The Lonesome Polecat: Brian Mazzone and Stafford/East Windsor/Somers persevere, and playoff predictions
It was Saturday morning on Sept. 28, Brian Mazzone was at his son’s flag football game, and he was still upset about how his Stafford/East Windsor/Somers co-op team had played in their last game.
Mazzone had been concerned about his Bulldogs since the offseason because they graduated almost a third of the team, including 16 starters and almost all of the offensive production. They had also won their last game, 28-21, over Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton/Lyman Memorial (Sept. 20), yet Mazzone was still grousing about it to his father, Gary.
“I was really low,” Brian Mazzone said last Wednesday. “(My dad) said to me, ‘Brian, I saw all those scores (from other games). ‘I saw that Granby/Canton-Rockville score.’ And he goes, ‘you’re not as bad as you think you are. Your team is better than you think.”
Gary Mazzone died four days later in the B-17 bomber crash at Bradley International Airport. He was 66.
That Saturday morning conversation was the last they ever had.
Losing a loved one leaves a hole in you that can never be filled.
Grief is unlike any emotion, an unpredictable beast that cannot be controlled and strikes without warning.
Losing a loved one who was still so full of life, as Gary was ... how in the hell does a person live through that?
“It’s hard, man,” Brian Mazzone said. “It’s hard.”
Mazzone has persevered through his grief. His Bulldogs have persevered and are headed to the state playoffs for the fourth straight season.
S/EW/S beat rival Windsor Locks/Suffield/East Granby on a foggy, misty night last Wednesday, 27-7. It learned about a half hour after the game that Cromwell/Portland had beaten Rocky Hill, thus clinching a playoff berth.
The sixth-seeded Bulldogs (8-2) play at third-seeded and defending champion Bloomfield in Wednesday’s CIAC Class S quarterfinals.
“You know what — (my dad) was exactly right,” Brian Mazzone said. “(I’m) shocked. Totally shocked (to be 8-2).”
These past four years have been the pinnacle for the Bulldogs. They were a disaster before Mazzone and his staff took over in 2015. They were 0-11 in 2014. They were 26-128 this millennium, finished with over three wins just once (5-5 in 2001), and had four winless seasons.
Bulldogs past and present, Mazzone and his staff have orchestrated an extraordinary turnaround. They are 42-13 the past five seasons under Mazzone, who became the program’s winningest coach after a 44-7 win over Cromwell/Portland on Oct. 11.
Last season was as good as it got for the Bulldogs because they went 10-0 during the regular season and won their first playoff game. They lost in overtime to Haddam-Killingworth, 21-14, in the Class S semifinals.
S/EW/S had 3,828 yards of offense last season and 56 touchdowns.
The Bulldogs lost 3,325 of those yards and 54 touchdowns to graduation.
“We had 22, 23 kids on the offseason roster,” Mazzone said. “I’m sitting around (asking my staff), ‘guys, our roster is only in the twenties right now. What are we going to do?’”
S/EW/S lost its season opener in overtime to Granby/Canton, 27-26 (the Bears are the seventh seed in Class M and playing at Waterford in the quarterfinals). It followed with its win over the Coventry co-op.
“I left really upset,” Mazzone said. “The coaches were mad at all the kids, and I said, ‘guys, don’t get on them. Don’t get on them at all because I don’t know how many more of these (players) we're going to get. Just let them have fun.’”
None of that mattered over a week later when Gary Mazzone and six others died in the crash. Mazzone had retired a year ago after two decades working as an inspector for the State’s Attorney’s Office in Litchfield County. He had also been a detective, sergeant and captain for the Vernon Police Department. He was a regular at Bulldogs games.
“My wife (Kelly) doesn’t know how tough she is,” Mazzone said. “She’s a rock, and I know she’s struggling. I come home some nights, and she just curls up and cries. She keeps me together most of the time, and a lot of times, football is just an escape. I’ll be honest — that Cromwell week, I don’t know how I got here every day. I had a really hard time getting here because I had a lot going on.
“Today was awful. I just cried and cried and cried all day because Thanksgiving is a huge thing in my house, and not just Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving football. It’s a huge thing. I played in that Enfield-Fermi rivalry (before the schools merged) and I coached in it. That was what we did, and my dad would tailgate and my mom used to come. And it was special.”
Mazzone’s mother, Mary Wiechniak, died from brain cancer in 2009.
“I have good people picking me up,” Mazzone continued. “My staff picked me up. The kids picked me up. You know what’s really cool about my kids? Michael and Patrick Russotto lived across the street from my dad. There’s a lot of memories there. Tyler Ouellette, these East Windsor kids, my dad always took special interest in him (Gary Mazzone was an East Windsor resident) and went to his basketball games, stuff like that. He has memories of my dad. My coaches all know my dad. ... There’s just so many memories and people kind of preserve that.
