By BRIAN JENNINGS
The Southington Blue Knights football team is entering the 2015 season as kings of the throne for a second straight year after shutting out NFA, 49-0, in the 2014 Class LL Large state championship game, giving the program its third win in a championship game and their 10th undefeated season since 1932.
Even after back-to-back titles, the hard work that goes into the offseason doesn’t slow down. It gets tougher.
“We’ve prepared as hard as we’ve ever prepared, from January to now,” said Drury. “I think, physically and mentally, the kids are ready to get the season started. Coming off a championship and coming off back-to-back, you have to stay hungry, and that’s what we’ve been preaching to the kids.”
During the offseason, the Knights’ offensive and defensive skill players made it farther than any other Connecticut team in the New Canaan 7-on-7 Passing Tournament. A group of Knights also placed third overall in the state lifting competition at New Britain High School.
Drury said that they have to stay levelheaded and can’t let all the recent success go to their heads.
“You can’t think that you’re better than someone else,” he said. “I don’t care who it is that you’re playing. We have to make sure that we take the same preparation we’ve been taking, since my staff and I have gotten here. We’ve been doing it since day one. It’s the hard work, dedication, getting the mental game down, and practicing at a tempo that allows us to play very fast and physical. We just have to stay focused on those key aspects and go play the games.”
Seniors Jasen Rose, Alessio Diana, Trevor Godston, Dylan Kulas, and Logan LaRosa have been named the 2015 captains.
Rose will be back under center for his second and final year at quarterback. In 2014, Rose (131.3 quarterback rating) completed 218 passes on 309 attempts for 3,190 yards with 47 touchdowns and nine interceptions, throwing over 300 yards in five games.
At 6’3” and 225 pounds, Rose is tough to take down, but don’t let his size fool you. He has shown the ability to escape pressure whenever he feels the defensive rush.
“Not only is he [Rose] a great player, but he is also a great leader,” said Drury. “Jay was the leader of our offense last year as a junior. He really works hard in the offseason, and pushes the guys to be great. He is very competitive in nature.”
Senior Luke Krochko, junior Tony Plantamuro, and sophomore William Barmore are backups if needed.
The solid, running tandem of Diana and junior Vance Upham will be returning to the backfield, presenting a nightmare to opposing defenses. Both possess finesse, speed, and power.
Upham rushed for 102 yards and the only running touchdown during the 2014 championship game, and he finished the season with 948 yards on 121 carries and 11 touchdowns with four 100-yard games. Diana eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark (149 carries, 1,058 yards) with 11 touchdowns and five 100-yard games.
“The kid [Diana] has a tremendous work ethic,” said Drury. “Not only has he not missed anything with us, but he’s doing a ton of things on his own. I think the kids looked at that, and it shows where his success comes from. He works hard every single day.”
Diana and Upham will also serve as valuable assets to the Knights’ air attack, with the ability to catch passes out of the backfield or down the field. Junior Hunter Forest could add some depth to the backfield as well.
One of the hardest hit areas of the Knights’ team was the receiving corps with the graduation of Alex Jamele, Matt Maxwell, and Kyle Borawski. Maxwell was also an asset to the defense, leading the team with five interceptions as a strong safety.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to replace guys [Jamele and Maxwell] like that,” said, Drury. “They’re great players and great practice players, but we have guys that are hungry. We have guys that are ready to step up and be the playmakers. In my opinion, we have the best quarterback in the state. So, those guys just have to know that they have to run great routs, do their assignments, and he’s [Rose] going to get the ball to them.”
Senior Austin Morin will be the only true starter returning from last season’s receivers. Morin caught 36 passes for 568 yards and five touchdowns last fall, but he will shift from slot receiver to wideout in order to play an even bigger role.
“He’s done a great job this offseason,” said Drury. “He’s really stepping up and we’re expecting him to make a lot of great plays. He’s a very good voice for that receiving corps as well.”
