The Lonesome Polecat: School size hasn't mattered to Killingly
The Eastern Connecticut Conference’s best football team this season plays for one its smallest schools.
Killingly pounded Norwich Free Academy last Friday night, 48-0. It’s the only unbeaten team in the ECC (8-0) and ranked 10th in The Day Top 10 state coaches’ poll last week (the new rankings will be released late Monday afternoon).
Killingly has 335 boys. Only Plainfield (266), Griswold (258) and Montville (244) are smaller. Griswold also co-ops with Wheeler (99).
NFA has the eighth largest boys’ enrollment (982) among the CIAC’s 181 member schools.
“I don’t want to use that (school size) as an excuse,” Killingly senior Jack Sharpe said. “I don’t want to use the size of our school as a crutch. We work hard and we expect these results. Nothing less.”
One of the biggest problems in state high school football this millennium has been the contention that smaller schools shouldn’t play the larger ones because of the disparity in enrollments.
The ECC nearly disintegrated years ago because its smaller schools didn’t want to play the likes of East Lyme, Fitch, Ledyard, New London and NFA. It, the Central Connecticut Conference and the Southern Connecticut Conference all began using a combination of enrollment and past success to set up their football divisions.
The Connecticut High School Football Alliance was formed years ago to help the larger programs in the ECC, SCC and South-West Conference fill out their respective schedules with inter-conference matchups.
Why school size became an issue is a mystery because it didn’t used to be one. Smaller schools such as Derby, Seymour and Sheehan regularly played larger ones such as Cheshire and Shelton and were either hanging with them or beating them in the late nineties.
Ansonia, the longtime scourge of Class S, owns a 76-34-10 record against its ancient rival, Naugatuck, even though the latter has a large-school enrollment.
Only two ECC programs have beaten NFA over the past three seasons — Killingly (2018, 2021) and Fitch (2021).
Killingly lost to NFA in 2019, 27-21, on a wild game-ending hook-and-lateral play.
The question, then, is how Killingly has been able to hang with one of the state’s largest schools when so many other small schools across the state balk at such a match-up.
“The kids work hard,” Killingly head coach Chad Neal said. “They work really hard in the offseason. They get in the weight room. They buy into what we’re doing and that’s really what it comes down to. They work hard, believe in what we’re doing and believe in each other.
“I think there’s no secret to our success. They believe in each other. That’s really what it comes down to. We have a lot of continuity as a staff that’s been together for a while. I think that helps, too.”
Killingly is the only unbeaten team in Class M — it was moved up one division due to the “success in tournament factor” used for schools of choice.
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Of all the happy surprises in state high school football this season, the ascension of Woodstock Academy may be the best of them all.
The Centaurs beat Ledyard on Saturday, 42-8, to win the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II title, the first championship in program history.
Woodstock resurrected its football program in 2005 and it played a JV schedule. It began playing a varsity schedule the following season.
It went really badly for the Centaurs for a long time. They were 30-109 over its first 14 seasons, including three that were winless.
Things got so bad that the school decided in 2016 that the program wouldn't play an Eastern Connecticut Conference schedule and would instead play tech schools, small schools or teams from out-of-state.
Sean Saucier was hired to take over the program in Dec. 2016.
Asked what he did to get the program to start moving forward, Saucier said, "I remember being in the weight room that first summer I took the job and I was asked the same question. I said every day I try to make something better. It's little things that build on top of each other. It's having kids that buy in because that doesn't always happen.
"It was a rough road for the first couple of years. To come in with a program that doesn't have the tradition, it was a bit of a grind."
Woodstock's current senior class has obviously been a huge part of the turnaround, too.
"When they were freshman, the varsity struggled badly that year, but they did a great job," Saucier said. "I saw the light. I saw a glimmer of hope."
Centaurs senior Ethan Davis said, "We had a really good froshmore team. We won almost every game, the coaches were really impressed and we improved over the years."
Woodstock began playing an ECC schedule again in 2019. It also finally had a breakthrough as it finished 7-3, its first winning season since the program restarted. It hadn't won more than four games since.
Davis completed 12 of 19 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns against Ledyard and ran 16 times for 260 yards and three scores. Junior Carter Saracina caught touchdown passes of 43 and 47 yards.
"I hope (this) starts something new," Davis said about the program. "Now we've got a banner up in the gym. It feels amazing."
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Thanks for reading. The state version of The Lonesome Polecat will be published online either late Monday or Tuesday morning.
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