Kevin Callahan is entering his 11th year as head football coach at Ridgefield High School this fall. Since 2001, his Tigers have never endured a losing season. They’ve won nine games four times, and six or more every year but one.
And yet, they’ve been to the CIAC playoffs twice, playing for -- and winning -- their only state championship in 2002.
Callahan thought something was wrong with that.
“It’s nice when kids understand how to win,” he said, “but you have to reward winning.”
Others thought so, too.
In a change met with sweeping applause from the Connecticut high school football community, the CIAC is implementing a new playoff system this fall that features fewer divisions, more teams and a venue that many feel finally fits the bill.
In recent years, the football playoffs featured four teams earning postseason berths in six divisions. This season, there are only four divisions (LL, L, M, S) but with eight teams qualifying in each, the number of playoff competitors jumps from 24 to 32. The hope is to reward the larger schools who play in more difficult divisions. Last season, three 9-1 teams (two in Class LL, one in L) didn’t make the playoffs, and the seasons of four 8-2 teams ended on or around Thanksgiving. In 2008, 14 teams with eight or more wins didn’t qualify.
“All other CIAC sports, you win 40 percent of your games, you’re in the playoffs,” said Berlin coach John Capodice, a member of the CIAC football committee. “I felt the football kids were shortchanged.”
It’s difficult to find any detractors of the decision, aside from those who would have welcomed further expansion to include as many as 48 teams. Some, such as St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia, believe the system will still keep some deserving schools out only because they’re playing tougher schedules.
But sometimes, “you have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run,” Capodice said.
“I think it’s good for Connecticut football,” Xavier-Middletown coach Sean Marinan said. “We get looked down upon by the rest of the country for a lot of reasons — the shortness of the season, the shortness of the playoffs. So I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
The expansion, naturally, extends the postseason. In the past, the playoffs wrapped up with two games in five days the week following Thanksgiving. This season, the quarterfinal games are scheduled for Nov. 30, followed by the semifinals on Dec. 4 and finally, the state championship games the weekend after on Dec. 10-11.
Though most basketball and wrestling teams won’t enjoy their athletes joining practice late, most feel it’s a small price to pay to give football teams nearly a full week to prepare for the most important game of the season.
“Coaches won’t have to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning watching film,” Staples coach Marce Petroccio said with a laugh. “And the championship games will truly be championship games. You’ll have the ability to rest more people and work on strategy.”
And the “cherry on the cake,” as Petroccio called it: The championship games will move from high school fields to Rentschler Field, UConn’s 40,000-seat stadium in East Hartford.
It’s about time, some feel.
“You go to these other states, they play in the biggest venues they can find,” Callahan said. Massachusetts, for example, plays its Super Bowls at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots. “Let’s make it a special thing.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2010
1. Tommy Jordan, Ridgefield senior lineman
6-5, 280 pounds
2009: Recruited as an offensive lineman, had 53 tackles and five sacks on defense
Jordan’s never been afraid to take charge. Case in point when he addressed the team during one of Ridgefield’s game last season.
“After he was done, half the team was scared to death of him,” Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan said. “The other half was ready to go kill for him.”
Such is the imposing figure that many consider the state’s best high school prospect. At 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, the Florida-bound Jordan “ moves like a kid who’s 5-10, 180,” Callahan said. Jordan runs a 5.3-second 40-yard dash. He can dunk a basketball. And the best way Callahan has heard Jordan’s game described was by Florida assistant coach Steve Addazio.
“He plays offense with a defensive mentality,” Callahan recounted. “He could very well be a guard (in college), very well be a center. Tommy’s like, ‘Great bring it on.’ He couldn’t care less. He knows right now he’s not being challenged at that level he’s at. He’s going to go from pushing kids around (in high school) to pushing stone walls (at Florida).”
Callahan said Jordan plans to graduate early and enroll at Florida in the spring, a growing trend among the country’s best prospects. He doesn’t turn 18 until March, and for now, will focus on leading a Ridgefield team that graduated 16 seniors from last year’s 9-1 team.
2. Max DeLorenzo, Berlin senior running back/linebacker
6-2, 200 pounds
2009: Rushed for 2,154 yards and 26 touchdowns
John Capodice was away on vacation last week. Nevertheless, the Berlin football coach was breaking down film from last year, and still, he couldn’t believe how different DeLorenzo looked from everyone else on the field.
