sweet Tangy BBQ sauce on stand-by to wash it all down!

Tender chicken and french fries kissed by sweet seasoning…I can’t think of a better way to have a BBQ party…


#TrainingCampTour Day III: West Haven

These guys want nothing to do with going 6-5 (like 2014) in CT’s toughest conference, the SCC.

Dreams Do Come True…Even If It Takes 30 Years

Rich Boshea is heading into his first season as head coach for the West Haven Blue Devils…about 30 years after he became an assistant under long-time mentor Ed McCarthy. Coach Mac officially resigned after 32 seasons as West Haven’s legendary head man back in May. Boshea won’t even try to replace McCarthy, a man whose teams won a state-record 332 games.

I find coach Boshea to be a very endearing man. You can tell that guy really wanted to be the head football coach of West Haven whenever it was his turn to take over.

“We are working a lot harder,” said quarterback Tim McCarthy (Ed’s son). “He has always pushed us a lot harder. We are working just as hard as anyone if not harder. We are barely skipping a step. Philosophy-wise, he is pretty much the same as my dad.”

“He’s not new to coaching,” added senior defensive end Marquis Lockhart. “It prepares us as if we have an upper hand because we have some one who knows how to control the team.”

Side note: Lockhart is an IMPRESSIVE public speaker and he is only 16 years old. He tells me that he wants to be an engineer and play collegiately at a place that has some hard-hittin’ tackle football. Hmm. I hope someone from, say Georgia Tech, is listening. I would ask him to provide analysis on Friday Night LIVE Football if he was not a student! But for now, he will try to best his 2014 mark of 111 tackles that he collected as a junior. In short, this is a guy that Boshea needs on his side to reach his players.

The new Blue Devils coach may have the same problem as the old one because he is also much older than his students. The question that always hung around Ed McCarthy: how can this sixty-something coach relate to his players? As it pertains to him, Boshea provided me with essentially the same answer that I heard from McCarthy when I asked him a couple of years back.

“I stay with the kids all the time so they keep me young,” explained Boshea. “They keep me on the ball.”

Timmy McCarthy and the Blue Devils may be a year away from competing for an SCC title, but they may get there sooner if hard work off-the-field translates to success on the gridiron.

Boshea’s initial attempt at building a winner with a couple of huge hires. He named Scott Benoit (former Hamden, North Branford, and Guilford head coach) his defensive coordinator. Next, he appointed Tom Unger (also a former head man at Guilford) as the Czar of the Westie Weight Room. Unger pushes his athletes to master three core lifts: the clean, the bench, and the squat. Take it from me on a first-hand account, the Blue Devils are very strong. Tackle Byron Dickens has a wicked-good physique for someone who is 310 pounds. I saw McCarthy and Marshall Davis have zero problems with 185-pound clean lifts. All of the guys on the team show a real willingness to spend time in the gym.

Where Boshea thrives is on the conditioning front. “We tell them all the time when they are sprinting, there is just no way around it, you have to run and you have to run hard and you have to run a lot,” he said.

The Blue Devils brain trust is hoping that by instilling an intense lifting regimen in the athletes, coupled with asking the guys to take an arduous cardiovascular approach, the young team will be able to overcompensate for a lack of skill and experience.

They will be put to the test the very first week of the season when they take on defending Class LL-Small champion Xavier-Middletown, Friday September 11, LIVE at 7 on CPTV Sports. The Westies were downed by the Falcons, 27-7 on the road last year.

“You can expect us to be flying around {against Xavier},” predicted McCarthy. “We are going to be ready to make plays. I’ve got a lot of confidence in all of my teammates. We are going to be in for a good year this year.”

What about Rich Boshea? Will he be ready for his first game as the official head coach of the West Haven Blue Devils come September 11th?

“I hope so,” intimated Boshea. “It’s been 30 years to get ready for this game so if I’m not ready now, I’ll never be ready.”

Follow the #TrainingCampTour as it happens on Twitter. Please check in to nightly for other team training camp reports. For more on the West Haven team, tune in to the 2015 High School Football Training Camp special on September 4, 2015.

#TrainingCampTour Day III: Trumbull

The Cadets, or the popular preferred football nomenclature “Hogs”, have won two straight state titles, but you would not know it stepping into camp as they have a chip on their shoulder.

A New-er Era

Four offensive linemen, six defensive starters, a two-time all-state wide receiver, and one very important running back are among the losses from 2014 for the 2015 St. Joseph Hogs of Trumbull. Lars Pedersen collected 3,923 receiving yards and 42 TD passes. He now goes to Cornell. Mufasha Abdul-Basir rushed for 5,630 yards (wow) and 59 TD (my goodness) in his career. Musfasha ran for 205 yards and a couple of scores in last December’s 37-7 romp over Ledyard in the CIAC Class M-Small championship. He is at Central.

