CHESHIRE — The dinner bell rings at Alumni Field on Friday night at 7 o’clock sharp.
You may expect the Cheshire football team to be on time to the table.
“We’ve got a group of guys that is hungry,” head coach Don Drust said after practice Monday as he and the Rams geared up for Friday’s season opener against Hilhouse. “Last year isn’t out of their minds. They know what last year was and they’re hungry to go out and write their own chapter of the book.”
Last year? The Rams dropped their first five games and finished 3-7. It is the unappealing appetizer, passed up, that has the Cheshire belly a-rumble.
A year later, the Rams return to a table freshly set. They are now in Tier 2 of the Southern Connecticut Conference, which puts them in league with Amity, Hamden, Harding, Hillhouse, Wilbur Cross and neighboring Sheehan.
Cheshire plays the latter four, but not Amity and Hamden. Conference crossovers come against Shelton (Tier 1) and East Haven (Tier 3). Non-league Connecticut Football Alliance games are lined up with Hall (CCC), Fairfield Warde (FCIAC) and Masuk (SWC).
And then, of course, there’s the Thanksgiving Apple Classic with Southington, which Cheshire will host this year.
Will the 2019 feast continue into December for the Rams, who haven’t savored postseason fare since the Class LL championship season of 2009? We shall see. For now, Cheshire is focused on the first plate.
“We’ve got to play one week at a time,” Drust said. “I know that’s cliche and not what you want to hear, but we have to learn how to prepare every day and we have to learn how to prepare to win every day. We have to do all of those things. We’re going to take it one day at a time, one week at time.
“It never works out when you get too far ahead of yourself.”
Here’s what Drust and his staff know they have in hand heading into the season: a considerable number of returning players led by a senior class that sets the right tone.
“If there’s one thing you talk about every year, it’s about your seniors,” said the eighth-year head coach. “How do they approach it? How do they attack it? This senior group, from all the way back to the winter when they were in the weight room, they’ve worked hard. Real hard.
“This senior group is excited to go out there as seniors and put a stamp on their season, on their career here.”
The Rams return starters virtually across the board, from the trenches to the skill positions.
Perhaps the hungriest of the lot is senior quarterback Jason Shumilla, whose junior season was cut short by injury in Week 4.
Shumilla leads an attack that returns leading rusher Jake McAlinden (153 carries, 973 yards) and leading receiver Alec Frione (18 catches, 252 yards).
The Rams have depth at both postions. Sophomore Christian Russo (53-276) and junior Ryan Mancl (26-157) both saw ample time in the backfield last year. The receiving corps returns junior Nick DiDomizio (9-70) and senior Colby Griffin, who stepped in at QB when Shumilla went down with his injury.
Junior Nick Valenti and sophomore Ben Wable appear ready to move into the aerial mix.
Up front, Cheshire brings back four starting linemen: seniors Will Bergin (6-3, 260) and Sean Cangiano (6-2, 250), juniors Chisom Okoro (5-9, 200) and Colin Crowe (6-1, 210).
Another junior, Dan Bourdeau (5-11, 180) steps in at center.
”We’ve got five guys up front and then there are guys after that,” Drust noted. “Senior Kenny Glover has worked extremely, extremely hard. He’s put in a ton of time and a ton of effort. He’s a guy who’s got to be able to help us.
”There’s a lot of names like that — complementary guys that, for this thing to go the way we want it to, have to be able to play a role and be ready to go.”
The big boys up front will play on both sides of the ball. Bergin and DiDomizio are the defensive ends, Cangiano and Chisom the tackles.
Crowe and Glover, who goes 6-2, 215, will also rep at D-end.
Joe Volpe, 6-1, 250 and only a sophomore, provides depth at tackle with 5-8, 210 junior Paul LaMadeleine.
The linebackers are led by last year’s leading tacklers, Jacob Dubois and Trevor DeLott. Dubois registered 72 tackles. DeLott had 59.
In the secondary, Frione and Russo are returning starters at the corners. Valente, who had a strong preseason, will also rotate in.
Griiffin, McAlinden and Wable are the safeties along with senior Max Shafer and 6-2 junior Jack Lovelace.
”We’re going to find our best mix and our best fit and try to put the best 11 that we can,” Drust said.
”You’ve got some guys in the mix that have some time under those lights, and it’s really hard to simulate that, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to check both boxes,” Drust added. “You’ve got to be able to put, ‘OK, they have a lot of experience under those lights; now you’ve got to continue to work and grow and improve.’ Those guys have worked really hard so far.”
The Rams have the added boost of a strong kicking game. Jotham Casey, a junior, returns for his second season. He was 19-for-21 on PATs and 4-for-5 on field goals a year ago.
Add it up, and Cheshire has the pieces.
“Just like anybody, you’ve got to stay healthy so you can continue to develop that depth and complement guys instead of having to throw guys into the mix right off the rip,” said Drust. “We’ve got some veteran guys that we think can play a little bit. We’ve just got to stay healthy and keep working every day. We’ve just got to stay at it.
“There are no guarantees on Friday night because the other team on the other sideline worked hard, too, and did a lot of things to prepare, too, but as long as you’ve worked as hard as you can and you look back and you know you gave everything you had to make it special for your senior year, that’s all you can ask for,” Drust added. “These guys have done that. They’ve bonded; they’ve stayed together. They’re friends; they’re a good group of guys. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.”
■Sept. 13 vs. Hillhouse, 7 p.m.■Sept. 20 at Hall, 7 p.m.■Sept. 27 at Fairfield Warde, 7 p.m.■Oct. 4 at Shelton, 7 p.m.■Oct. 18 vs. Masuk, 7 p.m.■Oct. 25 at Wilbur Cross, 3:30 p.m.■Nov. 1 at East Haven, 7 p.m.■Nov. 15 vs. Sheehan, 7 p.m.■Nov. 22 vs. Harding, 7 p.m.■Nov. 27 vs. Southington, 10 a.m.