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Three local teams to compete in 11-on-11 Independent Football League

The Valley Regional/Old Lyme football co-op was content at first only being able to practice this September after the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference canceled the high school football season due to the pandemic.

Many of them wanted to play 11-on-11 tackle football, though. So when the Connecticut High School Independent Football League was created, they jumped at the opportunity to join up as a club team unaffiliated with either high school.

The team, which will be called the War Cats, are scheduled to play a club team from Stonington on Saturday at Falcon Field in Meriden.

"I've been saying, 'if there's a will, there's a way (to play football),'" said Tim King, head coach of the Valley Regional/Old Lyme cooperative program and the general manager of the War Cats (a combination of the nicknames of the two schools, Warriors and Wildcats). "I can't figure out how 35 other states are playing football and we're not (in Connecticut).

"But we are."

And the War Cats aren't alone. The Southern New London County Independent High School Football Club, a group of 38 players from Montville, New London and the Thames River co-op (Norwich Tech, Grasso Tech, St. Bernard) also plans to compete in the CHSIFL.

"These are primarily kids that have been playing ball their whole lives," said Eric Whitman, Southern New London's head coach. "They want a senior season they don't think they're going to get.

"Kids are coming down from Manchester, East Hartford, some from up near Bristol. Even though there are clubs going on up there, they're at their capacity because we're going with smaller rosters to make sure everybody that is paying to play is getting in. What we don't want is some super-team with 65 highly skilled players knocking the crap out of (everyone else)."

SNLC is scheduled to play its first game next weekend, Whitman said, against an opponent to be determined.

Those playing club football are not participating in the 7-on-7 football events that leagues like the Eastern Connecticut Conference have organized this fall. Stonington High School football coach A.J. Massengale said that 16 of his players left to play club football.

"What I anticipate is going to happen is when 7-on-7 wraps up, there are going to be all kids flying in," Whitman said. "'Hey, I want to play.' ... (But it's) too late."

Club football teams have been popping up across Connecticut since the CIAC canceled 11-on-11 contact football in mid-September at the urging of the state Department of Health. The CHSIFL was put together by members of the East Coast Football League, an adult semi-pro league. King said that Valley Regional/Old Lyme has a five-game schedule.

The Fairfield County Football League began play last Saturday, governed by the youth football conference of the same name.

There are head coaches from high school teams who are coaching club teams. GameTimeCT reported that Duncan Della Volpe (Fairfield Warde) and Mike Forget (Darien) coached club teams from the Fairfield Mustangs and Darien, respectively, last Saturday.

Jason Bruenn (Platt) and Kevin Frederick (Maloney) coached the Meriden West Siders and Meriden East Siders, respectively, last Saturday in an CHSIFL game. The City of Meriden allowed games to be played at Falcon Field and the Board of Education allowed the teams to use school equipment, according to the Meriden Record-Journal.

Many club teams don't have that kind of synergy with their local high school or town. Whitman said he's been unable to secure a home field. SNLC has practiced at Montville's Wide World of Indoor Sports.

"You've got towns and the DPH kind of throwing up roadblocks," Whitman said. "They have no right to tell you that you can't do it, but they sure as hell can make it hard."

King is not allowed to coach the War Cats (Bobby Narducci, one of his former assistants, is the head coach). The team also had to get creative to find a place to practice.

"Everybody that we went to in all the towns said no way," King said. "All the parks and recs and everything said they weren't going to allow us to use the fields. Then Nelson Rand, one our (football) parents, talked to John Tiffany from Tiffany Farms (in Old Lyme). ... (Tiffany) gave us a field. We got insurance.

"Doug (Andrews) and I got our mowers and one afternoon we went up there and we spent about two-and-a-half, three hours just cutting it as short as we could. We've been rolling since."

King previously pushed for the school district to allow him to have his team practice regularly, which they allowed them to do at Valley Regional's field.

"I said, 'This is killing our kids,'" King said. "'It's really going to hurt the program if we don't do something this year.' So the school district was really good about it. They let us practice at the field with our kids only.

"The stipulation was that if we ever decided to jump into (club football) or this independent league that we would no longer be able to participate at Valley. So we agreed to it. The kids were good and we practiced there. We decided to do (club) and the kids got their equipment and we made the jump three weeks ago."

Teams are having to purchase their own equipment and are insured through the CHSIFL. One area athletic director said that it would cost from $400-500 to appropriately fit a player with average to above average equipment.

King said it costs about $500 per player to participate for the War Cats and credited the work of Casey Metz, mother of football players Kyle and Adam Metz, for doing much of the behind-the-scenes work.

"She has been the backbone to the whole program," he said.

Whitman has a background in organizing club teams at the college level and decided to get involved with independent football when it became a reality. His son, Austin, would've been a senior on the Thames River team this season. He said the cost to play is $380. Anyone interested may contact him at snlcfootball20@gmail.com.

"(Players are) looking to get more film so they can start shopping themselves off to college," Whitman said. "As a former athlete, that's something I can help them with."

"When we all met the first time, I said, 'Tell me your name, what school you played for and what you hope to get out of this season.' The answer for two-thirds of them was 'I want film. I want to have fun, I want to win and I want film because I want to play in college.' That's one of the driving forces."

The CHSIFL is aware that its existence will rankle many due to health concerns, and has guidelines to follow.

"If we weren't taking any precautions, I could see the complaints," Whitman said. "I have five pages of COVID protocol that we have to follow.

"The East Coast League has played their entire season. They're in the playoffs and they don't have any cases traced back to any of these games or any of their teams. They brought in experts and figured out their protocols. They tweaked it a little bit for this (league). They're very, very stringent rules, like everyone has to wear masks and gloves on the field. A lot of people don't like that you should be wearing a mask when you're competing. Well, we're not going to be spreading anything. ... All the helmet manufacturers have full-face spit guards.

"You want to play, so we've got to do some stuff that's uncomfortable to make sure that we're doing it safely."

New London High head coach Johnny Burns said that four of his players are taking part in independent football. He doesn’t have an opinion for or against it, but believes it will impact the sport going forward.

The CIAC has set aside Feb. 22-April 17 for an "alternative" 11-on-11 football season between the traditional winter and spring seasons.

“This is a prediction: what I do think is that Connecticut football will be changed forever,” Burns said. “I think that when the kinks get worked out with independent football, I think that independent football is probably going to be more prepared to offer a better service in the spring because they’ve had more time and they’ve made mistakes.

“I just wouldn’t be surprised if they’re able to offer a better product in the spring and that from every spring going forward, much like other states across the country, Connecticut may be positioned through independent leagues to offer a pretty good product of spring football. I could see us getting used to it. I could see this being the players’ offseason AAU version of their sport. I think once these independent leagues establish (themselves) and work out the kinks, I think it’s going to be tough to walk away from in the spring.”

n.griffen@theday.com

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