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.”
Weighed 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.
“Hand’s a hard team, but they’re 17-year-old kids like we are,” Costanzo said. “They’re not college players, they’re not NFL players. They’re not anything that we’re not. They have a good coach, we have a good coach. We have good players, they have good players. It comes down to who’s together and who’s not, so if we have the family bond, regardless of our schedule or who we play, we can upset or beat any other team we want to beat.”
Volpe wouldn’t mind losing some sleep over that.
NO SMALL FEAT
After today, when his Lyman Memorial boys' soccer team plays Griswold in its final Eastern Connecticut Conference Small Division game, perhaps then Ryan Fabry will allow himself to fully appreciate the magnitude of the Bulldogs’ success.
Five seasons and zero divisional losses can be difficult to wrap your head around.
“Hit me afterward, because I’ll say, ‘Wow, we were in the league five years and we never lost,’ ” said Fabry, whose team enters today with a 54-0-3 all-time divisional record. “What’s really special for me as a coach is this particular group of seniors. … If we win (today), they’ll graduate with a perfect 46-0 (division record), which I think is pretty cool. I don’t think too many players get to say that.”
At least in the ECC, no one may ever get another chance, too. Though the league’s principals have yet to officially approve it, Lyman is expected to elevate to the Medium Division starting next fall, five years after it left the now-defunct Charter Oak Conference and began dominating ECC play.
Future realignment is always possible — the conference works in two-year shifts — but for the moment, Lyman is on the verge of never losing a Small Division game in the history of its program. The achievement can be mind-boggling.
“You keep thinking it’s going to be inevitable,” Fabry said of a division loss, though Lyman was tied three times in 2006. “I said it every year.”
Yet, winning and soccer, however, have always defined “Lyman land.” While other schools, including Bacon Academy, RHAM and Rocky Hill, bolted the COC to satisfy their growing football programs in the early part of the decade, Lyman has never fielded a team. Instead, it’s built arguably the best soccer complex in the conference, replete with lights for night games, and will host the ECC’s first-ever conference tournament this season.
Naturally, the culture translates to the field. A year after reaching the Class S semifinals, the boys team recently reached its 50th victory in the ECC Small and captured at least a share of its fifth straight title; it can win it outright today. The girls have suffered the occasional blemish in divisional play, but they, too, sewed up their fifth consecutive ECC Small championship last week — go figure, with a tie.
A huge part of Lyman’s success is linked to its ability to reload with talented players, this year led by seniors Tim Murray and Josh Gustafson, among others. But, Fabry admits, strong programs in the division five to 10 years ago — including Wheeler and Tourtellotte — have struggled with numbers recently. Griswold, meanwhile, moved down to the ECC Small, compiling a 13-1-1 record entering today, but it, too, hasn’t yet broken the Bulldogs’ headlock on the division.
Lyman beat the Wolverines, 4-0, earlier this season.
“You don’t prepare any differently” because of the streak, Fabry said. “You have the same goals. It hasn’t really changed the program or how we prepare in the preseason or what we do during the season. We’ve just been very, very fortunate. I think we’re all products of the philosophy.”
BEFORE THE GUN
Reached on his cell phone Sunday afternoon, coach Rob Murray was in the midst of having pizza with members of the Danbury boys' cross country team.
The Hatters made the three-hour drive to Thetford, Vt., located just north of White River Junction, to train on the course that’ll host the New England Championships next month. Dethroned as the State Open champions last fall after three straight titles, they have big plans this season, which they hope stretch to New Englands and beyond.
The first step, however, is this Saturday at Wickham Park, host of Connecticut’s class championships.
“Our team is really focused on the championship season,” said Murray, whose team captured its sixth straight FCIAC crown last week and competes in Class LL. “This week was our first of the four-week series of the championship season. They’re definitely showing a maturity, and with the experience they had last year, they are learning to pace themselves a little bit more.”
Danbury faces its toughest competition in defending State Open champion Xavier-Middletown; Fairfield Prep, led by SCC individual champion Connor Rog; and Amity, sixth at last year’s Class LL championships. The field also includes two-time defending ECC champ Norwich Free Academy.
Those teams will likely be the favorites at the State Open as well, along with SCC champion Guilford, which pursues a Class MM title this weekend.
But Danbury may be the team to watch. The Hatters boast three runners who ran under 17:10 at the conference championship, led by individual champion Alex Levine (15:57), who improved by 40 seconds from last year’s time. While some teams rely on depth and others a group of frontrunners, Danbury appears to have both.
“And I don’t think he (Levine) has really tapped into where he’s going to be at the end of the season just yet,” Murray said. “He runs to the level of the competition offered to him. He wasn’t aggressively pushed through the (FCIAC) race. So I think you’re going to see a lot of improvement from him.”
On the girls’ side, SCC champion and defending State Open champion Guilford will go for its seventh straight Class MM crown. Glastonbury, led by Lindsay Crevoiserat, appears to be the favorite in Class LL and Wilton is searching for its second straight Class L title.
ECC champion Griswold, led by freshman Alyssa Brehler, is the favorite in Class S.
FOOTBALL GAMES TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND
No. 1 Xavier (6-0) at Hillhouse (4-2), Friday, 2:30 p.m.
Xavier has met every challenge this season, outscoring its opponents, 157-35, despite three games decided by a touchdown or less. No one has been able to figure out its defense, though Hillhouse sports a formibale running attack, led by freshman Harold Cooper. This is Xavier's last road game before finishing with three straight at home - two at Middletown's Palmer Field and its annual Thanksgiving Day clash with rival Middletown at Wesleyan University.
(RV) Valley Regional/Old Lyme (6-0) at Coginchaug (5-0), Friday, 6:30 p.m.
Led by the versatile Jimmy Fairfield-Sonn, Valley/Regional Old Lyme faces a crucial Pequot Conference showdown at Palmer Field, Coginchaug's only home game there this season. It's also a matchup of top-five teams in Class S.
(RV) Bristol Eastern (6-0) at No. 4 Berlin (6-0), Friday, 7 p.m.
Currently No. 1 in the Class M point rankings, Berlin stayed unbeaten last week in 12-6 win over Bloomfield despite an off day from leading rusher Max DeLorenzo, though the UConn commit did haul in a touchdown pass. Bloomfield also played Bristol Eastern close in a 42-36 decision, but consider this: Bristol Eastern beat Northwest Catholic, 13-12; Berlin won, 39-0.
(RV) Hand-Madison (5-1) at No. 5 West Haven (6-0), Friday, 7 p.m.
The inside track on the SCC Division I East title and their respective spots in the playoff race may be on the line in this one. Hand is ranked sixth in the Class L points standings, but has six other 5-1 teams behind it. West Haven is currently fifth in Class LL where one-loss teams also currently populate spots No. 6 through 11.
Bethel (4-2) at No. 2 Masuk (6-0), Friday, 7 p.m.
Masuk's Casey Cochran is coming off a 400-yard, four-touchdown game in a 56-7 victory over Weston, and already has more than 1,400 passing yards this season, according to the New Haven Register. Bethel, a playoff team a year ago, will try to do what no team has done yet and contain Masuk, which hasn't scored fewer than 40 points in any game this season.
Fitch (4-1) at No. 10 Norwich Free Academy (6-0), Saturday, 1 p.m.
NFA is the top-ranked team in the Class LL points standings behind quarterback Erik Washburn and a slew of running backs, but it'll have to hold off a Fitch team in desperate need of a win to stay in the running for a Class L playoff berth. NFA expects to return senior captain and running back Tony Facchini, who is playing with a broken hand.
* All rankings (and receiving votes) based on New Haven Register state top 10