“I see him go through the line of scrimmage, and three guys look like they’re going to tackle him,” Capodice said. “And he spins off all three of them and runs for a 40-yard touchdown. And I say, ‘That must have been good coaching.’ ”
Capodice chuckled because he knows DeLorenzo, a UConn commit, simply has things you can’t coach. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, the senior runs a 4.5-second 40, a rare combination of speed and power that carried him to 2,154 rushing yards last season.
He was even better in the playoffs. Between two games, he rushed for 618 yards on 83 carries, and scored seven touchdowns en route to the Class M title. He’ll leave Berlin with nearly every school record, and perhaps even more.
“Maybe I can reach All-State again and if I have a really good year, maybe Player of Year for Connecticut,” he said. “But I’m not too worried about my goals. I think I’m more concerned that we have a big bull’s eye on our back this year because we’re defending state champions. All our goal is we want to do it again.”
3. Conor Hanratty, New Canaan senior tackle
6-5, 300 pounds
2009: Blocked for state’s top passing game, led team to fourth straight state title
About the only thing the soft-spoken Hanratty wants to improve upon during his senior season is his ability to lead.
“The past two years, I’ve kind of relied on great senior leadership,” he said. “Now I have to provide it.”
The New Canaan star gives about everything else you can ask for. At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, Hanratty is a dominant force on the Rams’ offensive line, an aggressive player who thrives in run-blocking and has the footwork to protect the quarterback.
Pursued by major schools throughout the country, he decided in April to attend Notre Dame, the same school his father, Terry, was a two-time All-American and national champion in 1966. Though Hanratty said that never was the reason why he committed to the Fighting Irish, he can finally enjoy discussing with his father the possibilities that await him there, a place he said he’s always “loved.”
Hanratty has already been a part of three of the Rams’ four straight state championships. With roughly five starters returning, they’ll need him more than ever for a fifth.
4. Casey Cochran, Masuk-Monroe junior quarterback
6-1, 210 pounds
2009: 2,968 passing yards, 26 passing TDs
Cochran called it a “little tough” adjusting to Masuk’s offensive schemes as a New London transfer last season.
Imagine if it was easy.
All the then-sophomore did was throw for a state-best 2,968 yards, including two games of 500 or more, and 26 touchdowns in coach John Murphy’s shotgun-dominated offense. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Cochran returns this year 17 pounds lighter and supremely more confident for a Masuk team that on paper is one of the most loaded in the state.
“I’ve never had anyone throw a football like he can,” Murphy said. “Last year, he had some games that when the game was over and you start going back over the 565 yards against Pomperaurg, I’m shaking my head like, ‘This is a sophomore? Where is he going to be two years from now?’”
Cochran said he’ll play a little more under center this season, as he did as a freshman at New London under his father, Jack, when he stepped into the final six games of the season and led the Whalers to the Class SS title. As opposed to last year when he enrolled in July, Cochran has “been at every workout, every camp, every passing league,” Murphy said, to work on timing with his receivers. He’s also spent time with a personal trainer and changed his diet.
“More proteins, just not trying to carb-out,’ he said. “I think we’re all gearing toward a state championship right now.”
5. Tyler Matakevich, St. Joseph-Trumbull senior running back
6-1, 200 pounds
2009: 1,542 rushing yards, 25 total offensive TDs
After a few rings, Joe Della Vecchia’s cell phone chimes in with this voicemail message: “If you’re a 250-pound lineman, can run a 4.4 40 or throw a ball 80 yards, I’ll call you right back,” the St. Joseph football coach says. “If not, leave a message.”
Notice he didn’t mention anything about a 200-pound, workhorse running back. He’s already got one of those.
Though an “in-between” guy by college football standards, according to his coach, Matakevich is as versatile and relentless as any player in Connecticut. The 6-foot-1 back ran for a school-record 1,542 yards and scored 20 rushing touchdowns in 2009, had 515 receiving yards and five TD catches, and recorded 118 tackles at linebacker.
“He’ll pick up a ball and throw it 40 yards and hit the goal post,” Della Vecchia said. “He could do anything for us.”
Matakevich’s top three college choices include UMass-Amherst, Fordham and Marist. Always a patient runner, he added a level of explosiveness as a junior that even Della Vecchia didn’t expect. This year, Matakevich has added 10 pounds of muscle.
