by John Goralski
Gridiron officials released this year’s schedule and Coach Mike Drury was immediately deluged by a flood of voice mail and text messages. Opening day always brings excitement, but nothing like this.
Last year, the Blue Knights spoiled Glastonbury’s bid for a perfect season with a miracle comeback in week six. The Tomahawks returned the favor with a first round upset over Southington in the first round of the Class LL tournament.
Officials scheduled the rematch for opening day so both teams can pick up where they left off.
“They’re all fired up,” Drury said about the opening day match-up. “I talked to Coach Scott Daniels at Glastonbury, and we know that it’s going to be a battle. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the season.”
That won’t be the last challenge for the Knights this fall as teams try to even the score after Southington’s 10-0 season in 2012. Manchester fans have already circled week two after Southington’s buzzer beater in 2012. After that, Simsbury, New Britain, Hall, Conard, and Newington will line up to take their shot.
“We just have to get ready week after week,” said Drury. “Every week of our schedule is a very tough game with a good, well-coached opponent. We’ve just got to prepare well each week and that’s our focus.”
The good news is that Southington returns a strong core of veterans from last year’s playoff squad. Stephen Barmore returns for his fourth season at the helm, and the future Yale quarterback is battle-tested and ready to go. He’ll be surrounded by co-captains Tyler Hyde, Zach Maxwell, and Jim Nardi. All four have been central figures over the past seasons on both sides of the ball.
“I said it when they were elected captains by their peers. This is a really good bunch of kids,” said Drury. “They’re hard workers, and they understand this program. They’ve all been invested in the program and have shown themselves to be good leaders.”
It will be business as usual for the Knights as the offense tries to out-gun opponents with a balanced offense, and it starts with their veteran quarterback. In his fourth season as the opening day starter, Barmore brings experience and talent to the center of Southington’s attack.
As a junior, Barmore completed 142 of his 245 attempts (58%) for 2,010 yards passing and 18 scores. He ran for 424 yards and 13 touchdowns. That kept defenses scrambling.
“You don’t get many kids with more experience than he has,” said Drury. “He’s a tremendous competitor. He’s a great kid to have on the team. He’s really stepped up to be a big part of our program, and he’s a tremendous leader and an excellent teammate.”
Hyde returns to share the load in the backfield. Last year, he developed into the team’s go-to runner by year’s end with 342 yards for the season. Hyde led all rushers with 6.2 yards per carry.
“When you have an experienced backfield like that, it really helps,” said Drury. “He already knows our expectations, and we’re looking for him to have a great season.”
Hyde will be instrumental at the start of the season as Barmore grooms a whole new crop of receivers. Alex Jamele caught 18 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns last season, and he will try to lead a strong group of newcomers. Senior Joe Daigle has proven effective in the preseason. Junior Kyle Borawski is expected to step right in at wide receiver, while sophomore Jasen Rose anchors the short passing game at tight end. Hyde and Maxwell will both fill in when needed, and Drury expects the passing game to pick up where it left off.
Of course, that will all depend upon the offensive line. Seniors Jim Nardi, Carlos Gil, Sal Conti, Jon Rauch, Joe D’Agostino, and junior lineman Noah MacDonald will carry the load. Drury said that their off-season workouts were incredible, and they excelled during the off-season at regional lineman challenges.
“We’ve made some adjustments in our scheme this year for the coming season. We’ve gone from wristbands to total signalling our offense, and they’ve really picked it up well. They’re invested in the program,” said Drury. “Scoring points is never easy, but they know that. It’s those little things like positive yardage on each play, successful third down conversions, and scoring in the red zone. They are aware of all those goals, and they’re ready to go.”
The biggest questions going into the off-season was Southington’s defense. Last year, the Knights held opponents under 100 points in the regular season. Few teams scored in the second half as the Knights shifted into aggressive adjustments that rattled even the most potent offenses, but Southington graduated three captains from last year’s defense and seven of their top 10 tacklers.
As a junior, Maxwell was third in tackles (82). Jamele (76) and Hyde (38) scored in the top 10. The Knights return just two lineman and one starting linebacker with an almost entirely different look in the secondary, but Drury said that they’re up to the challenge.
“They’re coming together, but we have some big shoes to fill,” said the coach, “but these guys have been really committed in the off-season. They’ve put the time in to get their minds and bodies prepared to go out there and take over the reigns of a very successful defense. They’re excited. They play with passion. They play physical. They fly around to the football, and that’s the stuff we preach.”
Maxwell, Nardi, and Gill will anchor the line, along with D’Agostino and a host of juniors. Jamele returns as the middle linebacker, and he’ll be flanked by juniors Matt Thomson and Steven Hamel. Maxwell could shift back and forth between the first and second lines of defense as Southington tries a few different looks to keep offenses off-balanced.
Cornerback Mike Lange will anchor the secondary with Hyde and Barmore splitting time at safety. Junior cornerbacks Peter Majchrzak and Zac Bylykbashi will join Lange at cornerback. Matt Maxwell, Chris Kelly, and Jamele will fill the role of ‘bandits,’ a sort of hybrid between cornerback and safety as the Knights blitz, swarm, and defend as a tight unit.
“That’s our philosophy as a defense. We want to pressure. We want to play attack football,” said Drury. “They understand that, and they’re ready to go.”
In tight games, Southington may have the edge with kicker Kyle Smick returning for his senior season. Last year, Smick kicked 48 extra point conversions and a field goal. He’ll be joined on special teams by seniors Jason LeBlanc and Matthew Pellet. In the battle for early field position, Smick might tip the scales in Southington’s direction.
“He’s a tremendous kicker, and he’ll be punting for us, too,” said Drury. “He’s got a great leg, and he’s been in a bunch of kicking camps during the off-season. He’s really a converted soccer player. Last year was his first year as a kicker, and he really did well. He’s got the leg to kick it from all over the field, and he’s really going to be a big weapon for us.”
So buckle in and get ready for some action this fall as Southington tries to return to postseason glory. Drury has laid down the gauntlet for this year’s seniors. It’s their team now, and Southington’s in good hands.
“I think this is a good group of kids,” said the coach. “They aren’t just good players, and I really take pride in that. We have kids that really have their heads on straight. I think they’re going to be a fun team to follow. It’s going to be exciting, and we’re really looking to go out there and battle each and every week. They’re respectful, young men, and they’re also good football players.”
Bring on the band. The Blue Knights are ready to play.
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