You see, the Hogs had a similar problem before last season began. They won the 2013 CIAC Class M title game in a blizzard, 54-16 over Brookfield. They lost a guy in Jordan Vazzano who attempted 356 out of the team’s 359 passes for 3,065 yards. They also lost their leading tackler (Dylan Ryan) and sack-man Michael Konecny. However, the team swore that they would make their own mark as champions under a “new era”. And they obviously did.

How will this team fare? How can they give coach Joe Dellavecchia the 3-peat? It’s actually a pretty simple strategy. They are plotting a “new-er” era. I know what you are thinking: “this guy’s full of it.”

Oh yeah? Here is coach with the explanation: “The kids last year they had a saying “new era”. That’s how they believed that they were next. These guys, they are the next group up. I think they are calling them selves the new-new era or something. {I told them} It’s your opportunity to make your legacy.”

“Last year, we had Lars, Mufasha and we had a great line too, but this year we have new guys, but they ‘ve been working really hard and I think they could get the job done,” said running back Christian Trefz.

Trefz is the Hog in this latest group with the perhaps the biggest chip on his shoulder. He’s replacing Abdul-Basir. He has only collected 210 rushing yards in his career, but that is because he has only carried the rock 44 times (4.8 yards per carry).

“The next guy has got to pick up the slack,” declared Dellavecchia. “Christian Trefz is the next guy.
Great athlete, hard-running kid, very determined player and he plays hard all the time.”

This man has only carried the ball 44 times for St. Joseph. Is he really the guy that can step up in the absence of Mufasha Abdul-Basir?

Coach made a big move last year six games into the season: he shifted Christian’s twin brother Kevin from quarterback to wide-out, while inserting Cory Babineau as the starting signal-caller. The Babineau move paid immediate dividends as he tossed for over 950 yards and 13 TD. Coach wants the play selection to reflect a 50-50 split between rush and pass this season since they only threw it about 30% of the time last year. Cory should improve with 8 games of experience as the starter under his belt. The impact of Kevin’s switch should be felt this season as coach could use his speed at multiple skill positions and therefore enjoy some much-needed depth.

But still, to really back-up the claim that it is a new-er era in Trumbull, the Hogs have to have a sure thing. They do in linebacker Cam Ryan.

“He’s all over the field for us,” Dellavecchia stated proudly about Ryan. “The kid is a DI prospect and he can flat-out play.”

“We got a lot of new guys,” said Ryan. “It’s going to be a little bit new working off of them. Hopefully, they help me out getting tackles and i’ll help them open stuff up to.”

Cam Ryan led a St. Joseph defense that surrendered just 14 points per game in 2014. Can the Hogs do better in his senior year?

Ryan’s 147 tackles a year ago gave him a school record. That accolade certainly contributed to his all-state selection. Coach tells me that he has drawn interest from Ivy League schools. I was very impressed with Ryan’s ability to get to the ball on defense during passing drills, coupled with a natural talent for communicating clearly with his personnel group.

Cam Ryan is certainly a leader in a new-er era for the Hogs.

Meanwhile, just off Route 108 in neighboring Bridgeport…

…there is a spot that caters to all cadets of St. Joseph and is owned by a relative of SJ ’13 alum Jordan Vazzano, John Vazzano. His father is one of the Vazzano brothers and tells me that Jordan is enjoying URI because of the coach Jim Fleming’s sense of urgency to build a winning program. Vazzy’s offers Northern Italian cuisine and brick oven pizza.

Chicken San Diego…something that Hogs may be diving deep into before a big FCIAC tilt.

Here’s some background on food from Italia settentrionale (Northern Italy): because the south (where my family is from) enjoys a climate that is more suitable for the growing of tomatoes, their pasta sauce is obviously more red-based. Up North, there are some pretty heavy duty mountain ranges like the Alps and the foods may also have a French influence, so you will see more egg and cream-based dishes. I ordered a Chicken San Diego (sautéed chicken, penne pasta, broccoli, and sun-dried tomatoes accompanied by a wine/garlic sauce and parmesan cheese) to really capture the spirit of what Vazzy’s is all about. The tomatoes were fresh, cooked nice, and nicely diced. The garlic glaze grabbed a hold of the chicken. And I was a happy guy.

But… I was already sold when the basket of bread, fuzzy’s garlic bread, olives, and cherry peppers came out to open the meal!