A season of change coming for Coast Guard
New London - It was the first quarter of the season-opener last year against Kings Point, a running play, when Coast Guard Academy linebacker Nick Phillips made contact with the opposing center and felt his knee buckle.
Phillips missed the remainder of the football season with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
"It was tough. It really was," Phillips said. "My teammates saw me pretty bummed and I'm not like that at all; I'm a pretty outgoing guy. That drove me even harder. I went to physical therapy twice a day. I treated that as my practices."
Phillips, who began his senior season as a member of the Bears on Sunday, as they ran through their first practice of the season, was around the team every day as a junior, however. He still broke down film with his teammates, hoping to get in some "mental reps," as he called them.
In a vote by his teammates during the offseason, Phillips was named one of Coast Guard's co-captains along with offensive lineman Mike Vitrano.
It is the two of them who will be charged with overseeing a Coast Guard team with more newcomers than returning starters, including the graduation of record-setting quarterback Jon Resch (2,514 passing yards, 23 touchdowns; 4,569 career passing yards, 38 touchdowns).
The Bears, 5-4 last season for the first winning record since 2007, will be a part of a newly revamped New England Football Conference, as well as featuring a quarterback who has never started a game - there are four to choose from - and a new offensive line built around Vitrano.
There are eight returnees in all, four on offense, three on defense and sophomore kicker Tyler Henning.
"Hopefully we can keep things within the confines of Cadet Memorial Stadium instead of ending up in the Thames River by the end of practice," 15th year coach Bill George said with a laugh prior to opening day. "We could be all over the place (Sunday)."
George reiterated, though, that he's not worried. As is generally the case, he said, he's certain that players who need to step in and play a role will do so.
Meanwhile, the Bears return top running backs Jake Wawrzyniak (516 yards, 8 TDs) and Tyler Hames (186 yards) and top receiver Collis Brown (53 catches, 538 yards, 4 TDs). Vitrano was a second team NEFC Bogan Division selection.
Senior defensive back Evan Rothfeld was also a second team all-conference pick, as was Henning.
Junior wide receiver Blake Thompson makes the switch to quarterback, where he will compete for the job against sophomores Troy Nunes of Montville and Drew Londo and freshman Derek Victory.
"This is the way it is," George said. "This is the team. There's an excitement in it. It'll come together. It will 100 percent for sure come together."
George said there is a seriousness about the team, exemplified by Phillips and by Vitrano, who will try to lead a young offensive line by example. Of the other candidates for the line, four are sophomores and three are freshmen, Vitrano said.
"They're tough guys. They like to work hard; they like to get after it," said Vitrano, who led workouts during the offseason in which the new line practiced picking up blitzes and pass protecting with some help from Thompson and Wawrzyniak.
"They're great guys, some of the hardest working guys I've been around since I've been here. ... My freshman year, I got thrown in there in the Kings Point game, trial by fire. Hopefully I can help them if they're in the same situation. I'm looking forward to it. We'll get it done."
The Bears open the season Sept. 7 at St. Lawrence before traveling to play rival Kings Point on Sept. 14.
This year's NEFC features one eight-team division for the first time, with the champion earning a berth to the Division III NCAA tournament.
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