Boston High School: Niko Fiorillo

New England Roundup: Connecticut

October, 27, 2010
10/27/10
8:56
AM ET
Last Friday night was like most others for Greg Volpe. Settling into bed, the East Haven football coach lay there for some time, his eyes locked on the ceiling and his mind racing from the game that evening.

“But I was thinking about a win,” he said, “instead of the reasons why we lost.”

ConnecticutWeighed down by months of missed tackles, headaches and losses, Volpe sounded like a man not relieved, but satisfied this week. That all the work was paying off. That the plan was starting to bare fruit. That, for his seniors, they could return to school Monday awaiting praise for the first time as high school football players.

With a 42-14 victory over Platt Tech last weekend, the Easties ended the state’s longest active losing streak and fourth-longest all-time, which on the books will number 36 games but featured far more setbacks than a scoreboard can show.

Not since Thanksgiving Day 2006, when it beat rival Branford, had East Haven (1-5) enjoyed a victory. In the time since, it’s endured three winless seasons, plummeting numbers and nearly two coaching changes. Volpe — also the coach of the semi-pro New England Knights and an American Football Hall of Fame member — entered the fray mid-skid, assuming command before last season when a new regime was expected to breathe life into the slumping program.

Instead, East Haven hit what Volpe called the lowest point before his tenure even began. A week before the season-opener against Jonathan Law — and after three promising preseason games — four to five players were disciplined for having alcohol, Volpe said. Unclear of what their punishment would be, Volpe wasn’t told of their suspensions until roughly two hours before kick-off.

“So I had to walk into the locker room and tell the team that,” Volpe said. “There was a lot of shock, a lot of tears. Of course, they were three or four of the better players, and we just stumbled out of the gate and never recovered.”

Until Friday, when, on Law’s campus coincidently, East Haven put together its first turnover-free game of the season and followed its defense, led by Niko Fiorillo, who returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

All said, the result was expected — by most at least. East Haven enjoyed mismatches in talent and size against Platt Tech (0-6), a member of the Constitution State Conference, whose best teams are regularly blown out in non-league and postseason games.

Only three teams had lost more consecutive games than East Haven, headed by Bassick, which lost 62 straight from 2001-07. Bullard-Havens (1996-2001) and East Catholic (1992-97) each lost 53 straight.

For most of the last decade, East Haven was largely a .500 team or worse, failing to win a game in 2004 and last seriously vying for a playoff berth in 2000. But its lopsided losses were among some of the worst in the state in recent seasons, and the significant drop in numbers (17 to begin this season) was startling.

“The hardest times was seeing (teammates) get down on themselves and stop trying,” Joe Costanzo said. “I don’t mind losing, but it’s the fact when they don’t try as hard as they can. That’s what killed me, that’s what killed a lot of the team.

“It was a bond that the team didn’t have.”

Naturally, interest within the school dropped as quickly as the misplayed hand-offs. The lack of appeal could also be rooted to the offseason, when Volpe waited out a bizarre episode in which he was told by the Board of Education that he wasn’t returning when in fact no official decision had been made.

“That was a nightmare,” said Volpe, who was publicly supported by his team throughout.

“They had no reason at all behind (firing him),” Costanzo said. “And we fought for him, just like Coach Volpe would fight for us.”

Volpe returned, and even after opening the season with too few varsity players to field separate offensive and defensive units, East Haven forged on. The players went into what Volpe called “24-hour recruit mode,” raking the hallways for available athletes. It entered Friday’s game with 45 varsity players on its sideline and 24 in its freshman program.

Those first-year players may be the best example of East Haven’s progress. Turning the freshman team into an “instructional program,” Volpe runs it through skill and fundamental work throughout the week, leaving only the day before a game for working on plays.

The change has worked. The freshmen are 3-2 this season.

“The program has had roadblocks not just on the field but off of it, too,” Volpe said. “And when it’s like that, it got to the point where the kids just expected bad things to happen. That’s where this year has been different.”

It may continue to be. East Haven’s remaining schedule includes Sheehan (1-5), Law (0-5) and Branford (1-5). Hand-Madison (5-1), which has been ranked this season, visits on Nov. 5.

The Tigers will likely see an East Haven team that has never been more confident.

(Read full post)

SPONSORED HEADLINES