MERIDEN — There is a lot of beef on the Maloney offensive line.
For that matter, there is a lot of beef IN the Maloney offensive line.
This is a unit, after all, that likes a good cookout, and when senior center Ryan Martel is manning the grill, which is most of the time, he’s got a house rule.
“I only make doubles,” he says. “That’s my only rule: two burgers at once.”
So, let’s see, that’s two patties per player — the starting five, the backups, the younger guys … how many burgers a bash would that be?
“Let’s just say,” Martel replied with his ready laugh, “a lot of cows were killed this summer.”
Martel, guards Max Ganter, Andy Cruz and Toby Canales, and tackles D.J. Posey and Trevor Santiago have proven anew that the football team that cooks together off the field tends to cook together upon it. The Spartans roll into Saturday’s Class L state final at 10-2, putting up 35 points and 382 yards a game behind an offensive line that averages 6 feet, 2 inches and 276 pounds across.
Mike Falis, Maloney’s veteran assistant coach who specializes in the offensive line, calls this group the biggest, smartest and flat-out best unit he’s ever coached. Head coach Kevin Frederick says the O-line is is the Spartans’ Square 1.
“I say it before every game: It all starts up front,” Frederick said. “It’s no different this year. We’re just blessed to have some of those guys. Everyone says, ‘Oh, they’re really big.’ But they’re physical, they’re athletic.
“It all starts up front with the big guys. We’re going to try to ride them to get this championship.”
Like all good offensive lines, Maloney’s 2018 crew combines size, mobility and technique, and Falis has said the starters are sharp enough to make their own in-game adjustments.
And yet this O-line’s mesh goes beyond that. Posey termed it “a bond, a brotherhood” that grew out of all those summer cookouts that followed passing league games and lineman competitions and weightlifting sessions.
“That’s what really brought our chemistry together,” Posey said. “Having all the O-linemen there, playing around, having fun, wrestling, doing the usual brother stuff.”
And eating burgers. Many burgers.
“We get along really well, especially when I’m making them burgers,” Martel likes to remind you. “I make a mean burger.”
The bugers, the burgers — in a city famous for Ted’s and K LaMay’s and steamed cheeseburgers, maybe it should come as no surprise that the story of a group of outsized East Side football players and their outsized personalities is grounded in ground beef.
“Cheeseburgers,” Martel specifies. “And I put some spice on them.”
What kind of spice?
The big 6-foot-5, 330-pounder laughs his big laugh. “I can’t say that.”
“Oh, man, I’m not going to lie, his burgers are wonderful, his burgers are wonderful,” said Posey, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound bundle of energy and charisma with a manner of speaking made for a radio show or political campaign. “I’m not going to say they’re better than Ted’s, but they are pretty good.”
“Ryan thinks his burgers are the best, like, in Connecticut or in the world,” remarked Ganter, the top scholar-athlete of the group (he ranks No. 4 in the senior class). “He just explains his burgers like they’re better than anyone else’s.”
How do they rate next to Ted’s?
“Ted’s is definitely better,” Ganter replies.
“His burgers are good, but it’s a competition with us, too,” chimed in Santiago, who may be 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds but, as a junior, is the kid brother of the senior-laden group. “I think my burgers might be better than Ryan’s. I make good burgers. Ryan and I are always arguing about whose are better.”
Posey notes that because the linemen are close they can rib each other and, when it comes to serious business, get on each other to improve.
“We’re always with each other. We’re always goofing around with each other. We’re always on each other’s backs. We’re always pushing each other,” Posey rattles off.
Posey is the right tackle. At the other end of the line is Santiago, the late bloomer who didn’t start playing football until eighth grade, yet is drawing interest from colleges.
On a line of brothers, theirs is an extra-fraternal relationship. Posey, older by a year, relishes the mentoring role. Santiago, who has an older sister, embraces having a big brother.
“We’re both big, but he’s the bigger brother; he’s older.” Santiago specifies. “Me and D.J., we’ve been pretty close since my freshman year. He’s always trying to give me help on the field, off the field. And we always compete with each other.”
Martel and Ganter, who line up side by side, are at the opposite ends of the size spectrum. Ganter is the “small guy” at 5-foot-9 and 240 pounds. Ganter uses that size, though, to its full advantage.
“Ganter, he’s all about technique; he’s a great form guy,” Posey said. “We love guys like Max. He’s not blessed with the size, but he works hard and does what he has to do. He doesn’t back down from anyone. He’ll take on the biggest, strongest, toughest kid.”
Martel, meanwhile, is not merely the biggest starter among the Spartans, he’s got the biggest personality. His classmates make Bighead signs emblazoned with his face and bring them to games. Each time out, those signs seem to get bigger.
“He brings everything to the team — the love, the laughter, the cheer.,” Posey remarked. “He even brings it around the school. That’s why they have the big Martel head.”
Martel wasn’t so outgoing when he arrived in the fall of 2016 as a sophomore transfer from Xavier. He didn’t know anyone and didn’t talk to anyone.
“Coming back, it was just tough,” Martel said. “I walked into school and it was a new school to me.”
Then, one morning, a guy about half his size approached and shook his hand.
“Who’s this?” Martel wondered.
“I’m the football coach.”
Maloney’s other guard position, meanwhile, has undergone some unwanted reconstruction. It was manned by Cruz, who at 5-foot-8 and 210 pounds is another undersized scrapper like Ganter. Cruz, however, suffered a season-ending injury in Game 9 against Conard.
Canales, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior who was starting at defensive end, was brought over to fill the breach.
“Toby, he stepped up,” Posey noted. “What a great player he is, going from straight defense and having to learn all the offensive plays.”
All the same, Cruz is missed by his linemates. He helped carve out an 8-1 record before getting hurt.
“It really stunk; he was a leader,” Posey said of Cruz. “Other than Max, he was the most undersized, toughest kid I ever met. I really wish Andy could be here to play in the state championship.”
He won’t. But, should the No. 7 Spartans spring the upset and knock off defending champ and undefeated No. 1 seed Daniel Hand on Saturday — and perhaps even if they don’t — there’s likely to be a cookout somewhere. He’s certain to get an invitation.