“When (Windsor Locks head coach) Jason (Qua and his team) came out today with stickers (honoring Gary Mazzone) on their helmets, I broke down. That’s such a nice gesture. Valley Regional/Old Lyme did that also (at their Oct. 5 game).
“Some guys in this league (the Pequot Football Conference) were so great to me. (Rockville head coach) Erick Knickerbocker, Kevin Quinn (the head coach at SMSA/University/Classical. I could go on-and-on. Dave (Mastroianni) from Hand. I don’t even know (him), and he checked on me three times. Just great people, great people. Terilko Roberts from Bulkeley, he texts me all the time. Nate Sullivan (a Hartford Public assistant), always (checking on me). ‘How are you?’ You really appreciate that.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I held it together. I was in class (last Wednesday) showing a movie (Mazzone teaches at Enfield High), and I'm just crying at my desk and trying to hide it. I just try to hide it. I've said that I'm a big in-the-car crier. I cry a lot in the car.
“It was great (at the game). My uncles were all here today. My two best friends are standing over there waiting for me. People support you.”
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, gradually pulled all of their new pieces together. They won their final four games, the last two on the road against teams vying for playoff berths. They won at SMSA, 21-15, on Nov. 22. SMSA is the eighth seed in Class M.
S/EW/S followed that with its win at Windsor Locks.
“The big thing is these kids believed in themselves,” Mazzone said. “Our weight room was packed in the summer. Packed. I’ve been in bigger schools than this and we didn’t have kids in the weight room. These kids were totally dedicated to the weight room in the summer time. Attendance was almost 90 percent every day.”
Mazzone also knew his team would be able to throw with Ouellette coming back. He’s thrown for 1,232 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“I knew we were going to have a passing game,” Mazzone said. “In high school football, that’s huge. ... and it carried us at times this year. It really did carry us at times when we were trying to figure out the offensive line.”
The likes of sophomore Mark McLaughlin have grown into their new jobs. The converted quarterback moved to running back and has led the team in carries (140), rushing yardage (671) and touchdowns (13). He ran for three of those touchdowns in the win over Windsor Locks.
“Now that’s another surprise,” Mazzone said. “We told him in the offseason, ‘dude, I’m not trying to be a jerk, but you’re probably going to be the JV quarterback this year. You’re probably going to play JV, and next year is probably your year. This year is Tyler’s year.’
“After the second game, we didn’t really have a running back. So we said why don’t we put Mark at running back? He’s a running quarterback. Then we started working (in) some unbalanced (formations) that we were good out of, and Mark started carrying the load. Him, (Logan) Briggs and (Jacob) Dugan are all sophomores.”
The Bulldogs weren’t guaranteed a playoff berth with a win over Locks, so Mazzone told his team to focus on what they could control, win, and take pride in what they accomplished.
“I said, ‘guys, if we don’t get in and we’re 8-2, it sucks, but I’m not disappointed in you,’” Mazzone said. “You exceeded expectations. 8-2 is a great year. It really is. Anyone would sign up for an 8-2 year most times.”
Mazzone also shared his last conversation with his father to the team the night before the Windsor Locks game.
“These guys were better than everyone else thought, and that's what it came back to — defying odds and belief in yourselves,” Mazzone said. “I told these guys if you can do this, you can do anything.
“Look at what we lost.”
• • • •
We’re going to forgo any written previews for the quarterfinals.
Maybe we’ll start them in the semifinals. Depends on how we feel:
No. 1 Newtown over No. 8 NFA
No. 2 Southington over No. 7 Ridgefield
No. 3 Darien over No. 6 Greenwich
No. 5 Cheshire over No. 4 Simsbury
No. 1 Newtown over No. 5 Cheshire
No. 3 Darien over No. 2 Southington
No. 3 Darien over No. 1 Newtown
No. 1 St. Joseph over No. 8 Wilton
No. 2 Hand over No. 7 Newington
No. 3 Maloney over No. 6 Berlin
No. 4 New Canaan over No. 5 Wethersfield
(BORING picks, but we couldn’t pick against the chalk).
No. 1 St. Joseph over No. 4 New Canaan
No. 2 Hand over No. 3 Maloney
No. 1 St. Joseph over No. 2 Hand
No. 1 Rockville over No. 8 SMSA/University/Classical
No. 2 Waterford over No. 7 Granby/Canton
No. 3 Killingly over No. 6 New Fairfield: Had the most trouble picking this quarterfinal.
