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Tony Sagnella was already proud of his North Haven team long before it stunned three-time defending CIAC Class LL champion Xavier last Friday.
Every January, Sagnella rounds up the future senior class and gives them the following directive — choose a worthy cause and raise funds from the program's annual "Spring Brawl" intrasquad game. The seniors are told that the charity must be within the community because he wants them to see the impact they had on another's life, and they, not the coaches, do all the work. Students, former players and volunteers all pitch in as the game has become a community event.
"You're approaching your final season at North Haven," Sagnella tells his players, "and for many of you, it's your final year of football. Your career has been made possible by very many people that have made sacrifices of both time or money or both so that you could have a career. I want you to band together as seniors to benefit someone from outside the team."
Senior Alex Baglioni suggested Matthew Jacques, a 6-year-old who was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect. The cause hit home for Baglioni because his sister, Erika, had endured five open heart surgeries.
North Haven raised $9,000 for Jacques, who Sagnella said had heart transplant surgery three weeks ago. They also had Jacques suit up and run a play with the team. He ran for a touchdown.
"The day after the game, they had this look on their face," Sagnella said. "(The video) raises a chill up your spine. Someone shot a video of it and it went viral. Two days later, it's on Good Morning America."
Ricky Verre, a Xavier senior, emailed Sagnella days after the Spring Brawl and let him know that he and his brother, Andrew, wanted to help Jacques.
"We had a ceremony at pregame (last Friday)," Sagnella said. "(Xavier coach) Sean Marinan, his captains, my captains and me, and they handed us an $1,800 check.
"You ask me about my team, humility is probably the best way to describe it. They play that way. They prepare that way. And they walk the walk off the field."
Sagnella saw early that this was going to be a special team. The Indians finished 7-3 last season and had the rare distinction of losing to three state champions — Hand (Class L), Hillhouse (MM) and Xavier. They didn't qualify for states, yet they still wanted to play.
"They enjoy the rigors of the game," Sagnella said. "They wanted to keep practicing when our season ended. I had to check with the CIAC to see if it was okay to practice, and it was okay as long as the playoffs were going on. We didn't go out with pads, but we went out for an hour-and-a-half a few times for the last two weeks of the season.
"They wanted to practice. They wanted to throw the ball. They wanted to get into passing leagues. And the kids always get into the weight room."
North Haven was an unknown commodity headed into the season as three-year starter Jalon White, its best offensive player, graduated. Foran, Guilford and Hillhouse were all touted more than the Indians.
Sagnella understands why his kids were off the radar.
"Jalon developed that star quality," Sagnella said. "This year, you didn't see that on our depth chart, although we did return on our entire offensive line who all had varying levels of experience."
John Tondalo (weak-side tackle), Mike Millard (center), Pat Vanacore, Mike Biehl and co-captain Austin Mahon (strong-side guards), co-captain Mike Siwek (strong-side tackle) are back along with Joe Corniello, Jake Kastenhuber, Jeremy Imperati and Baglioni (tight ends).
North Haven runs the single wing (i.e. GOD'S FATHER'S OFFENSE), a system that's a rarity nowadays (the Housatonic/Wamogo co-op is another single wing team). Co-captains Patrick Mikos and Ethan Suraci are the blocking back and fullback, respectively. Mike Montano is the wingback. And Mike Halloran, an all-SCC linebacker, moved to tailback, which is the quarterback of the offense.
The Indians also returned three defensive linemen, three linebackers and a cornerback.
So, yeah, North Haven's 42-28 win over Xavier probably wouldn't have surprised so many of us had we known more about it. Regardless, it was a huge win for the program. Xavier had won 39 of its previous 40 games and was the top-ranked team in The Day's Top 10 state coaches poll. It's also been the scourge of the SCC D-I and Class LL.
North Haven is a SCC D-2 program, and although its made states three times over the last six years, it's not Xavier.
The Indians rendered all that moot last Friday. Suraci ran 12 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns while Halloran completed 4 of 14 passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns.
Kastehuber scored on catches of 71 and 50 yards, and Evan Manemeit added a 13-yard touchdown catch. Sabrina Fronte also made all six of her extra points.
"Obviously we're thrilled with the outcome, but it was one game," Sagnella said. "Now we have to move forward.
"They (the players) believe that if they play hard and play well that good things would happen in time. … That's why you play the game. You play the game for opportunities and experiences like that. We're thrilled that it happened at home and that all these people, parents, the young kids in the youth program and so-on got to enjoy it and to celebrate that kind of event."
Oh, yeah — North Haven debuts at No. 6 in the coaches' poll this week, its first Top 10 ranking since The Day revived the poll in 2003.
• • • •
First-year East Lyme coach Rudy Bagos, a physical education teacher, has his three captains in class: Eric Stirtan, Dean Beebe and Ben Watts.
The three helped the Vikings win their home opener on the town's new turf field Friday night, 20-7 over Griswold, including 167 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns from Stirtan, also an all-state swimmer.
