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Panucci has new role, but the same old loyalty to Fitch

Groton — There's nothing better in sports than the priceless moment all the experts realize they're loud and wrong at the same time. And all the experts from town, who may or may not be aware that a "quarterback" is a position on a football field and not 25 cents change, nonetheless proclaimed the recent hiring of Mike Ellis as the beginning of the Fitch High School program's apocalypse.

Turns out their opinions, as is usually the case with the folks who talk out of their tailpipes, were fully substantiated by nothing more than their own opinions. Because it's entirely fair now to ask this question:

How's Ellis doing so far?

Fact: Ellis left Waterford on a four-game winning streak. Waterford has lost four straight without him.

Fact: Ellis arrived at Fitch amid a 13-game losing streak. The Falcons are on a three-game win streak with him.

Do the math.

Funny how these things work. Character begets character. Good men find the good man. And so begins the story of the 2015 Falcons, who take the show to Guilford tonight in search of their fourth straight victory.

Ellis' first order of business coaching at his dad's old digs was to ensure Jordan Panucci stayed. Imagine: Panucci, the outgoing coach, the guy who had lost 13 straight. Panucci, still not yet 30 years old. Keep ... him? The kid with, apparently, a lot more to learn?

"Actually," Ellis was saying the other night, "I wasn't going to do this without Jordan. I needed him. He's in the school. The kids like him and respect him. We needed his voice."

Yes, Panucci stayed. No stunning upset there. He is of Fitch, by Fitch, for Fitch. Played there, coaches there, teaches there. The best of the school. Its pied piper.

"It wasn't easy," Panucci, now the defensive coordinator, said earlier this week. "But it's a lot easier when you're around a guy like Mike. One of the most honest people. It wasn't so much whether I wanted to coach with him. I asked myself, 'would I want to play for him?' That's what did it. He's a guy anyone would love to play for. I want to learn from him and be around him."

Let the record show that Panucci's defense has allowed seven, seven and nine points the last three weeks in wins over East Lyme, New London and Norwich Free Academy.

"It just proves he knows what he's doing," Ellis said.

Panucci remembers the shapes and forms of the day that reinvented his coaching career. He had already agreed to help Ellis. But then came the day to meet the team all over again. The same team he once stood before and addressed countless times. His guys. Only now he'd been dismissed as head coach. How to look your old boys in the eyes?

"We were on the way in to the room," Panucci said. "Everything was all set. And then all of a sudden, my stomach just clenches. I get that feeling, 'am I actually going to be with the kids and there's someone else in front of them, guiding them?' Mike's their guy now. Not me."

And then Mike Ellis spoke.

"The first thing he started talking about was the concept of 'us,'" Panucci said. "Within the first 20 seconds, that fear I had went away. It's always about 'us.' All of 'us.' This is why I want to coach with him. I trust him."

Ellis: "I think this shows that Jordan's in this for the right reasons. In charge or not in charge, he's still here. And he's here for the kids."

And because it's Fitch. It counts. Especially in a time when newspaper accounts detail more kids than ever leaving the Groton school system. There's significance to having a 28-year-old alum in the building who believes. Not to mention has such a positive impact on a marquee sport.

"Is there a chip on my shoulder? Yes. I think anybody who fails at something would feel that way," Panucci said. "A lot of the success this year is because of Mike's guidance, too. But at the end of the day, it's the kids. We have a great, strong senior class. And the makeup of the coaching staff is incredible. It's across generations."

Nobody knows how this ends for the sons of Fitch in 2015. This much we know: The kids are being taught all the right things.

"Mike is a guy you can trust," Panucci said. "That's where it starts. He looks you in the eye. He always does what he says he'll do. That's so important for kids to see. I mean, so many variables go into Friday night. Grades, behavior, whether the coaches get along and prepare the right way. It's working here."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

Twitter: @BCgenius

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