No. 5 Weston over No. 4 Abbott Tech/Immaculate
No. 5 Weston over No. 1 Rockville
No. 3 Killingly over No. 2 Waterford
No. 3 Killingly over No. 5 Weston: We’re not confident in this pick.
No. 1 Ansonia over No. 8 Plainfield
No. 7 Plainville over No. 2 Bullard-Havens
No. 3 Bloomfield over No. 6 Stafford/East Windsor/Somers
No. 4 Sheehan over No. 5 Woodland
No. 1 Ansonia over No. 4 Sheehan: Should be an awesome semi.
No. 3 Bloomfield over No. 7 Plainville: The WARHAWKS already mangled the latter, 47-0.
No. 3 Bloomfield over No. 1 Ansonia.
• • • •
CALPREP.COM’s QUARTERFINAL PICKS
Newtown 38, NFA 21
Southington 22, Ridgefield 14
Greenwich 24, Darien 22: The computer model rates Darien one spot higher in its rankings but picked the Cardinals on the road. The computer is confusing us this week, as you’ll learn more about later.
Cheshire 28, Simsbury 24
St. Joseph 48, Wilton 14
Hand 48, Newington 8
Maloney 35, Berlin 13
New Canaan 28, Wethersfield 14
Rockville 31, SMSA/University/Classical 8: Expect a much closer game
Waterford 28, Granby/Canton 26: That close? Huh.
Killingly 31, New Fairfield 19
Weston 42, ATI 19
Ansonia 42, Plainfield 13: Chargers won last year’s quarterfinal 42-0
Plainville 24, Bullard-Havens 21
Bloomfield 42, Stafford/East Windsor/Somers 7
Sheehan 40, Woodland 20
• • • •
Behold, The Day's Top 10 state coaches’ poll: No. 1 Hand (10-0, 10 first-place votes); 2. St. Joseph (10-0, three first-place votes); 3. Newtown (10-0); 4. Greenwich (9-1); 5. Bloomfield (10-0); 6. Darien (9-1); 7. Southington (9-1); 8. New Canaan (8-2); 9. Ansonia (10-0); and, 10. Cheshire (8-2). Maloney was 11th.
• • • •
The GameTimeCT/New Haven Register/Hearst Inc. Monolith Top 10 media poll: 1. Hand (19 first-place votes); 2. St. Joseph (six first-place votes); 3. Newtown; 4. Greenwich; 5. Bloomfield; 6. Darien; 7. Southington; 8. Ansonia; 9. New Canaan; and, 10. Maloney. Cheshire was 11th.
• • • •
Ned Freeman’s cold, calculating computer rankings for CalPreps: 1. St. Joseph; 2. Hand; 3. Southington; 4. Darien; 5. Greenwich; 6. Newtown; 7. Bloomfield; 8. New Canaan; 9. Shelton; and, 10. Ridgefield.
Cheshire was 11th, Maloney 12th and Ansonia 17th.
The computer model did some. ... odd things here.
Darien beat Southington (24-8) and Ridgefield edged New Canaan (17-14) on Sept. 20. Cheshire also won at Shelton, 24-12, on Oct. 4. Yet the model ranked the losing team of each of those games ahead of the winner.
West Haven (2-8) finished with the state’s toughest-rated schedule with nine of its opponents winning at least six games (Xavier finished 5-5). It lost to two playoff teams (Hand and Newtown), and beat another (NFA, 27-13).
Fairfield Prep managed to finish 6-4 despite having the toughest schedule based on its opponents’ combined win-loss record (63-37). Seven of its opponents won at least six games and only one had a losing record (Harding, 4-6). Prep played three playoff teams, losing to two (St. Joseph, 42-13, and Newtown, 21-14) and rallying to win another (NFA, 33-28).
• • • •
Dig the ballot Polecat HQ filed for the aforementioned media poll:
1. St. Joseph
4. Darien: Some will drop it lower because it just lost. I watched it beat both Greenwich and Southington, so we’re not dropping it.
8. Cheshire: Lost by a point to Southington after going for two in double overtime. There’s no reason to drop it.
10. Shelton: Decided this week to firmly lock it in at No. 10. The Gaels lost to the state’s top three ranked teams and led Hand with 18 seconds left before it rallied to win, 21-14. Also played a fourth team going to states and won (NFA, 41-20).
12. New Canaan: Knocked off Darien for the third straight year after the latter had won the previous five.
15. Fairfield Prep: You should know by now why we continue to vote for the Jesuits.
• • • •
That’s all for now. More soon.
Thanks for reading.
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