“I just think I have an instinct,” he said. “If I’m on defense, I’m just going to come up and make a play. Or if I’m running the ball, I’m just going to try and score a touchdown every time. I try not to think too much. I just try to go out and do it.”
Stephan Dance, New London senior linebacker
Quiet and unassuming, Dance is a two-time All-State pick who is athletic as he is bruising. Undersized at 5-foot-9, he’s “put together” at 190 pounds, New London coach Jeff Larson said, and was one of just three juniors named first team all-state defense by the New Haven Register last fall. He also combines with junior Kyle McKinnon for a formidable running attack.
Jon Esposito, Conard senior running back
A first team All-State selection as a junior, Esposito was at the center of Conard’s run to a perfect regular-season record a year ago. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound back compiled more than 1,900 yards and 29 touchdowns, and is part of an impressive class of rushers state-wide back for their senior season.
Tyler Girard-Floyd, Montville senior running back
The leading scorer in the Eastern Connecticut Conference two years running, Girard-Floyd also returns with backfield mate Skyler McNair, another potential 1,000-yard threat. But if Girard-Floyd is healthy, which wasn’t the case all of last season, the 6-foot, 250-pound back makes a habit of carrying would-be tacklers with him.
Sean Goldrich, Notre Dame-West Haven senior quarterback
The 6-foot-3 Goldrich was effective as he was efficient in 2009, throwing for 20 touchdowns and just one interception. The three-sport athlete will be relied upon even more this season. “This is my 41st year,” Notre Dame coach Tom Marcucci said, “and he’s as good a quarterback as we’ve ever had.”
Ross McDonald, Avon senior running back
McDonald tore through the Pequot Conference last season, racking 1,974 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns in 11 games. He nearly carried Avon to a comeback in the Class M semifinals, scoring four of that game’s final five touchdowns.
Graham Stewart, Xavier-Middletown senior linebacker
Forget being considered one of the best linebackers in the state. Xavier coach Sean Marinan called the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Stewart “one of the best in the country” with his 4.5-second 40 time and punishing hits. Stewart recorded 110 tackles a season ago. His height is “the only thing why he doesn’t have 70 offers at this point,” Marinan said, though UConn and Boston College, among others, have been in pursuit.
TEAMS TO WATCH IN 2010
1. Notre Dame-West Haven
2009 record/playoff finish: 9-1, won Class L state championship
The No. 1 team in last year’s final New Haven Register top 10 poll, Notre Dame will look to defend its state title behind quarterback Sean Goldrich (20 touchdowns in 2009), wide receiver Tirrell Young-Williams (Class L championship game MVP) and 6-foot-3, 200-pound fullback David Rose, who’ll assume lead rushing duties in place of the graduated Justin Willis.
Coach Tom Marcucci will have to replace the majority of his offensive and defensive lines, but he believes he has the speed to make up for what may be an early learning curve for some players.
“I think we have enough guys to play on the perimeter on defense,” Marcucci said. “A lot of fast kids, a lot of aggressive kids.”
That said, it doesn’t begin easy. Notre Dame opens with Xavier-Middletown (Sept. 17); defending Class LL champion Cheshire awaits on Nov. 5.
2009 record/playoff finish: 9-1, no playoffs
Few teams return as much on paper as Masuk does in 2010. Headlined by quarterback Casey Cochran, the list also includes 1,000-yard rusher Colin Markus, essentially the team’s entire offensive line and perhaps its best overall player, wide receiver/safety Jon Testani, who’s being recruited by Division I schools as a kicker. Two weeks ago while at camp at the University of New Haven, Testani kicked a 63-yard field goal, coach John Murphy said.
“I wish we had YouTubed it,” he said, laughing. “He’s pretty special.”
Masuk may also have more motivation than most teams. Despite losing just one CIAC-recognized game, the 2008 state champs were left out of the super-competitive Class LL playoffs. They’re easily the team to beat in the Southwest Conference.
“We were disappointed last year and that’s hard to say about a team that’s 9-1,” Murphy said. “We had played in the playoff for six straight years and had been in the championship for two straight. To not make the playoffs was really disappointing for us. It really motivated us.”
2009 record/playoff finish: 9-1, lost in Class LL semifinals
Marcucci knows who his best competition is in the Southern Connecticut Conference. In fact, it’s the Notre Dame’s coach first opponent.
