With Four Crossover Tilts, Gridders Have Tough But Riveting Path To Postseason Success
As football preseason unfolded this past week, a big question surrounding Newtown High School’s squad is who will take the snaps and be in the pocket to try to deliver another postseason run on the Nighthawk gridiron.
The quarterback position is up for grabs following the graduation of Luke Melillo. Junior Jack Street and senior Brandon Lombardo, both of whom saw limited time off the bench at the varsity level last fall, are in contention for the starting role.
Whomever ends up leading the charge, one thing that doesn’t seem to be in doubt is that it will be a challenging road to the playoffs.
After playing two crossover games a year ago, Newtown will stray from the South-West Conference twice as many times, as part of the CIAC’s continued efforts to create more competitive games across the state. The Nighthawks have a trio of Southern Connecticut Conference teams — Fairfield Prep, West Haven, and Shelton — as well as FCIAC and close-by rival Danbury on the slate as part of a compelling slate of match-ups.
“With these games, our schedule is probably the toughest it’s ever been. The kids are excited,” said Coach Bobby Pattison, adding that the focus for now is a week one visit from New Milford. “We’ve got to take it one game at a time.”
Shelton, a team the Hawks have become familiar with in recent years — both in the regular and postseason — was the number one team in Class LL a year ago. Prep was ranked fifth and, like the Nighthawks, reached the state playoff semifinals. West Haven and Danbury had five and four wins, respectively.
“The kids have to understand there are no easy games. Our schedule has changed to a point stakes are high every game,” Pattison said.
It is conceivable that while this lineup of tough games can benefit the Nighthawks — “A tough regular season schedule is always going to prepare you,” Pattison said — it can also result in a team not qualifying for the playoffs. But, as Pattison notes, no matter the level of competition, if a team loses too many games and cannot overcome a challenging slate, it does not deserve to be in the postseason.
One thing any playoff contender needs is to not be overcome with injuries.
“You need to stay healthy,” said Pattison, whose team might have fewer opportunities to rest starters in the second halves of games as in the past, when the team all but had games in the bag by the start of the third quarter on an almost weekly basis, last year winning eight games by well above 30 points.
“It’s exciting. There are going to be more meaningful games on our schedule this year. Their goals and expectations are to compete for a state championship as well,” Pattison said. “It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere at these games.”
Last year, Newtown went 10-0 and earned the third seed based on the state’s playoff point system. Newtown had its way with every opponent except for Brookfield (21-0 win in a game that was tight at the half) and Masuk (21-14 to close out the regular season). The Nighthawks defeated No. 6 and traditional power Darien of the FCIAC in the state quarterfinals before falling to second-seeded and eventual champion Greenwich in the semis.
Although a favorite in terms of seeding, Newtown was arguably an underdog given Darien’s stature in the state coming off three straight Class LL titles and given the strength of the FCIAC, but Newtown’s win, along with victories over Cheshire and Norwich Free Academy in the regular season, Pattison hopes, silences any doubters about Newtown’s place in the state.
While the Nighthawks see their schedule toughen up after mostly-thorough domination in the SWC throughout the years, the team does lose a couple of what might have been challenging conference games this fall with New Fairfield and Brookfield off the docket. Still, Bunnell of Stratford and Masuk of Monroe (both of which tied the Hawks for the SWC Division I season championship a year ago) should be tough opponents, Pattison anticipates. Along with Weston, a team not on Newtown’s schedule, there are a handful of teams in contention for SWC bragging rights, Pattison anticipates.
Newtown’s schedule is vastly different than in past years. Not only are those nonconference games in the forefront, but an SWC rival the Hawks haven’t faced in a few seasons — Joel Barlow of Redding — is back on the schedule.
Newtown will have to overcome graduation of 18 seniors, including several All State selections, many of whom are playing football in college: Dan Mason (Ithaca), Carson Ivey (Bryant), Matt Dubois (Johns Hopkins), Joseph Pagett (Endicott), and Joe Zeller.
And then there is the quarterback spot. Having two players battle it out for playing time has its positive side, Pattison notes.
“I think we’re fortunate to have a situation where both kids are really talented. They both have big arms and do things individually well,” the coach said.
The Hawks return a wealth of talent on offense and defense. Most of the team’s starters and regulars are back in the fold.
Captains are defensive end/offensive tackles James Knox and Kyle Good; linebacker/fullback Jared Dunn; linebacker, tight end, and punter Jack Mulligan; and cornerback/ wide receiver Jack Zingaro.
Other key returnees are Miles Ricks, whom the coaching staff anticipates being the primary running back, and Riley Ward, expected to be the top receiver.
Zingaro led the team with a handful of interceptions a year ago. Will Swierbut, a defensive back and wide receiver, and Zach Loomis, a defensive end and offensive lineman, are also back on the field.
Kicker Devin O’Connell, who drilled a handful of field goals and made good on almost all of his extra point attempts, is another key returnee.
“I think we have a lot of experience coming back, and we have strong leadership from our upperclassmen. They have a lot of game experience. They’re not just varsity players; they’re seasoned varsity players,” Pattison points out.
Pattison said the team will use a variety of sets on offense, sometimes utilizing as many as four receivers on a spread offense play, for example. The team will mix and match its on-field personnel to best match up with the opponent from week-to-week. An example of this being successful last year was in the state playoff game against Darien when Newtown used its overall size advantage to pound the ball on the ground.
A team that always keeps defenses guessing with aerial and ground attacks, the Hawks leaned a little more heavily on the rushing game a year ago, Pattison said.
“We want to be more balanced,” the coach said.
The season begins with the New Milford game, Friday, September 13, when the Green Wave visit Blue & Gold Stadium to battle for the Boot Trophy at 7 pm. Newtown has dominated this matchup throughout the decades.
Then comes a September 20 visit to Prep at 6 pm as the Hawks face Newtown resident and Prep quarterback JP Iaropoli.
“The kids are really excited to play against one of their former teammates from youth,” said Pattison, adding that the Shelton clash, October 11 on the road at 7 pm, is also a reunion of sorts for many of the players who went head-to-head in youth football each season.
The Hawks host West Haven on September 27 for a 7 pm kickoff. Then comes an October 4 visit to SWC foe Pomperaug of Southbury at 6:30 pm. After the October 11 visit to Shelton, the Hawks have a bye week before playing three straight home games as Danbury, Stratford, and Bunnell come to town October 25 and November 1 and 8, respectively, all with 7 pm kickoffs scheduled. The Hawks visit Joel Barlow on November 15 in another 7 pm contest. The season concludes with the annual Thanksgiving Eve clash with Masuk, this year in Monroe. The rivals tangle on Wednesday, November 27, at 6 pm.
Then, it’s on to the playoffs, Pattison and company hope.
“The goal every year for us is to win a state championship. We were one win away from being there last year. We expect to be back in the mix to compete for a championship,” the coach said.