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A veteran football coach from the Eastern Connecticut Conference said it better than anyone else:
"This," he said, "is what we've been afraid of."
He alluded to the new-found, consistent success at Norwich Free Academy, long considered the league's sleeping giant. And not that the Wildcats haven't been good over the years, but it's never been like this.
NFA, which made the Class LL championship game last season, enters 2013 as the state's No. 4-ranked team in the state media poll, even earning a first-place vote. There's plenty of talent, led by Boston College-bound running back Marcus Outlow, who made many headlines across the state in last season's playoffs.
Outlow, running back Khaleed Exum-Strong and quarterback (and Windham transfer) Alex Beaudreault could give NFA a lethal offense.
NFA also learned some welcome news in the offseason when the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state's governing body for high school athletics, granted all-state defensive end Tuzar Skipper a fifth year of athletic eligibility.
CIAC bylaws, as part of its rules of eligibility for student-athletes, state "hardship waiver requests will be considered for unforeseen, unavoidable or unusual circumstances that were beyond the control of the student and resulted in the student being unable to complete their academic requirements in four (4) years or eight (8) consecutive semesters."
NFA coach Jemal Davis said: "The most important thing was that it was for academics. Tuzar was not with us until last year, and looking at his credits, we wanted to make sure that he had as many possible credits as he needed so that when he finished high school he'd be as successful as possible."
Skipper and Outlow are among the best players in Connecticut, thus giving NFA a chance to at least return to the state title game.
"There's a realization that what we've been doing has been good enough to get us there," Davis said. "Did we win? No. But it's a blueprint. We want to continue what we've been doing and then maybe figure out a way to win that game once we're there."
Elsewhere, New London could be a contender as well, depending, as coach Duane Maranda said, "if we're healthy and whether our offensive line (with four sophomores) play to their potential." The Whalers, who have Nico Ramos and Jose Garcia, among others, have quality skill players.
Ledyard figures to be the favorite in the Medium Division with JoJo Shumaker and Joe Carter back as running backs. The Colonels could get a run for the division title from Montville, a playoff team from last season, and Stonington, which moves up from the Small Division. Stonington won three of the last six Small Division titles and has quarterback Divante White, already getting looks from Sacred Heart and Central Connecticut.
Valley/Old Lyme at Hyde-New Haven, 4:30 p.m.
RHAM at Ledyard, 6 p.m.
East Lyme at Middletown, 7 p.m.
Montville at Windham, 6:30 p.m.
Griswold at St. Bernard/Norwich Tech, 6:30 p.m.
Waterford at Platt, 6:30 p.m.
Fitch at LaSalle (R.I.), 7 p.m.
Plainfield vs. New London at Coast Guard, 11 a.m.