Xavier has holes to fill, especially in its backfield, but a slew of returning underclassmen appear ready to lift it right back into the Class LL playoffs. Senior Graham Stewart may be the state’s best linebacker, and junior tight end Ryan Murphy burst into the Falcon’s spread offense last season for 620 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
The major key, however, is coach Sean Marinan’s ability to utilize potential quarterbacks Pat D’Amato and Tim Boyle. The 6-foot-3 Boyle, a still-growing sophomore, has the stronger arm, while D’Amato, a junior who played wide receiver, is the better runner.
“Pat’s fast enough that he can play running back,” Marinan said. “So we can put them both back there in the same backfield, hand the ball off to Pat and still have a quarterback running the ball. There’s a lot of interesting things you can do with that.”
4. St. Joseph-Trumbull
2009 record/playoff finish: 8-2, won Class SS state championship
St. Joseph isn’t a typical small-school football team. And in the FCIAC, it doesn’t play a typical schedule either.
Last season, it played more LL schools (two) than S schools (one), and it didn’t play anyone from its own class. It was the only SS playoff team to not do so, and could explain why it outscored its opponents 70-10 in the postseason.
They return a lot of other reasons, too. St. Joseph broke about every offensive record in school history behind running back Tyler Matakevich, quarterback Joe Della Vecchia and a stable of quick receivers. Of those six players, only one wideout doesn’t return, and the team boasts 27 seniors this season.
Coach Joe Della Vecchia can’t platoon like he did a year ago -- some defensive players didn’t even practice offense last season. But it’s difficult to not make St. Joseph one of, if not the, favorite in what should be a competitive Class S.
“I think we’ll be even better (offensively) than last year,” Matakevich said. “As good as we did last year, everybody was young; a lot of kids were first-year starters. And now with another year and experience under our belts, it’s going to help out a tremendous amount.”
5. New London
2009 record/playoff finish: 10-0, lost in Class M semifinals
Coach Jeff Larson lost 10 seniors from last season, a relatively small amount from a team that went undefeated in the regular season. And with the Eastern Connecticut Conference appearing primed for a somewhat down year, the Whalers are far and away its most complete team on paper.
But after Bethel exposed it in a 34-12 rout on its home field in the Class M semifinals, New London may now realize what it’ll take to make the step back toward the state championship level it enjoyed in 2008.
“We take that loss in the playoffs, and (we tell the players), ‘You did everything you’re supposed to do in the regular season and you didn’t finish,’” Larson said. “It leaves an awful taste in your mouth, and the good thing is when you bring a lot of kids back that had that awful taste, they work hard.”
Among them are two All-State selections, senior Stephan Dance at linebacker and junior Kyle McKinnon at running back. Quarterback Josh Clements will return for his second year as a starter, and though he lost All-State wideout Nick Singleton, Khaleed Fields and Jason Piontkowski should make for a lightning-quick receiving core.
New London’s first test may be its toughest; Montville, a Class M state finalist last season, visits Sept. 17.
KEEP IN MIND
The Rams need to replace a slew of skill players, including under center, but it’s difficult to count out the four-time defending state champions, who have been through this before. Having one of the state’s best linemen in Hanratty and receivers in Kevin Macari also helps.
The state’s No. 1 team entering the playoffs last year, Staples returns just two starters on offense. But its defense should be solid behind Yale-bound Chris Coyne, who was second in the state in sacks last year. Coach Marce Petroccio is also high on new quarterback Chester Pajolek. Where was he while Petroccio was doing an interview in early August? “He’s at Staples right now watching film,” Petroccio said.
Like other contenders around the state, Glastonbury returns skill players but will need to fill holes on the offensive and defensive line left by 12 graduated seniors. It’s a safe bet a team that went a combined 20-1 the past two regular seasons can figure it out. “Winning obviously produces winning,” coach Peter Pfeffer said. “We have good numbers.”
Having a Division-I tailback in DeLorenzo “solves a lot of problems,” coach John Capodice said, but Berlin also has the returning talent to absorb the loss of roughly 14 starters. Senior Zach Zulkiewicz and junior Tommy Undercuffler -- another future D-I talent, Capodice said -- could share quarterback duties for the defending Class M champions.
Matt Stout is the assistant sports editor at the Norwich Bulletin. Since arriving in Eastern Connecticut in 2007, he’s covered everything from high school sports to minor league baseball, serving primarily as the newspaper’s beat writer for the UConn men’s basketball team (2007-2009) and the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun (2007-present). A 2006 graduate of Boston University, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.