By John Goralski
The confetti wasn’t finished falling after the championship game, and the Blue Knights were back in the gym. The Class LL trophy hadn’t found its way into the display case, and the football team was already training for another run. Last fall Southington’s gridiron gang rallied to a 9-1 record in the regular season, and out-scored three tournament opponents by more than 100 points to capture their first state title since 1998.
Now, the boys are ready to do it again.
“Every year we talk about the same expectations. We want to win the conference. We want to win Thanksgiving, and we want to make the playoffs to try for a state championship,” said Blue Knight coach Mike Drury. “There’s going to be no championship lapse now that we’ve won it. We’re going to work as hard or harder than we did the year before, and the kids have really stepped it up this off-season. They’re just as hungry for this year.”
But is it realistic? The Knights have graduated a small army of seniors that were crucial to last year’s title run. The team graduated last year’s offensive player of the year and his defensive counterpart. To return to the postseason, the Knights will have to overcome a number of gaping holes in their lineup. In other words, it’s business as usual for Southington’s flagship team.
“Coming together as a unit and getting our chemistry together is the key, but that’s so important to any team,” said Drury. “We have a lot of returners on both sides of the ball. We have some great players on defense that have done a great job in the preseason, and our offense has a ton of weapons. Last year was a storied season. We had our ups. We had our downs, but the kids persevered. That was because we had a great senior class with some great leaders, but they also had a great supporting cast. We had some tremendous juniors and some sophomores that really contributed, and it’s the same thing this year.”
It all starts with a strong group of captains that represent the Knights at almost every position on the field. Alex Jamele, Matt Thomson, Matt Maxwell, and Matt Koczera will lead the charge this fall. They are battle tested, esperienced, and ready to make their own mark in Southington’s storied history.
“They are great young men on the football field and off the football field,” said their coach. “I know that they’ll do a great job, along with the rest of our seniors, of leading this team.”
The defense is already hitting on all cylinders, and that’s because Southington returns seven of their top 10 tacklers from last season’s championship roster. Senior linemen Zach Spooner (65 tackles), Dan Williams (49), and Koczera (45) will lead the blitz. Seniors Steve Hamel (77) and Thomson (75) will pace a linebacker corps that will feature up-and-coming juniors Logan LaRosa and Logan LaPorte.
And even if teams survive the first wave, they’ll still have to deal with Southington’s secondary. Seniors Peter Majchrzak and Drew Barmore will team up with sophomore Anthony Plantamuro at the corners with Maxwell (59) as the ‘bandit’ safety. Seniors Jake Thayer and Jamele will shuffle in and out of the lineup with juniors Austin Moore and Chris Minkiewicz to give Southington an endless stream of fresh legs.
“Our defense is predicated on getting pressure on people, and these guys know it,” said Drury. “They are really cerebral players, but they’re also intense players. They understand their assignments and know their defense. They know it as if they are coaches on the field. Last year, a lot of these guys were new. Now, they’re ready.”
Can the offense match last year’s torrid pace? That’s the biggest question at the start of the season, but Drury likes his team’s chances. Jay Rose will step into the lineup at quarterback, and Drury said that the offense won’t miss a step. Rose proved himself as a playmaker last fall, and he led the team during the off-season preparations. Opposing coaches may not know much about him at the start of the season, but it won’t take long to figure out that the Knights are just as formidable this fall.
“He brings toughness and intensity, but he’s also a good decision maker,” Drury said about his starting quarterback. “Obviously Steve Barmore was a great quarterback, but we’re not looking to compare those guys. I think that Jay brings different things to that position. He’s a hard-nosed player. When he gets a run, you’ll have to watch out. And he can make any throw that he needs to on the field…and then some.”
There’s no question that Rose will have plenty of targets on the field. Jamele led the Knights last fall as a junior with 1,623 receiving yards, and he set a new state record with 29 receiving touchdowns. He’ll be joined by senior veteran Kyle Borawski (376 yards) along with Maxwell, John Meade, and sophomore Richie Rivera. With the addition of Austin Moore, a transfer from Burlington, Southington will have no shortage of playmakers.
Of course, Southington will be a multi-pronged offense that can run as well as they throw. Junior Alessio Diana returns from a knee injury to pace the Knights on the ground, along with sophomore Vance Upham. “They both bring a little something different to the table,” said Drury, “but they are both physical, strong, and fast.”
In the trenches, the Knights will field a strong core of determined linemen. Noah MacDonald is the only returning starter, but seniors Matt Steeves, Trevor Godston, Tyler Chasse, and Tyler DiTunno are experienced returners. Juniors Dylan Kulas and sophomore Dave Pastor will provide depth.
“The guys are working hard. They’re going to compete, and we’re going to need them all,” Drury said. “Up front we just have to get those guys to get together, but we had the same problem last year. If we get everybody doing their job and doing things right, we could be very potent again.”
Once again, the intangibles could come down to special teams. Last year, the Knights boasted one of the best kickers in the state. This year, Drury expects to continue that trend. Former soccer star Dan Parzych launched three footballs into the end zone during the annual Blue-White scrimmage, and Southington has a strong group of hungry tacklers around him. Steffan Mayette, Cameron Babin, and Vinny Milardo will all figure prominently in Southington’s special teams as they try to win the battle of field position.
“Our special teams unit is going to be really strong this year,” said Drury. “We have a bunch of guys that are ready to go down there and hit someone. They are so intense.”
It won’t be easy. Southington will be tested right away with a season opener against Glastonbury. Manchester, Simsbury, and New Britain will follow before the Knights get a chance to avenge their only loss last season against Hall. It won’t get any easier after that as the Knights make their way toward a Thanksgiving battle against Cheshire with the bullsey on their backs as defending state champions.
“That raises our play, and we understand that we’re going to have to practice hard every day and do all the little things as great as we can because other teams are going to be gunning for us,” said Drury. “We’re going to be flying around out there. These kids love the game of football, and they play with energy and excitement. They play for Southington, the Blue Knights, and the pride of this community. When you have kids like that, it’s a fun, exciting thing to watch.”
Follow the Blue Knights in the pages of the Southington Observer or read about it on-line at www.SouthingtonObserver.com.
By John Goralski