MERIDEN — The 2017 season started beautifully for the Platt football team.
The first three weeks brought three wins, including program victory No. 300.
The offense put up 125 points. The defense allowed just 41, most after the game had been decided.
Then dominoes starting falling. There were tough losses to Wethersfield and Windsor. There were injuries, defections.
After the 3-0 start, the Panthers went 1-6 to finish 4-6 a year after going 8-2 and reaching the postseason.
Dissention was an issue in 2017 — enough so that Platt coaches made chemistry a point of focus for 2018.
”I don’t think it was as blatant on the team as people thought, but when you really stepped back at the end of the season and looked there was some selfishness, and there were some things we had to get out of there in order to move forward,” said Platt head coach Jason Bruenn, who is entering his 12th season.
”I hope we’re going to see something better. The offseason work has been better; the overall attitude has been better. We’ve tried to incorporate more team-building things and we really want the kids to be on a positive note and squash any negativity.”
A postive foundation will be crucial because Bruenn and the Panthers face a fair amount of rebuilding.
They are replacing a two-year quarterback, their leading wide receiver and their linebacking corps.
They also have to replace the leading playmaker they were returning. Ethan Dudley, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and a solid defensive back to boot, will miss his senior season with a knee injury.
All that said, the vibe is upbeat on Oregon Road. The offensive line, inexperienced and suspect last year, now looms as a veteran force. The defense is filed with players who are young, yet show a remarkable nose for the ball.
And then there’s the cohesion the coaching staff is so adamant about. It appears to be taking root.
“Last year, everybody just wanted to be individuals and one-man shows,” said senior captain Jake Baker, a returning wide receiver and defensive back. “This team right here, we’re all for team. We’ve been working together. We’re just getting on each other, making sure everyone does their job. Just as long as everyone does their job we should be successful.
“I actually love being a part of this team this year,” Baker added. “Win or lose, I’m proud of our team so far as long as we just keep it up.”
Another captain, center Nehemiah Vargas, said a change in culture was in definite order.
“We see the way things go in colleges and the NFL sometimes, and we just want to see the way we can do it,” Vargas said. “I’m a fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. I see the way Tom Coughlin showed up and he changed the way everything happened and they had a successful season.
“That was my intention when I got voted in captain: Change the way we do things here. Make sure we’re always hustling. Make sure we always fly to the ball. Make sure we thud up. Just continue working hard to please our coaches and please our team.”
How pleasing will it be to watch Platt in 2018? As with most high school programs, it depends on how well the new starters develop.
It certainly will be painful not to see Dudley play. With 1,329 yards last year, he was the area’s leading rusher and among the most electric performers.
Dudley, though, says Platt should still be strong.
“We lost some people who were pretty good on this team,” said Dudley, who remains with the team as a captain. “You’ve got to bounce back. I think we have the guys who can do it and we can improve from last year, but it takes hard work and you’ve got to believe in it.
“I think we’ll be alright. I think we’ll have a better record than last year. I think that for sure.”The offense
With Dudley going down with his injury, his understudies at running back, junior Sean Bell Jr. and sophomore Roberto Salas, will get their chance a year ahead of time.
Prior to losing Dudley, the biggest shoes to fill were at quarterback. A.J. Marinelli threw for 1,669 yards in leading Platt to the Class L playoffs in 2016 and then for 1,550 last year as a senior.
His replacement is senior Lorenzo Sanson, who had 80 tackles last season in the defensive backfield. This will be his first year starting on offense.
Sanson has good speed and mobility. He can chuck it, too. Platt will run its traditional four-wide spread offense with Sanson. Expect him to gain steam as the season goes on.
“Sanson’s a great competitor,” Bruenn said. “He’s a great athlete, but he just hasn’t had the reps.”
Sanson will operate behind a line that lost just one starter. (A good one, to be sure: Andre Barnes was All-Conference and All-Record-Journal.)
Yet the other four are back. Vargas anchors the line at center. He’s flanked by junior guards Jaylen John on the left and Lashaun Hill on the right. The tackles are juniors Luke Fuerstenberg and Cristian Calero and sophomore Daniel Hand.
With an experienced line, the Panthers will do their share of running. They’ll also employ a few tight end sets, with senior Tommy Lillard leading the way at that position. Senior Chase Bessler will be deployed as a wing back.
And though the Panthers lost leading wide receiver in Elijah Felton, who is now at Plymouth State after an All-CCC/All-RJ senior season of 49 receptions and 574 yards, Sanson will be throwing to experienced hands. Baker caught 27 passes for 455 yards a year ago. Junior Tre Carter had 19 catches for 282 yards.
Senior Ricky D’Aniello and junior Chayse D’Angelo are ready to step up in the aerial mix.
”I like a lot of what I see right now,” Bruenn summed up. “I think the kids have really bought in to what we’re trying to do. We’ve adjusted a few things here and there — nothing great. It’s going to be a very Platt-oriented offense.”The defense
The Panthers will mix and match, presenting different looks to keep opponents guessing and to get more players on the field.
The offensive guards will anchor the D-line — John at tackle, Hill at the nose. Senior Keaton Caffrey and junior Jael Rivera are the ends. Caffrey is coming off a 60-tackle season.
The big vacancy is at linebacker, where Platt graduated all its starters and also lost incoming senior Ian Agnew, a transfer from Southington, to a season-ending knee injury.
Senior Dominic Colite steps in on the strong side. Junior Joshua Rodriguez, who played in last year’s Stoddard Bowl, takes over on the weak side. Seniors Noah Vega and Royal Watkins will see time at outside ’backer with Baker and Bessler.
The man in the middle? He’s only a sophomore, but a good one: Jasiah Cooper, son of assistant coach Desmond Cooper.
D’Aniello takes over at safety. Bell, D’Angelo and sophomore Theo Watkins are the cornerbacks.
“Defensively, we’re young,” Bruenn said. “But, ironically, the other day [assistant] coach Jason Nelson and I looked at each other on a couple of plays and we didn’t even have to talk. We just knew: ‘Ooh, they like to run to the ball.’ If you can run to the ball well, defensively you have a chance.”The schedule
Platt opens the Connecticut season with a Thursday night game in Farmington on Sept. 6 at 6 p.m.
The Panthers face CCC Division II-West rivals Maloney, Newington, Wethersfield, Bristol Eastern and Bristol Central. They cross over against Windsor, Middletown, E.O. Smith and Farmington. They have a non-conference game with Bridgeport Central.
They are again in Class L. All home games are at Falcon Field at 6:30 p.m. The Thanksgiving game with Maloney kicks off at 10:30 a.m.
Bridgeport Central is the home opener on Sept. 14. Newington, Windsor and Wethersfield come through Falcon on the following three Fridays. Middletown visits Nov. 9. Platt plays E.O. Smith and the two Bristol schools on the road.
“I just expect them to compete at a higher level that what we have the last couple of years,” Bruenn said. “It just depends on where they want to be and what they want to do and how hard they want to work.”