Other receivers include seniors Jake Kligerman, Jake Testa, Mark Howland, Kyle Bunko, Bryce Lynch, Mike Stafko, along with juniors Rich Rivera, Dom Coppola, Jeremy Jehnings, and Dante DeCesare.
Of course, the Knights will need to replenish their offensive line. Replacing the 310 pound Observer Male Athlete of the Year Matt Steeves will be no easy task, but finding cohesiveness between the offensive and defensive lineman was key. Southington’s big men meshed together during the offseason by winning a lineman challenge at Sheehan High School. The unit went on to come in second overall at the state lineman challenge at Berlin High School.
Two players that will be featured in the offensive line are co-captains Godston and Kulas. Together, they’ll fill the void.
“[Godston] is just a great kid and leader. He’s a very smart player and person. He’s someone that’s a go-getter, who has a great demeanor about himself to lead that offensive line,” said Drury. “Dylan Kulas is a great worker, who has proven himself on and off the field. The kids look up to him, and he has a great personality about himself.”
Other players that will anchor the line are seniors Mark Threlkeld, Steve Salmon, Kyle Somers, Brandon Porter, Keanu Cummings, and Pat Dabrowski, along with juniors AJ Palumbo, Dave Pastor, Joseph Vitali, Brendan Shea, Jason Calvi-Rogers, Connor Trzcinski, Tyler Moquin, Rob Bunting, Brandon Stone, Dante D’Agostino, and Mike Steminsky.
“We have a good group,” said Drury. “We’re going to be competing. We’re looking for the offensive line to be one of our big strengths on our team this year. I think those guys are ready for that.”
Without Matt Koczera, Dan Williams, and Zack Spooner, the defensive line will be anchored by seniors John Meade, Nick Worthington, and Andrew Szymanski, along with juniors Cameron Nelson, Zach Smith, Rich Zayas, and Paul Schweiger.
LaRosa will bring experience back to the linebacking corps and can create havoc among opposing offenses in the absence of Matt Thomson and Steve Hamel.
“Logan LaRosa is our big returner, defensively,” said Drury. “He started at middle linebacker for us last year. He’s a kid who leaves it all on the field every single play. He plays with great intensity, flying around the field. He is a great worker, and has a great voice that the kids really listen to.”
Other linebackers include seniors Matt Natelli, Pierce Martin, Taahir Harris, and James Terray, along with juniors Upham, John Vecchio, Tyler Shoneck, Nick Zukauskas, Josh Krochko, Josh Wyskiewicz, and Matt Meade. Sophomore sensation Ryan Montalvo will contribute, too.
The secondary is loaded with experience, including seniors Chris Minkiewicz, Matt Cianciolo, Evan Aiudi, and Andrew Spitz, along with juniors Matt Gundersen, Jake Thayer, and Pete Majchrzak. Southington’s depth will not be in question with juniors Brandon Slade, Sean Molgano, Derrick Gdovin, Garret Puzycki, and Dan Borkowski competing for playing time.
Special teams should continue to be a strength. The Knights have been fortunate over the past few seasons with kickers like Kyle Smick and Dan Parzych. After losing one of the leading scorers in field goals and PATs in the state last season, the Knights will be bringing in another soccer player this fall with senior kicker John Doty.
“We’re looking for him to fill a big role there, taking care of our PAT, field goal, kickoff duties,” said Drury. “That’s such an important aspect of the game. I think he’s ready to get working at that, and prove himself out there.”
Drury said that he thinks the skill positions will be the team’s strength this season. Drury also said that the Knights were fast last season, but believes they can be faster this season. If there is any weakness to the 2015 Knights, it’s lack of experience in certain positions.
“That’s what preseason’s for in the offseason,” said Drury. “It’s getting these guys right mentally and physically, developing that confidence to show that it’s their time to make the plays and lead the team. I think our athleticism is going to be able to be able to put us in good position. As long as we’re doing our job and responsibility, we can be in good shape.”
Comments? Email bjennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.