WALLINGFORD — The Sheehan Titans were going to have to make this leap anyway.
Even if there had been a CIAC football season in 2020, they were going to have to go from a senior-laden team that won a state championship to one with relatively little varsity experience handed down a mighty legacy.
The cancelled season of 2020 merely delayed it a year.
Which may work to Sheehan’s advantage. In a year in which yesterday’s sophomores are today’s seniors, virtually every football team in Connecticut is in “re-set mode” trying to bridge the gap of the lost season.
At times, the preseason pace has been painstaking.
“There’s always teaching at this time of the year, but it’s slower,” as Sheehan head coach John Ferrazzi remarked after a quad scrimmage last Saturday. “The install is slower and there’s more patience. Things that you carry over from year to year that usually take a practice or two just to kind of polish up and get it in there, those are things we have to spend more time on because a lot of these kids haven’t been on the field.”
No doubt, that’s been the case with the East Haven Yellow Jackets, the team Sheehan hosts to open the season this coming Friday night.
Yet the Titans have an added challenge shared by just three other teams — Newtown, St. Joseph and Weston — and that’s being a reigning state champion. How best to repeat the feats of 2019 when the personnel links to the title are so thin?
A case of ‘micro/macro,” as Ferrazzi sees it. Attend to the immediate details and the big picture falls into place.
“It’s more of a focus on the process of doing things than it is on the results of doing things,” said Ferrazzi, who with 16 years and 15 seasons under his belt is the senior football coach in the Record-Journal coverage area. “The standard is that you’re showing up everyday preparing to be successful, putting yourself in a position to be competitive and win every single day. That’s the standard. If we do that every day, the results take care of themselves.
“We have to constantly remind our guys we’re a process-driven program, not a results-driven program.”
Sheehan’s results in 2019 were historic: 11 victories in 13 games, virtually all against bigger schools; a 64-33 victory over Bloomfield in the Class S championship game that delivered the school’s second state football crown and first since 1985.
The bar for the encore was going to be high whenever the stage was ready to be retaken, right?
“We don’t get caught up in that stuff,” Ferrazzi reiterated. “It’s nice to strive for that, it’s nice to have those things be our goals — and they are, let’s make no mistake about it — but we’re focused on the day everyday. Some of that might be coach-talk, but it’s the truth.”
Perhaps Ferrazzi can compare notes with counterpart Dan Hassett when Weston comes calling on October 1, because the legacy of 2019 includes one humdinger of a schedule:
Sept. 10 — East Haven, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 17 — at Daniel Hand, 7 p.m.
Sept. 24 — at New Fairfield, 7 p.m.
Oct. 1 — Weston, 7 p.m.
Oct. 15 — Amity, 7 p.m.
Oct. 22 — at Harding, 7 p.m.
Oct. 29 — Hillhouse, 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 12 — Hartford Public, 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 18 — at Hamden, 7 p.m.
Nov. 25 — at Lyman Hall, 10:30 a.m.
New Fairfield is the only same-sized school on that schedule. As was the case in 2019, when they were moved up to Tier 2 in the Southern Connecticut Conference, the Titans will strive to qualify for the Class S playoffs playing mostly Class LL, L and M programs.
Even New Fairfield comes with an asterisk. The Rebels were Class M in 2019 and they qualified for the postseason that year.
Daniel Hand, the Week 2 opponent — at the Surf Club, no less — was Class L runner-up in 2019 after winning it all in 2018 and 2017.
“It’s unforgiving,” Ferrazzi said of the schedule. “There are no weeks off for us. There are no weeks off for us at all.”
Then again, Sheehan’s schedule is a testament to its own recent success. The 2019 title run was preceeded by a semifinal appearance in 2018 and a quarterfinal game in 2017.
“Sure it is, and we’re going to have prepare for that standard week in and week out to maintain what we’re doing,” Ferrazzi said. “That’s the challenge to our guys.”
So who are these players emerging from the wings? Only one — wide receiver/free safey John Cotter — had a regular role in the championship show.
“He was our fourth cornerback, but in the second half of the season he wound up playing a lot,” Ferrazzi recalled. “We might have had one or two other players who got on the field on special teams.
“We were senior heavy and they all played, so it was tough for the underclassmen to break through. We had juniors on the field then, but those juniors were seniors last year. That was the crew that lost the season.”
The Titans graduated 15 seniors off the 2019 team, including the R-J co-Players of the Year now playing in college, running back Terrence Bogan (Trinity) and wide receiver Jordan Davis (SCSU). There were eight juniors, a number of them starting linemen who have moved on to college programs.
And yet, led by Cotter, the 2021 Titans have considerable depth at receiver and in the secondary. Joining Cotter are fellow seniors Ryan Gersz and Jayden Lode, juniors John Gogliettino and Josh Mikulski and sophomores Tony Sutera and Dante DiNuzzo.
Who will throw to this fleet? It’s a two-man QB competition between junior Domenic DiNuzzo and sophomore Paul Gorry.
At running back, after the star turns of Bogan and his record-setting predecessor, Zach Davis, the Titans will employ an ensemble cast: senior speedster Jelan Kollie, junior power back Romeo Cruz and senior Jacob Shook, who shifts to the backfield from receiver.
Up front, the line will be anchored by tackles Apollo Dubuc, a senior, and Shaine Salvador, a junior. The interior spots are likely to rotate among seniors Jamesohn LaValley, Luis Cruz and Tony Dominello and freshman Jonah Caponera.
“I don’t remember the last time we’ve had a freshman in the mix at any position, let alone up front,” Ferrazzi remarked. “Physically, he’s right there with the rest. As soon as he adjusts to the speed of the game and learns the system, he’s going to be a real good player.”
Caponera and his fellow O-linemen will also man the trenches on D. So will Cruz, the power back.
“We feel we have five D-linemen who can rotate through our odd front, based out of a 3-4,” Ferrazzi said. “I think we’ve got five who can play.”
The offensive tackles, Dubuc and Salvador, are the inside linebackers. Shook and and Mikulski are at outside linebacker.
The defensive backfield is anchored by the safeties Cotter, Gogliettino and Dante DiNuzzo.
“We put a lot on our safeties,” Ferrazzi noted. “Our safeties have a lot they have to know and check on the field, and Cotter’s definitely cut out for it. He’s certainly showing he can also tackle and come down and support the run.”
Add it up and the Titans are again in that small-school football boat of playing a number of guys on both sides of the ball, with rotational help. This year’s team, though, is quite young.
“We will rotate on the D-line; we are a little thin for O-line,” Ferrazzi assessed. “At that point, we would be tapping into some of the younger guys. We’re thin as far as upperclass experience goes, but it’s the next-man-up mentality all the time for everyone.”
The mentality also includes the program’s core values. Ferrazzi counts them off: energy, compete, hustle and family.
“Those four things have to be there everyday if we’re going to have any chance of success,” the head coach said. “When we lack in one of those areas, it will show up on game day.”