"In class we were playing team handball and they were just going at it," Bagos said. "I stopped class 15 minutes early and had them play basketball just so my football players wouldn't get hurt. Today, Eric was still mad he lost the championship in handball. ... They're all a pleasure to have."
Stirtan's 66-yard touchdown to give East Lyme a 13-7 lead, by the way, came on a play which was something different than the Vikings' tradition double-wing offense. He also lost a shoe at about the 40-yard line.
"We just put that formation in this week and we weren't running it in practice right either," Bagos said. "I just thought we needed a spark."
(Thanks to TEAM DAY~! staffer Vickie Fulkerson for that entry.)
• • • •
Class L became the new Class LL this past weekend.
First, North Haven knocked off Xavier.
The next afternoon, Darien scored the game's first 28 points and beat then-No. 6 Greenwich, 42-21.
Silas Wyper completed 19 of 31 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns for the Blue Wave (2-0). Nick Lombardo also had six catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns. He already had seven touchdowns — five receptions, a run and an interception return.
Note that Greenwich edged West Haven, one of the Class LL preseason favorites, 22-21 on Sept. 15.
Half of the Top 10 teams are from Class L — New Canaan is tied with Ansonia for first, Middletown is eighth, and Windsor is tied for ninth. There's also other 2-0 teams such as Masuk (which has played like a Top 10 team), Farmington, Harding, Naugatuck and Platt.
Many of those Class L teams will battle during the regular season. Farmington, Middletown and Windsor are all in the CCC Division II West. New Canaan and Darien are Thanksgrabbing Day rivals. And, in a magnificent bit of non-conference scheduling, Darien will play at North Haven on Nov. 15.
• • • •
We encourage you to watch The Day's broadcast of last Friday's Fitch v. Stonington game if you haven't already. The game was both produced, filmed and called by top-shelf talent who work on sporting events such as, oh, the NFL and the America's Cup. Honest.
Day videographers Peter Huoppi and Carlos Diaz also put together an "all-access special".
YOU should definitely watch the game if you're a true fan of the manly discipline of the running arts. Fitch used the almighty GOD'S OFFENSE and ran 66 times for 473 yards and five touchdowns and won, 34-20.
• • • •
JRC Amalgamated: New Haven Register Top 10 football poll
Kountry Kyle Brennan, Waterbury Republican-American:
Naugatuck over Wolcott: Instant Classic. Kountry also embedded the final minutes of the game broadcast on WATR. He called the game and Steve Gesseck brought the analysis.
Ray Curren, JRC Amalgamated: Inside the SCC.
Pooch Diggity Dogg, JRC Amalgamated: High school football notebook
Chris McLaughlin, The Herald: Newington football knows hard road remains
Kevin D. Roberts, Bristol Press and The Herald: Bristol Eastern football team saw good and bad things in win, and, Southington was ready for Manchester
• • • •
The Day coaches' poll has 13 voters for two reasons:
1. Equality. Each of the major conferences (CCC, ECC, FCIAC, NVL, SCC and SWC) have two voters. The Pequot has one. This eliminates any accusations of local bias.
2. An odd number of voters would prevent any ties. In theory.
To quote one of our world's greatest minds, Homer Simpson, "In theory, communism works. In theory."
Ansonia (2-0) and New Canaan (2-0) are tied for first this week. Both received 370 points.
Ansonia received six first-place votes to the Rams' five. They tied, however, because the Chargers received three third-place votes and New Canaan two.
No. 3 NFA received the other two first-place votes.
The rest of the Top 10: 4. St. Joseph (2-0); 5. Southington (2-0); 6. North Haven; 7. Darien; 8. Middletown (2-0); and, in ANOTHER tie, 9. Shelton (2-0) and Windsor.
• • • •
The Day coaches' poll wasn't the only Top 10 featuring an oddity this week — Xavier was ranked ahead of North Haven in the New Haven Register media poll.
Xavier was ninth. North Haven didn't crack the Top 10.
It's nuts to get worked up over a Top 10, but one would still like it to make some sense. An entry-level employee at Polecat HQ has either coordinated and/or voted in the Register media poll since 1998, and cannot ever remember something like this happening.
One explanation for such a nonsensical judgment was the theory that if North Haven and Xavier played numerous times, Xavier would win the majority of the meetings.
Simply put, SOME voters (not all), chose to put less stock in reality, i.e. North Haven's 14-point win, and more stock in their hypothesis that Xavier was still the better team.
Roll that around your brain for a moment.
Another explanation was that North Haven didn't receive any votes last week and, as such, had too far to go to crack the Top 10.
No idea if any voters used that mindset, but if they did, then, NOPE. Any team that knocks off No. 1, and a record-setting THREE-TIME Class LL champion, earned its spot in the Top 10.
Oh, well. You know what they say about opinions.
The rest of the Register media poll: 1. Ansonia (24 first-place votes); 2. New Canaan (5); 3. NFA (1); 4. Middletown; 5. Southington; 6. St. Joseph; 7. Newtown; 8. Masuk; 9. Xavier; and, 10. Windsor.
