NAUGATUCK — Dense trees and brush provide a shroud of secrecy and seclusion around Naugatuck’s practice football field.
It’s the perfect security blanket for the Greyhounds during perhaps the most tumultuous week in the 100-plus-year history of the program.
Defensive coordinator Shawn Kuczenski was elevated to interim head coach last Friday, a day after former head coach Rob Plasky resigned amid an investigation into potential recruiting violations. (See story below)
“We’re just trying to keep everyone together,” Kuczenski said. “We’ve adopted an us-versus-everyone attitude. All the coaches are keeping everyone together. It’s going well right now.”
Kuczenski and offensive coordinator Chico Echevarria said they will each be responsible for their sides of the ball and use a team effort to manage the Greyhounds.
Naugatuck Athletic Director Tom Pompei said the administration decided to appoint Kuczenski as the interim coach instead of posting the full-time position because the season is just a few weeks away.
He said the posting would have gone up Monday and couldn’t have been taken down until Sept. 10, just two days before Naugy’s first game against Wilby.
Maintaining the program’s consistency in the face of turmoil was the best way to go, Pompei said.
“It would have been too disruptive to look for a new coach right now,” Pompei said. “We want to keep everything as fluid as possible. The kids know this staff and know these plays. And I think the staff and players we have in that locker room are good enough to have a great season.”
Pompei also said the program is lucky to have quality assistants to keep the team on track.
“I think I have great coaches and leadership,” Pompei said. “They coach the kids for life lessons first and sports second. This was an isolated incident that was eliminated and dealt with appropriately.”
Pompei and Naugatuck High Principal Janice Saam said they’ve both spoken with the team and think the players have their heads in the right place.
“I think they’re going to stay focused on what’s ahead,” Saam said after talking to the team Monday afternoon. “I think they’re very dedicated to each other. I think they’re going to put their best foot forward. This is beyond playing football. It’s about overcoming obstacles.”
Pompei added, “I’ve been more involved than ever. Chico told me they were going to need my support and I’ve been there. It’s like every tough situation; everyone’s elevating their responsibilities. It’s a tight-knit group. I told them in the locker room that everyone outside was just a distraction.”
The Greyhounds were at work in stations Tuesday. Jason Bradley and Ricky Plasky are still battling for the starting quarterback job while old and new faces can be found at skill positions and in the trenches.
Brandon Kuczenski, Shawn’s son and a standout basketball player, joins the varsity team for his senior season and is expected to make an impact at tight end.
Mick Pernell, a senior co-captain who could be Naugy’s best skill player and cornerback, said practice gives the team a chance to escape and improve.
“We’re doing great,” Pernell said. “We’re not worried about anything else while we’re here. It’s the same game we’ve been playing forever.”
Devon Watkins, also a senior co-captain who will anchor both lines for the ‘Hounds, agreed with Pernell.
“We lose track of everything else that’s going on when we’re up here,” Watkins said.
Pernell also said the last week and a half have has given the Greyhounds extra fuel for the season. They played their first scrimmage last Saturday at Hall in West Hartford.
“It’s given us motivation,” Pernell said. “It’s really keeping us focused. We have a lot to play for this season.”
Neither the players nor the coaches see any reason to lower their goals for 2012.
“I still believe we’re going to win the Copper Division, play for the NVL title and be in states,” Kuczenski said. “The kids are psyched. We’re not lowering anything. We thought we had a state team before this happened and we still think that.”
“If anything, this heightens our expectations,” Watkins added. “We can’t have sophomores play like sophomores. We need everyone to step up.”
Pompei and Saam said they hope the negative buzz subsides by the time the season begins.
“The quality of our kids and coaches should be enough to dissuade any negative opinions of what Naugy’s all about,” Pompei said.
“What always has to stay first and foremost is the kids,” Saam said. “This is about Naugatuck High School students and the kids who play football.”
Plasky resigns amid investigation
NAUGATUCK — Rob Plasky, who was set to begin his 12th season as head football coach at Naugatuck High, resigned late last Thursday amid an investigation into potential recruiting violations.
Plasky’s resignation came a day after he was suspended by the Naugatuck school administration for his involvement in what is believed to be the unauthorized contact with and aid to a pair of former Sacred Heart High players looking to transfer to Naugatuck.
“I wish I could comment,” Plasky said Monday. “But with the investigation ongoing, and my cooperating fully with it, I’m going to hold off on saying anything until everything comes out.”
