People remember the beginning and the end but not the middle. If that old nugget of wisdom actually contains a nugget of truth, the Naugatuck High School football team has a chance Thursday to make the 2009 season pretty memorable—in a good way.
Opening night was storybook: The Greyhounds, coming off a 3-8 campaign, coached by a man who had been let go during the offseason, and having just lost a senior captain for the year, invaded DeBarber Field and upset Seymour, ranked No. 4 in the state at the time.
“I think it has to go along with resiliency,” said Rob Plasky, the head coach who won back his job in a messy appeal before the Board of Education, after the emotional win. “Along with myself trying to be resilient in the offseason … I think the kids were resilient too. Without a head football coach they were resilient, and they got it done. They took it upon themselves to work hard in the offseason.”
“This is number one,” gushed Mike Kennedy (see story, page six), the leader forced to the sideline by an ACL tear, when asked where the victory ranked in his career. “This is number one for my class and for all the younger classes. … We proved everybody wrong this first game. And we’re going to keep doing it.”
The thing is the Hounds didn’t keep doing it. They beat Torrington a week later but then blew second-half leads against Derby and St. Paul consecutively and were embarrassed by a 42-6 loss at Notre Dame-West Haven. During the three-game slide, Naugy suffered what can only be called an injury pandemic: Four concussions, a broken collarbone and so many thigh contusions that the Garnet and Grey might as well have become the Black and Blue.
Sophomore Jake Yourison’s rushing performance for the ages—332 yards and five touchdowns in a 35-14 win over Sacred Heart—provided hope that the season was turning around. But more injuries contributed to a disappointing home defeat to previously winless Kennedy, and the Greyhounds hurt themselves with turnovers in an L at Woodland.
Five losses in six tries: It was hard for even the most optimistic Naugatuck fan to believe assistant coach Mark Swanson, when after the Hawks game he told a despondent Dan Mariano, “We’re going to win out.”
Then came the Holy Cross game. The Crusaders entered the contest 8-0, sitting atop both the Naugatuck Valley League and Class MM standings. Their defense had been positively stifling: 8.25 points per game. All week, players heard classmates predicting their obliteration.
Instead, the Greyhounds made their gutsiest showing of the season, keeping the Crusaders, who entered as the No. 10 team in the state, off the scoreboard in a stunning, 8-0 upset.
So here the borough gridders stand: 4-5 with archrival Ansonia (7-2) visiting Veterans Field on Turkey Day. The middle was lousy, no doubt, but the end still can be fantastic. Naugatuck has lost 20 of its last 22 meetings with the Chargers and has been shut out three years in a row. This group of seniors has never scored on Ansonia.
How realistic is a Naugy win for the first time since 2001? Well, Plasky says one Ansonia strength worries him more than any other.
“Right away I could say speed, and you can’t coach speed,” he said. “I’ve seen them on film, and they pose a lot of threat with their speed. When you have that on both sides of the ball, it can hurt you at any time. They could bust one at any time. And defensively, you’ve gotta just hope they’re not in a good position, because when they are, they could hurt you with their speed.”
The injury report is a mixed one: Expected to play are two-way linemen Aaron Echevarria (deep bone bruise) and Dan Mariano (elbow) and running back Marty DeJesus (thigh contusion), though Plasky concedes, “One hit with Marty and he’s done.” Definitely out are running back Andrew Cirino (broken collarbone) and fullback Jake Yourison (chronic back pain).
“We’ve done really well with [overcoming injuries], I think,” Plasky said. “I mean all our coaches are working their behinds off and preparing those kids for that spot. I mean every week, Coach [Chuck] Rek is introducing a new line technique to a new kid or new stunt to a new kid on the line, and Coach [Chico] Echevarria is doing the same thing offensively. Coach [Mark] Swanson [has] a new linebacking corps, I got a new secondary corps. Coach Hayward, of all of us, has the toughest job ‘cuz he has special teams, and every day he calls a special team out, it’s a different 11.”
Junior Tyler Conklin will make his second consecutive—and second career—start at quarterback. At six feet, four inches, Conklin has an easier time seeing the field than 5-8 classmate Erich Broadrick, who started 19 straight games, until last week.
“[Conklin] has an uncanny way of ball-faking that really, really sucks defenses,” Plasky said, “which is nice when you’re playing a Holy Cross or an Ansonia that fast flows.”
Broadrick, meanwhile, will help fill out NHS’ depleted fleet of running backs; he carried 22 times for 50 yards in the win over Holy Cross.
That win is, by the way, proof that the middle really doesn’t matter much.
“Like I said to the kids after the football game against Holy Cross,” Plasky recalled: “‘Forty years from now, you’re gonna remember the game that you just played last night and won—40 years from now. You’re not gonna remember your record; you’re gonna remember the night you beat Holy Cross when they were 8-0—8-0, and nobody gave you a chance. No one can take that from you.’”
If all goes well, the Greyhounds will remember Thursday’s contest 40 years from now too.