MERIDEN — Platt football made a diamond-mine run to the CCC Division II-West title and Class L state semifinals in 2018.
A year later, the Panthers still have plenty of gems in the war chest: an experienced offensive line, a 1,330-yard rusher, leading tacklers on defense.
There’s every reason to believe the Panthers will be right back in the hunt for a division crown and postseason glory in 2019.
That said, two key points must be made:
■Platt has shoes to fill at certain positions;■For all their physical acumen, the Panthers must have the concomitant psychological component to maximize potential.
The mental game can’t be over-emphasized. The Panthers can’t just hit repeat and expect a replay of last year’s successes, which included a Stoddard Bowl victory over Maloney and Platt’s first postseason win since 1997.
“I think it has to do with their mentality,” said head coach Jason Bruenn as he assessed his team’s prospects for the new season. “I think we have the skills. We have the line, we have the running back, we have efficient quarterbacks and, defensively, we’re basically back with a few holes [in which] kids need to step up to the level where the rest of the kids are.
“I think we should be able to get to at least the playoffs,” Bruenn added. “I think the big thing for us is to get to the playoffs. The schedule is not easy. We’ve got to see who shows up each week.”
Bruenn is going into his 13th season as head coach on the West Side. He’s 80-49 for his career and his teams this decade have been particularly successful. Dating back to 2010, Platt football has gone 65-33 and reached the postseason five years out of nine.
The final numbers from 2018: 9-3 overall and 5-0 in CCC Division II-West with the help of a Bristol Central forfeit that turned a 21-20 defeat into victory.
Platt’s 36-20 victory over Maloney in the first Stoddard Bowl played on Thanksgiving Eve evened Meriden’s all-time East-West rivalry at 30-30-1. Maloney gained 16-6 revenge in the Class L semifinals back at Falcon Field 11 days later in Meriden’s first-ever East-West playoff game.
There will be no postseason rematch this year. While Maloney has remained in Class L, Platt’s enrollment has taken it down to Class M, where the playoff landscape won’t be so rugged.
The Panthers, however, must get there by tangling with eight Class L schools in the regular season. RHAM is the lone Class M foe on the docket, but that’s countered by a crossover with Class LL Manchester.
Platt goes into the fray led by its senior captains, lineman Jaylen John and linebacker Danny Hernandez, who recognize their responsibilty in keeping this team of potential on track.
“It definitely is going to take a lot. We’ve got to get the younger guys listening to us more and make them realize where we can go this year,” John said.
John is a returning All-State Class L lineman who also made the Walter Camp All-Connecticut Second Team. A 250-pounder on the college radar, John will be a two-way cornerstone at left tackle and defensive tackle.
Platt also has returning All-Conference players in right tackle Cristian Calero, defensive end Jael Rivera, linebacker Jasiah Cooper and running back Roberto Salas.
Cooper and Salas, still only juniors, are coming off breakout sophomore seasons. Cooper led the team in tackles and Salas exploded for 1,330 yards behind the line of John, Calero and guards Lashaun Hill and Daniel Hand.
All four of those linemen are back, with junior Clayton Bruenn moving into the vacancy at center left by graduated captain Nehemiah Vega.
This line, combined with the rushing of Salas, Maloney transfer Freddy Hidalgo and sophomore Corey Ford, will be the hammer in the Platt toolbox.
“When you have four offensive linemen coming back, you’re not coaching like, ‘Hey, this is where you need to go.’ It’s how you’re getting there; it’s the technique, the finer things you can get to that we don’t normally get to because we usually have a couple new guys,” Coach Bruenn remarked.
“With the four guys that are back, plus Clayton at center, we have guys who know what they’re doing and now they’re really getting good at what they’re doing.”
There will be new starter behind center. Last year’s quarterback, Lorenzo Sanson, is now at Western New England with former Platt teammate E.J. Dudley and Maloney rival Aden Valentin.
Sanson’s replacement? Technically, still up in the air, though returning senior Deaven Tanner has been first man up in preseason. Junior Blaise Lenoue, who did not play last year, has also looked good.
“Tanner’s kind of stepping up a little bit as far as quarterback, but Blaise is also competing,” Bruenn said after Tuesday’s scrimmage with Newtown. “That quarterbacking situation is still kind of iffy, but right now Tanner is taking more first-unit reps than Blaise.”
Be it Tanner or Lenoue at QB, fresh sets of hands will be on the receiving end. All-State Class L receiver Jake Baker led substantial graduation losses at the position and incumbents Tre Carter and Chase D’Angelo did not return for their senior seasons.
Into the breach step senior Josh Rodriguez and junior Jeremiah Stewart. Senior Sean Bell, a returning varsity regular, will be in the slot. Seth Morris, a 6-foot-2 junior, is at tight end.
“We’ve got a good variety of kids,” Bruenn said of the receiving corps. “There’s a couple kids I thought would be OK, but I was impressed in last Saturday’s scrimmage — how they caught the balls, athletic moves, things like that.”
The added kicker on offense is, well, the kicker. Trent D’Aniello, a junior, has shown solid range.
“He’s really worked at it in the offseason,” Bruenn reported. “He’ll do it all: PATs, kickoffs and punts. It’s a lot of kicking on him.”
The defense will be a 3-4, with Hill handling the nose between John and Rivera.
Cooper, a 215-pounder, is the man in the middle at linebacker, flanked by Hernandez on the weak side and Morris on the strong.
The outside linebacker position — the “Rover” in Platt parlance — will be split between Hidalgo and junior Paul Abreu.
There will also be a rotation at cornerback among Stewart, Rodriguez and returning junior Theo Watkins.
Bell will be at the “Panther” safety position. The free safety is a promising newcomer, Antwone Santiago, only a sophomore.
“Offensively, I think we’re looking good,” Bruenn said. “Defensively, we have a couple spots where guys have to get real better real quick. The core guys who are coming back are doing well, but I think they’ve got to step up even greater.
“We put some huge goals on them,” Bruenn added. “Right now, I don’t know if they’re on pace to reach those goals. I think they’ll get there. The big thing is, they’re almost kind of sitting back. ‘Hey, we were there last year; we’re going to be there again.’ I’m trying to explain to them it’s a different year. People know about you people know they’re got to block certain ways. I think they’ve got to put more work in.”
Indeed, work does not carry over from season to season. Platt’s defense allowed just 12.8 points a game last year. Come next Friday, when RHAM comes calling for the season opener, it’s a fresh page.
Here’s the full Platt slate. All home game are at Falcon Field.
■Sept. 13 vs. RHAM, 6:30 p.m.■Sept. 20 at Wethersfield, 7 p.m.■Sept. 27 at Notre Dame-West Haven (Veterans Stadium), 7 p.m.■Oct. 4 vs. E.O. Smith, 6:30 p.m.■Oct. 11 at Newington, 6:30 p.m.■Oct. 25 vs. Bristol Central, 6:30 p.m.■Nov. 1 at Windsor, 7 p.m.■Nov. 8 vs. Bristol Eastern, 6:30 p.m.■Nov. 15 at Manchester, 6:30 p.m.■Nov. 28 vs. Maloney, 10:30 a.m.