Aggressive game plan nets Naugy 2001 NVL title

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

Naugatuck’s Matt Paradisi runs for a 66-yard touchdown against Ansonia during the annual Thanksgiving game in 2001. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVES

This is the first story of our annual series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in local sports history. Our first story looks at the 20-year anniversary of the Naugatuck High football team’s memorable Thanksgiving victory over Ansonia, which sealed a perfect regular season.

There couldn’t have been more pressure on a high school football coach than Rob Plasky felt in 2001.

Plasky, a 1989 Naugatuck High grad, was about to enter his first season as a head coach — but more significantly, he was set to take over for the legendary Craig Peters, who won two state titles and eight Naugatuck Valley League crowns during his 28-season tenure from 1973-2000.

“I was thinking that I had to carry the torch,” Plasky said. “Coach Peters was my coach. I knew the legacy he left behind.”

Luckily for Plasky, his old ball coach left his former quarterback a cupboard full of talent for the 2001 season. The Greyhounds were returning 16 seniors and coming off a 2000 season in which they took Ansonia to double overtime on Thanksgiving.

“I have to give Coach Peters a lot of credit for our success,” Plasky said. “We had a lot of veteran leadership coming back. For me, I didn’t want to change too much. I wanted to form my own identity as a coach, but I wanted to keep that whole Naugatuck tradition alive.”

His first move in establishing that new identity was tapping a freshman as his starting quarterback.

“I made a huge decision in taking a freshman in Darryl White and making him the starting quarterback over a senior,” Plasky said. “In the preseason, anytime Darryl White was in the game, we were putting points on the board. It was a tough decision, but it turned out to be the right decision.”

Plasky also chose to overemphasize physical conditioning.

“I said we would never lose a football game because we were out of shape,” he recalled. “Our preseason workouts were like the military. Some of the kids will still tell me that they hate me for what I put them through that preseason. There was one moment — when every single kid was on their back in the end zone and I told them, ‘Get to the 50-yard line and sprint like you never have before, or you’ll do it again,’ I’ve never seen 60 kids sprint like that. When we left the field, I told them, ‘This is how you’re going to have to feel after this game to beat Seymour.’”

The Week 6 matchup against the Wildcats was a key milestone for Naugy. Seymour had reached the 2000 Class M semifinals the previous season and was poised for championship success in 2001.

“They were averaging 48 points a game, zero punts a game,” Plasky recounted. “We scouted them for five straight games and we were thinking, ‘How are we going to beat them?’”

Seymour cruised down the field on its first possession for a touchdown.

“They scored like they were playing against oxygen, so on our first play, we ran a flea flicker,” Plasky said. “Pablo (Couvertier) turned around, flipped to Darryl, threw the ball to Matt Gomes, another freshman for a touchdown. I think we shocked them. It was freshman to freshman, and we weren’t going to sit down. It was a statement — 65 yards. We ended up making Seymour punt the ball six times after that. Our defense went nuts after that touchdown.”

That victory propelled Naugy until the regular-season finale, a home matchup between the 9-0 Greyhounds and the 8-1 Chargers. Naugatuck hadn’t beaten Ansonia or won an NVL title since 1993.

Plasky’s plan was to call an aggressive game.

“I felt like over the years, Naugatuck always settled and didn’t play aggressively against Ansonia,” Plasky said. “I thought we were better than them, and we wanted to show it. We went for four or five fourth-down conversions, and we made all of them. I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t here to settle for field position or anything.”

In the fourth quarter, senior running back Matt Paradisi fumbled the ball in Ansonia territory and the Chargers’ Willie Wooden returned it for a 33-yard touchdown. Despite being penalized after scoring for flipping into the end zone, Ansonia grabbed a 13-6 lead with 8:16 remaining.

Plasky was sure that Paradisi would get another opportunity.

“I said to him, ‘Listen, you’re getting the ball the next play we’re out there,” Plasky recalled. “He looked at me like I was out of my mind.”

Sure enough, right after Ansonia’s penalized kickoff gave Naugy good field position, Paradisi ripped off a 66-yard touchdown run on a sweep to pull the Greyhounds to within 13-12 with 7:52 left.

“He outran Kenny Tinney, who was a stud,” Plasky said. “I believed in these kids.”

Now, Plasky faced the most important decision of the season: have Couvertier kick it for the tie, or go for two and the lead?

Naugatuck’s Jesse Culbertson hugs head coach Rob Plasky after the Greyhounds defeated Ansonia to win the NVL title on Thanksgiving in 2001. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVES

“I called a timeout and went into the huddle,” Plasky said. “Pablo had hurt his right foot, which was his kicking foot. I knew he’d put it through the uprights regardless, but I had that moment as a coach when I put it in the players’ hands. I asked the players what they wanted to do. Jesse Culbertson, Tom Boisvert, the captains, they said, ‘Let’s win it here.’

“I put it in their hands because I sort of knew what they’d run, but they shocked me,” Plasky continued. “I thought they’d run to the stronger side of our line — Boisvert and (Justin) Kievits — but they wanted to run it to the weak side. We wanted to put the tight end to the strength of the line — it was a great football conversation. You’d have thought we were writing a book, but it all happened in 25 seconds. That’s a memory for the rest of my life and their lives. They wanted to go for two, they gave me the play, and they did it — how much more confidence could we have?”

Plasky said that as he walked away from the huddle, he didn’t hear any of the estimated 8,500 fans — or anyone on the sidelines — at Veterans Field.

“The whole screaming crowd went silent in my ears,” Plasky said. “I walked to the sideline and my coaching staff was all talking to me asking what we were doing, and I didn’t answer anyone. I think I said to Coach (Mark) Swanson, ‘I’m either a hero or a zero.’ He’s on the headset and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Figure it out.’”

Couvertier punched in the conversion for a 14-13 lead, and the Greyhounds’ defense held on for the win to send the home fans into a frenzy.

The win also sent Naugatuck to the Class LL state playoffs for the first time since 1993, although the trip was short-lived. Greenwich, led by All-American and future 11-year NFL center John Sullivan, cruised past the Greyhounds in a 33-6 victory.

“That was like getting hit by a freight train,” Plasky said. “The kids saw Sullivan playing nose guard. Jesse Culbertson was one of the toughest kids I know and [Sullivan] put him on his back. He threw Pablo on his back like a rag doll. I was on the headset saying, ‘This could be a long game.’ We couldn’t budge him. He’s the best high school football player I’ve seen in my life.”

Still, the 2001 season remains one of the most special in Naugatuck’s storied football history.

“We won an NVL title with Coach Peters, and I’ll never forget that day the rest of my life,” Plasky said of his own playing career. “I always wanted my kids to have memories like that, and we did it.”