NAUGATUCK — The Greyhounds came into this season looking to take care of some unfinished business.
Naugatuck entered the Thanksgiving game against Ansonia last year with a 9-0 record — the same record the Greyhounds boast this season heading into the annual holiday clash — but finished 9-2 after a 46-28 loss to Ansonia on Thanksgiving and a 35-13 loss in the Class LL quarterfinals to South Windsor.
Head coach Dave Sollazzo and his staff — offensive coordinator Ollie Gray, defensive coordinator Kevin Cretella, special teams coach Brendan McWeeney, line coach Scott Langenheim and assistant coach Joel Balkcom — headed back to the drawing board to formulate a plan to take care of that unfinished business.
Perhaps the biggest difference from last year’s 9-0 Greyhounds to this year’s 9-0 squad can be found in the play of the defense and special teams.
On defense, the Greyhounds have shut out six of their nine opponents thus far, surrendering just seven touchdowns and 45 points overall.
You have to go back to 1990 when the Greyhounds posted seven shutouts in a row to find a more effective defense.
Cretella was donning the Garnet and Grey back in those days as one of the key players on that defense. He has since gained a wealth of knowledge, coaching in the college ranks at Yale, Western Connecticut, Central Connecticut and Post.
“The biggest difference is the maturity of the players,” Cretella says. “Last year, we had a lot of new juniors who didn’t have a lot of experience and were learning a new system. That takes time to develop.”
“We preach in practice that all 11 guys are going for the ball,” he adds. “It’s what we did coaching at the college level, and when you have 11 guys going for the ball it opens up opportunities to come up with turnovers.”
Naugy runs a 3-4 defense, utilizing different blitzes and stunts to stop offenses in their tracks.
Up front are junior nose guard Herve Tshibamba and senior defensive ends Tyrell Allen and Mike Amankwah.
Senior outside linebackers Jayden Anderson and Jon Vincent team up with inside linebackers senior Mike Natkiel and junior Malachi Gatison for the Greyhounds’ middle line of defense.
In the secondary, there’s cornerbacks senior Nick Airall and junior Paul Marsh, with safeties senior Zach Koslosky and juniors Isaiah Williams and Jeff Schebell manning the last line of defense.
The Greyhounds’ defense has forced eight interceptions and seven fumbles, and scored six touchdowns.
“We work really hard on defense and take a lot of pride in what we have accomplished so far,” Allen says. “Having faced a strong test against Seymour (a 28-26 come-from-behind win) was actually a good thing and will have us prepared going up against a very good Ansonia team.”
The Greyhounds play special teams with that same attacking mindset. The coaching staff doesn’t just run 11 players out there for punts, returns and kickoffs. Everything has a purpose, and that purpose is focused on in every practice.
“It’s all about taking advantage of every aspect of the game that we could,” Cretella says. “We practice each and every situation, we don’t just leave it to chance. And the guys are responding and working hard.”
Six blocked punts have led to two being returned for touchdowns, and several hurried snaps on punts created another two touchdowns along with four fumble recoveries and a safety.
Senior Elijah Robinson, who suffered an injury against Holy Cross on Nov. 9, has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns, and the punt return team averages close to 20 yards a return.
Senior Zach Koslosky is 41-for-52 on extra points and has kicked a 32-yard field goal.
“Each week we are getting better and better at all the four phases of the game: offense, defense, scout team and special teams,” Gray says. “The points that have been scored by the defense and the special teams have certainly taken a lot of pressure off the offense.”
“Special teams is a third of the game, and a lot of people don’t put a lot of time into developing that,” Gray continues. “We do. We spend a lot of time developing that part of the game and it shows.”
That time spent showed early in a 55-0 win over Torrington on Oct. 26.
Senior Mike Natkiel recovered two botched snaps on punts, returning one for a touchdown and the other to the 1-yard line to set the tone for the game.
In a 56-0 win over Kennedy on Oct. 19, Vincent returned a fumbled punt attempt for a touchdown, and Koslosky blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.
The Greyhounds are taking advantage of every opportunity they can as they look to take care of some unfinished business.
“A lot of credit goes to the coaching staff,” Natkiel says. “Their attention to detail has us well prepared for every possible scenario, and our attacking style towards the ball has allowed us numerous opportunities.”
Editor’s note: This article appears in the Citizen’s News’ special Thanksgiving football section published Nov. 22, 2018.