Editor’s note: This article appears in the special Thanksgiving football section published in the Citizen’s News the week of Nov. 29, 2013.
Craig Bruno felt as nervous as he has been in his 13-year head coaching career before Naugatuck’s Sept. 20 game against Wolcott. It was only Week 2 of the season; no championships were going to be won or lost that night. Still, the butterflies turned into bats for Naugy’s first-year coach.
That’s because he desperately wanted for he and his Greyhounds to make their home debut on their brand-new artificial turf field.
“They were so excited that first game,” says Bruno, whose team won a 42-36 thriller in overtime. “It’s not just that it was a close game, but they sensed the history that it was going to be the first game on a turf that’s going to be here for a long time. They got to be part of something new.”
The Veterans Field turf was the first part of the high school’s $81 million renovation to be completed. It includes an eight-lane track and improvements to the seating capacity, which is the largest in the Naugatuck Valley League.
Bruno spent his first 12 years at Bunnell of Stratford, where his Bulldogs also played on a turf field. But he says the facilities in the South-West Conference don’t compare to what his Greyhounds have in the NVL.
“It’s beautiful. It has a lot of character,” Bruno says of his new home turf. “The field is beautiful, but the setting here is what makes it. The crowds throughout this league and just Valley football — this is my first time seeing this, and I can see how real the passion and intensity is.”
Over the last few years, the old natural grass of Veterans Field made for poor playing conditions, especially late in the season. Ryne Griesenauer, a senior captain and the team’s leading wide receiver, enjoys having a pristine surface where he can rack up the numbers.
“It’s a lot better,” Griesenauer says. “With grass, sometimes it’s too hard or too soft and it’s tough to plant. I’ve got no excuses anymore. I can come out here and play 110 percent no matter the weather.”
Bruno’s traditionally high-powered offensive have benefited from playing on turf. He led the Bulldogs to state championships in 2006 and 2007 thanks to a dynamic passing attack. Naugy’s new facility was a major draw when he accepted the job in January.
“You either get a turf field or I don’t coach there,” Bruno jokes. “That’s a prerequisite.”
This season has felt like a Naugatuck football rebirth, Griesenauer says. The combination of Bruno’s fresh attitude and the new turf has motivated the ‘Hounds to a 9-1 record entering Thanksgiving.
“It’s with the whole new era around here,” Griesenauer says. “We got Coach Bruno and his whole staff, and we got this beautiful field. Not only are we able to play on it, but this is the first time that the games here have really meant something. We know that we’re going to have people here, so we want to show them what’s going on.”
The turf, which is also used by Naugy’s soccer teams, is only the first of many improvements to the high school’s athletic facilities. New natural grass baseball and softball fields have been laid on the lower level, and an indoor complex is still in the works. In addition to a renovated swimming pool and gymnasium, Naugatuck will add a wing with a new weight room and team room, and there will be new locker rooms and coaches offices.
“The transition has been a little bit tough, but it’s going to be worth the wait,” Bruno says.
Bruno has been happy with the support the team has received throughout the regular season. He hopes to be able to turn around from his home sideline on Thanksgiving and see Greyhounds fans packed on the sprawling hill.
“A field is a field, but a school and a community give character to it,” Bruno says. “These people have been waiting to see the passion back on the field, and it’s here.”
The one thing Naugy fans haven’t seen on the new turf is a loss. Griesenauer says his team doesn’t plan on suffering its first to Ansonia on Thanksgiving morning.
“We don’t want anyone to come in here and beat us,” Griesenauer says. “This is our place, and as long as I’m here I want to keep it that way. This is our home.”