• • • •
Ned Freeman's cold, calculating computer rankings for CalPreps.com and MaxPreps.com: 1. Ansonia; 2. North Haven; 3. Southington; 4. NFA; 5. Xavier; 6. New Canaan; 7. Darien; 8. Masuk; 9. Hand (1-1); and 10. Staples (1-1). Shelton is 11th, St. Joseph 12th, Windsor 13th, and Middltown 21st.
Note that Freeman's algorithm requires a few weeks until it becomes scary accurate.
• • • •
Thanks for reading. More later this week.
Vaya con dios....
First-place votes in parentheses, record, points tabulated on a 30-28- 26-24-22-20-18-16-14-12-11-10-9-8-7 basis, and last season's final ranking:
T1. Ansonia (6) 2-0 370 2
KNOW THIS: UConn-bound Arkeel Newsome has 19 carries for 348 yards and seven touchdowns this young season so, yeah, he and his offensive line are really good.
NEXT: at Holy Cross, Friday, 7 p.m.
T1. New Canaan (5) 2-0 370 3
KNOW THIS: Yes, co-No. 1s. This season has already jetted past crazy and is currently cruising through screwball.
NEXT: at Greenwich, Saturday 4 p.m.
3. Norwich Free Academy (2) 1-0 301 4
KNOW THIS: It bears repeating — NFA led 42-0 early in the second quarter of Saturday's 48-21 win over Montville. Montville, meanwhile, had 33 yards on 21 plays.
NEXT: at Fitch, Friday, 6:30 p.m.
4. St. Joseph 2-0 278 5
KNOW THIS: Jordan Vazzano's 42-yard Hail Mary to Lars Pedersen with no time left gave the Cadets a wild 36-34 win over Fairfield Prep.
NEXT: v. Ridgefield, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
5. Southington 2-0 230 7
KNOW THIS: Yale-bound Stephen Barmore completed 17 of 25 passes for 321 yards and five touchdowns as the Blue Knights strafed Manchester last Friday, 41-8. That result is more impressive given that Manchester took Windsor to overtime the previous week (in a 25-18 loss).
NEXT: v. Simsbury, Friday, 7 p.m.
6. North Haven 2-0 208 NR
KNOW THIS: You beat the No. 1 team in the state (Xavier), AND beat it 42-28, then you earn yourself a spot in the Top 10. End of story.
NEXT: at East Haven, Friday, 7 p.m.
7. Darien 2-0 190 NR
KNOW THIS: It's been a few years since the Blue Wave have been in the Top 10. They make their season debut after scoring the game's first 28 points in a 42-21 win over then-No. 6 Greenwich.
NEXT: at Bassick, Friday, 7 p.m.
8. Middletown 2-0 176 8
KNOW THIS: Blue Dragons' coach Sal Morello was displeased by his team's second-half performance against Wethersfield last Friday. They still won, 28-0, and an ugly win, as the great Bob Brackett once said, “beats a sharp pencil in the eye.”
NEXT: vs. Bristol Eastern, Friday, 7 p.m.
T9. Shelton 2-0 140 NR
KNOW THIS: The Gaels have yet to get to the brutal portion of their Southern Connecticut Conference D-I schedule, but those who've seen them play keep using the word, “WOW.”
NEXT: at Amity, Friday, 7 p.m.
T9. Windsor 2-0 140 9
KNOW THIS: Jaylen Berry Arkeel-ed against Bulkeley last Friday. He ran 10 times for 150 yards and four touchdowns. He added a 35-yard fumble return for a touchdown for good measure.
NEXT: at Bristol Central, Friday, 7 p.m.
Dropped out: Xavier-Middletown (1); Greenwich (6); and West Haven (10).
Also receiving votes: Masuk (2-0), 132 points; Tie, Newtown (2-0) and Xavier (1-1), 124; West Haven (1-1), 106; Ledyard (2-0), 73; Farmington (2-0), 56; Naugatuck (2-0), 47; Staples (1-1), 43; Fairfield Prep (1-1), 42; Capital/Classical/Achievement (2-0), 41; Platt (2-0), 32; Glastonbury (1-1), 20; Valley Regional/Old Lyme (2-0), 15; Barlow (2-0), 14; Tie, Ridgefield (2-0), 10; Rocky Hill (2-0) and Woodland (2-0), 9; Notre Dame-W.H. (1-1), 8; Hand (1-1), 7.
The following coaches voted: Tom Brockett, Ansonia; Jim Buonocore, Ledyard; Craig Bruno, Naugatuck; Scott Daniels, Glastonbury; Joe DellaVecchia, St. Joseph-Trumbull; Steve Filippone, Hand-Madison; Rob Fleeting, Windsor; Steve George, Newtown; Tanner Grove, Montville; Tim King, Valley Regional-Deep River; Sean Marinan, Xavier-Middletown; John Murphy, New Milford; Marce Petroccio, Staples-Westport.
East Lyme returned just five players with any varsity experience and lost its first four games. It's made gradual improvement and downed Woodstock Academy last Friday, 42-7, its second-straight victory.