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New Britain — This season of a football renaissance at New London High School ended with a pronounced thud Saturday night.
The Whalers, whose overall success this fall recalled the program's glory days of the 1980s and '90s, were unable to flourish on the state's grand stage, losing in the Class S division championship game, 31-13, to Hyde of New Haven.
New London played Saturday's game without starters David Reed and Calvin Curtis-Thomas, who were suspended from school late in the week in connection with an alleged theft of video equipment and other items from a school office. Three students in total were disciplined.
Reed led New London this season with 20 touchdowns. His suspension, combined with six fumbles, foiled the Whalers' game.
“I'd be crazy if I said it didn't have an effect,” New London coach Jack Cochran said of Reed's absence. “To lose your emotional leader the day before a game ... He's a difference maker. But we made our own bed, and now we lie in it.”
The Whalers finished 10-2 and won their first playoff game since defeating Ansonia in the 1992 championship game.
“For New London, the season was a great success,” Cochran said. “But for us as a team, we didn't reach our goals of going 11-0 and winning a state championship. We go back to work, and we're back in the weight room Monday, working toward next year.”
Cochran's first season as coach at his alma mater was a four-month drama, complete with controversy and inspiration. Recruiting charges, score management issues, suspensions, mandatory study halls and an innovative fitness program contributed to the Whalers' most colorful and successful season in 12 years.
Superintendent of Schools Christopher Clouet hired Cochran from his coaching and teaching job in New Britain last March to help change what was perceived as a moribund culture at the school and “to build a sports program here that bonds people along racial and generational lines.”
Clouet, reached Friday in his office, was pleased with the first season, despite the suspensions.
“I'm happy with the degree of discipline in our student-athletes for the most part,” he said. “Generally, I'm happy the way they've focused on their studies and with their overall success.
“I'm happy with the impact on the spirit of the school. I know some things need to be worked out, but I believe we'll see improvement in the next couple of years.”
Clouet did not specify what he'd like improved, although changes in the school have been obvious.
“The kids have a real sense of pride about themselves,” athletic director Leo Facchini said Friday. “Jack holds them to a higher degree of accountability. There are study halls and a fitness program. There's a film room set up where the kids can go watch as a group or as individuals. There's no more showing up at 2 and leaving at 5.”
Facchini said Cochran and his assistants monitor daily study halls for the players.
“We used to have kids running all over the building,” Facchini said. “Now at 3:15, they must assemble in the cafeteria. Jack is there himself, usually with one or two assistants. It's quiet study. There are sanctions for not doing what they're supposed to be doing.”
Senior Dan Nurse, who emerged as one of the Eastern Connecticut Conference's most prolific running backs, said his attitude toward the classroom has changed.
“Last year, I admit, I used to goof around a lot. Homework wasn't really a big thing for me,” Nurse said. “This year, I don't skip classes anymore. I think personality-wise, I'm a little nicer than I was last year.”
As he did during coaching stints at Bloomfield and New Britain, Cochran has inspired fierce loyalty among his players and supporters and passionate criticism from his detractors.
In September, New Britain Principal Thomas Reale filed a formal recruiting charge against Cochran with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state's governing body for high school athletics. Reale accused Cochran of approaching three New Britain student-athletes, including David Reed and Jordan Reed, who are brothers, to transfer from New Britain to New London. Jordan Reed, a freshman, was New London's quarterback.
Coaches at other ECC schools have said they think Cochran and some of his coaches tried to entice other players in the league to attend New London, although none would speak for the record.
The CIAC cleared Cochran of the recruiting charge Oct. 21.
Patricia Llodra, who was assigned by the CIAC to investigate the charges, found that Reed's mother, Karen, decided to move her sons to New London and that no tampering had taken place.
“There were no enticements offered by Jack Cochran,” CIAC executive director Michael Savage told The Day.
This fall, New London defeated Griswold, 90-0, igniting debate among league officials about score management. Norwich Free Academy superintendent Mary Lou Bargnesi recently asked the issue be made an agenda item at the next league principals' meeting.
Cochran won four state championships at Bloomfield and three more at New Britain, where he left amid more controversy last spring. In June, Cochran accused Reale of trespassing, filing a police complaint and a grievance with the teachers' union. The complaint was prompted by a visit Reale made to investigate Cochran's repeatedly calling in sick in the final days of his teaching job at the high school.
When Cochran was hired to teach and coach in New London, he was under investigation by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal after a former New Britain team equipment manager alleged that Cochran used a student activity fund to reimburse himself for dinners and drinks, to pay for parties at his home and to pay for trips to casinos. Allegations included a charge of improperly transferring $18,000 from the activity fund to New Britain's Friends of Football, a booster club.
In July, Blumenthal cleared Cochran of the charges, although he said he could not definitively conclude that there was no misuse of funds because of “wholly insufficient” bookkeeping practices, particularly in connection with fund-raising events. Blumenthal in July said his office launched a second investigation about separate undisclosed allegations raised by New Britain school officials.
Cochran has said that whatever happened at New Britain is in the past. He's home now, where his passions lie, having completed Step 1 toward returning his alma mater to statewide respectability.
“Coach has made us all more disciplined and more committed to the team,” Nurse said. “It's because of him we are where we are.” Article UID=168eee4b-e9b7-4fb1-b08f-e1b977436150