Masuk provided Fitch a blueprint for success in 1998 ... will it happen again?

Groton — The kids who would play their last football game of the season Tuesday night weren't yet alive during the 1998 state championship game. And yet the shapes and forms of that fateful night ran like a current, all the way to Dorr Field, all the way to the playoffs of 2017.

How ironic, indeed, that it was Masuk that provided Fitch its most haunting defeat and most limitless inspiration 19 years ago. And it is Masuk that, again, as if commanded by the universe, gives the Falcons another offseason blueprint.

In 1998, Fitch was unbeaten and heavily favored to win the state championship, the first of the Mike Emery era. The Falcons discovered, quite painfully, that manly Masuk was just a little tougher and stronger. On the interminable bus ride home, the players, stricken with defeat, managed to find resolve, too:

Never again.

Never again would they walk on a football field physically inferior.

To anybody.

Never again turned into two straight state titles, 34 straight wins and the state's No. 1 ranking in 2000. Nobody knew that night in 1998, through all the distress, was the greatest blessing in Fitch football history.

And then it was Tuesday night, one of those once-in-a-lifetime chances for the Fitch seniors. And guess who came to dinner? Masuk, again. The result: Masuk, again. Too strong, too physical. Maybe to the naked eye the Panthers didn't seem so imposing. Until Fitch tried to run a play. It was 43-7 by the end.

Now comes the true measure of the junior class — the promising junior class — that returns enough talent next year to get Fitch right back to the postseason.

Yo, fellas: You gonna learn from this, like your brethren from 1998?

Or will the residual effect of Tuesday night's postgame tears fade into offseason irrelevance?

Remember this: Notre Dame of West Haven did the same thing to New London in last season's quarterfinals. New London's juniors who became seniors didn't spend enough time in the weight room this offseason. The Whalers got pushed around far too much this year. They didn't learn.

Soon, we'll discover if the returning Sons of Fitch can turn the loss of a game into a win in the weight room. Heck, they have coach on their staff, Calvin McCoy, who does strength and conditioning for a living. Coach Calvin can open doors that will open holes next fall. If they want to listen.

"This hurts," junior quarterback Tyler Nelli was saying inside the Fitch fieldhouse after the game. "The other juniors and me are going to have a talk later. We know we have to get in there, pump iron and keep working."

Not to mention become pied pipers in the hallways of 101 Groton Long Point Rd., encouraging their classmates to play football next season. Sounds like plans are moving along.

"We already had a bunch of kids talking about it in the halls, saying they want to come out and be a part of this," Nelli said. "Not just because we're winning, but because they see we're all close and they want to be a part of it."

It would test the bounds of optimism to think that even taking residence in the weight room would produce a sequel to 34 in a row. But there's legitimate talent returning. They got a taste of success. All that stands between them and a return trip to the postseason is effort.

"I think Masuk just showed us that you can be successful, but this is what you've got to do to play on the state level," Fitch coach Mike Ellis said. "This is who you've got to beat. Hopefully, just from playing, we've learned we've got to work hard and have everyone pulling in the same direction this offseason. There are more players up there in the school. No question about it."

This was the 88th year of football at Fitch. And the eighth unbeaten team. Pretty neat trick. And while the kids can't let one night define a season, they can surely let one night inspire what happens in 2018.

Neither Ellis nor his coaches can lift the weights for them. This is on the kids. And how bad they want it. And maybe this is 1998 all over again, when "Masuk" is a four-letter word the entire offseason.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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