Defensive coordinator Shawn Kuczenski was appointed the interim coach last Friday.
Naugatuck athletic director Tom Pompei said Plasky and Frank Johnson, co-director of the Naugatuck Football Alumni Association, reported the potential violation Monday night.
The exact circumstances are still unclear but NFAA funding was offered to Meme Martin, mother of Javon Martin and guardian of David Coggins, to help pay outstanding tuition to Sacred Heart.
Johnson did not comment on the events surrounding the investigation but said he was “heartbroken.”
The students were looking to transfer to Naugatuck but Sacred Heart wouldn’t release their transcripts until they resolved their tuition balance and took their final exams.
Pompei said his only contact with the players came when their family inquired about transferring in June and they shadowed at school for a day. Otherwise, he said, he “really stayed away. I did what I asked Rob to do.”
If Martin and Coggins end up moving to Naugatuck and the CIAC finds recruiting violations, neither player would be eligible to play football for the Greyhounds. They are entering their senior years.
Naugatuck began its investigation last Tuesday. The process is being handled by borough attorney Ned Fitzpatrick, who is retained by the school district. He is paid on an hourly basis, according to Naugatuck Board of Education Chair David Heller.
“We’ve conducted a series of interviews,” Fitzpatrick said Tuesday. “We have every indication that there has been full cooperation from everyone who’s met with us. They’ve all been voluntary. We’re going to follow the evidence where it leads us.”
Fitzpatrick said he could not comment on when he expected his final report to be ready.
“We’re aware of the timeliness of the investigation with regard to the CIAC and the football program,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re expeditiously moving through the investigatory process.”
Naugatuck High Principal Janice Saam and Heller both said Monday they expect Fitzpatrick’s report to be passed to the school board before being relayed to the CIAC, which will review the matter and could levy sanctions. It is against CIAC rules to entice or provide remunerations to any student at another school for athletic reasons.
The penalties could include a fine of up to $10,000, probation, a postseason ban and the suspension of Naugatuck’s athletics program.
“I hope that whatever the penalties end up being they don’t hurt the current students and program,” Saam said Monday. “They’re the innocent victims of adult actions. I think the CIAC will be extremely fair-minded. I don’t think they’re out to hurt kids. I think they’ll make a fair decision.”
Heller said a maximum fine could be difficult to handle.
“We work hard to be frugal,” Heller said. “Any extra expenses that are unexpected would be difficult to figure out how they would be paid and that it would mean for our ability to educate our students and provide them with athletic opportunities.”
Naugatuck administrators are hopeful their quick action in investigating and suspending Plasky will show the CIAC their commitment to resolving and correcting the indiscretion.
“I certainly hope [our actions] look favorably upon us,” Saam said. “I know [the CIAC] has to consider Naugatuck but also send a message to other towns. I don’t envy their position. I hope they take it a bit easy on us but I trust their professional judgment.”
Pompei added, “It’s our hope and optimistic expectation that our actions help minimize the penalties. We may face a fine and, worst-case scenario, probation for a year or two. But I hope not. I hope our decisive and swift action suffices.”
Pompei said he’s not clear on what will be the CIAC’s timeline of making a decision. The Republican-American reported last Saturday that CIAC Executive Director Karissa Niehoff wants to make a “quick” decision because the season is within two weeks of starting.
It’s unclear whether Niehoff or a small group will make the initial decision or whether the CIAC will wait until its Sept. 20 Board of Control meeting. That meeting would be before Naugatuck’s second game of the season.
The administrators said they were disappointed with Plasky but credited him for resigning.
“I’m upset, hurt and angry,” Pompei said. “But I am appreciative of his stepping up and acknowledging his effort because I think that will save some impact on our program. So I’m grateful for that.”
“He put himself second and the school, players and program first,” Saam said. “That was an unselfish act on his part. That’s something [the players] can take away from this.”
Heller said the board has been pleased with the administration’s response.
“We think the administrative leadership at the high school and in the district has been working hard to resolve this matter,” Heller said. “They’re doing whatever it takes to get it resolved.”
A third Sacred Heart player, Xavier Woods, transferred to Naugatuck earlier this month but returned to Sacred Heart shortly after Plasky’s resignation. A fourth transfer, Jerome Love, left Kennedy High at the end of last school year and is “way separate” from the Sacred Heart players, Pompei said. Love is expected to be eligible for the Greyhounds’ first game Sept. 12 at Wilby.