Faith, family and football

Naugatuck offensive coordinator Ollie Gray, center, leads the team in a prayer after the Greyhound’s game against Waterbury Career Academy Nov. 10 at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury. –KEN MORSE

When Dave Sollazzo burst onto the scene as the new head football coach for the Greyhounds this season, he preached about bringing back the Naugy tradition.

One of the first things he did on the job was to gather the team over the summer to watch a documentary called “The Photograph,” which focused on the 1942 Grey Cup won by the Toronto Royal Canadian Air Force Hurricanes. The team was made up of Canadian men training to become fighter pilots, including former Naugatuck High star football player Ed Poscavage, who died fighting in World War II.

After the team watched the documentary, Sollazzo turned to his new assistant coach and offensive coordinator Ollie Gray — a man who preaches faith, family and football in that order — to lead the team in a prayer before eating some pizza.

A new tradition was born.

“After that the kids asked me if I would do a pregame prayer before every game and it has really drawn us together as a family,” Gray says.

Gray, who works as a behavior therapist at Crosby High School, is a pastor ordained by Christ for the Nations Fellowship of Ministry and Churches.

He started coaching in 1989 in the Waterbury Pop Warner program. He’s also the head track and field coach for Kennedy High School, and has been an assistant football coach at Crosby, Sacred Heart and Nonnewaug.

“I always prayed before every game and usually afterwards,” Gray says.

Sollazzo was impressed with his new assistant coach and handed him the reins of the offense.

“Coach Gray is great with the kids,” Sollazzo says. “He has been around the league and football in this area for a long time and knows what he’s doing. That’s why I hired him. If you want to be successful you surround yourself with the best people possible.”

The results have been more than what they could have prayed for. The Greyhounds have averaged 44 points a game this season, scored over 60 points three times, are undefeated at 9-0 and enter the Thanksgiving Day game ranked No. 1 in Class LL.

The atmosphere around the Greyhounds this season is something that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.

Sollazzo, whose has an extensive resume as an assistant coach at the college level, is a big reason for that along with his handpicked coaching staff. Aside from Gray, the staff includes defensive coordinator and former Greyhound Kevin Cretella, line coach Scott Langenheim, assistant coach Joel Balkcom and special teams coach Brendan McWeeney.

“I think the biggest difference to our team this year is the coaching staff,” senior quarterback Mike Plasky says. “The motivation and intensity they bring every day has made us into a very good football team. Having Coach Gray praying before and after every game has really brought this team together.”

It has also become a normal sight to see former Naugatuck head football coach Craig Peters, a legend in the borough, on the sidelines chatting it up with Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess and former Naugatuck boys soccer coach Art Nunes, another local legend.

Sollazzo has welcomed help from the alumni, former coaches and just about anyone wanting to bring back the tradition of Naugy football with open arms.

“There are no egos around here,” Sollazzo says. “Yeah, I coached in college and been to bowl games. But you know what, I was one of about 20 assistant coaches. There is no room for egos in this game or on this team. We are one and we are a family.”

That family atmosphere has taken hold of these Greyhounds.

Naugatuck offensive coordinator Ollie Gray, left, celebrates with quarterback Michael Plasky after Plasky threw a touchdown pass Oct. 20 against Watertown. Gray is one member of Naugatuck’s all new coaching staff this season. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

“Coach Sollazzo has been like a father figure to every one of us since day one,” senior defensive back Nick Boudreau says. “I appreciate everything he has done for us to help us become better football players and better people for that matter.”

Having a whole new coaching staff to start the season may have created some anxious moments prior to the first game, but the Greyhounds found out early on that Sollazzo and the entire coaching staff were ready to work.

“I really wasn’t too sure what to expect going into the season because we had lost a lot of size at the line of scrimmage,” senior lineman Sammy Ayash says. “It all comes down to how hard are you willing to work.”

“I’ve learned so much this past season from Coach Sollazzo,” Ayash continues. “He’s more of a teacher and a mentor. He has really brought this team together as a family. He has shown us how to have fun and to be successful on the football field.”

The Greyhounds kneeling in a huddle after each game with heads bowed and Gray leading them in prayer adds yet another dynamic to the family.

“I have been coaching for 28 years and these kids become your football sons,” Gray says. “You try and teach them the game of football, but you also want to teach them how to become fine young men with good morals and strong character.”

“I always pray that God gives me the wisdom to have a positive influence on these young kids’ lives,” Gray adds. “You want to show them the value of respecting one another and being good to each other.”

On Thanksgiving Day, the Greyhounds will come together as a family for their biggest challenge of the season against rival Ansonia.

“Football is a funny game. You just never know what is going to happen,” Gray says. “Ansonia is Ansonia, but I will take our kids any day. I’m looking forward to the challenge and I’m sure our kids are looking forward to the challenge as well.”

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Citizen’s News’ special Thanksgiving football section published the week of Nov. 24, 2017.