Defending The Hill and saluting program history
Deep River - There are other football settings throughout Connecticut, pristine and palatial, with newly turfed lawns surrounded by the new track and the new bleachers and the lights reaching toward the heavens. And we often seek such accommodations for our kids and their teams, newer and better, better and newer.
But they all felt so antiseptic by comparison Sunday afternoon, weighed against this passion pit at the bottom of the hill. Make that The Hill. Capitalized. Because this is the place where the community lit up, neighbors and friends greeted each other and then yelled their lungs out, all while the kids in the bowl setting, on the muddied grass that actually stained the uniforms, authored memories of a lifetime.
And when it was over Sunday, the kids of the Valley Regional/Old Lyme football cooperative executed the program mantra. They defended The Hill with verve and passion that ran like a current, all the way to the state championship game.
Valley/Old Lyme 26, Gilbert/Northwestern/Housatonic 14.
Back to that memories of a lifetime thing. It was hard not to have a moment, and some of the kids did, listening to Phil Cohen, their offensive coordinator, lose the battle against tears and a teetering voice, telling them this was the game - the semifinals - that ended his career at Valley. But the Warriors of 2022 made it a duller ache for their clever play caller, who with the rest of the staff has maintained the coaching excellence that Tim King wrought for many years.
“The atmosphere here is just quintessential old school football,” senior lineman Joe Montazella was saying, earning gold stars for his toughness Sunday and for his use of the word “quintessential.” “My dad tells me it reminds him of the times he played. We appreciate everyone who was here.”
Defensive coordinator Jake Bocian: “I grew up playing at Palmer Field (for Xavier) on Friday nights. I’ve seen atmospheres like this. I know how much it means when you get to score and turn around and see a huge population supporting you. A few years ago, Blythe Field (the official name of The Hill) was voted as one of the top 10 places to come see the game. It's true. We have an atmosphere that can't be replaced. It’s just kind of something special, something old timey about playing down here. This is old school.”
There is a reason Bocian and Montazella are acting as your narrators here. First, for their impact on the game. Gilbert dropped 34 points on Windham in the quarterfinals and scored north of 50 in its last two regular season games. And then after Gilbert’s rather large Fred Camp scored on a long touchdown run on Gilbert’s first play from scrimmage, the Valley defense allowed but seven more points the rest of the day.
Much of it comes from Bocian, who aww-shucksed his way through many postgame compliments, who made sure his kids were aligned correctly. The rest of it goes to Montazella, Adam Metz and Sam Bourez, who played every snap on each line all day. No two platoon stuff here.
Turns out that Montazella and Metz represent the pervasive feeling of family that permeates the program. Metz’s dad, Jim, is an assistant coach. Bocian asked Montazella to wear his old jersey number (50) at the beginning of the season. Passions run deep here.
“On the day we picked jerseys, I was going for 66. It looked terrible on me,” said Montazella, whose command of the trenches belies his “195 (pounds) on a good day.” “I didn't know what else to choose. But (Bocian) came up to me, pulled me aside and said ‘hey, I want you to wear my number.’ That meant a whole lot. He’s been such a great coach for me.”
Bocian: “Joe is an Old Lyme guy and I’m from Old Lyme originally. But it was his work ethic. I could see a little bit of myself and him as a player, a bit of an unsung hero, working his butt off in the offseason, a natural leader without being a captain. He’s humble. He’s a two-way lineman who even plays some linebacker. Never complains about not being mentioned all the time as a part of the bigger picture.”
Now the bigger picture goes to the state championship game, where the Warriors face Joel Barlow at either Central Connecticut or Rentschler Field. The week of their lives. And it’s here because they ended their 2022 home season Sunday not only defending their hill, but starring in the piece of Americana.
“We draw from a lot of small towns that all have their own sense of pride,” Bocian said. “We have alumni coming back to the games. I give Tim King a lot of credit for that. He really built up this idea of family and community and when Hill (head coach Hill Gbunblee) took over, that was a big thing. He really wanted to keep that as a part of the program.
“When we were coming out to the field, we had probably 20 or 30 alumni cheering us on. A very supportive Touchdown Club. A parent base who buys in. This means so much to these kids and so much to a small community.”
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro