WALLINGFORD — The Sheehan Titans sang “Happy Birthday” to assistant coach Teddy Boynton to cap football practice Sunday afternoon.
Another year older, another year wiser. Many happy returns.
The Titans hope those sentiments apply to themselves as well.
Back in the CIAC Class M playoffs for a second straight season, the Titans, led by a senior class 15 strong, have another 9-1 campaign under their belt and first-hand experience of the postseason. They are older, wiser. Will it translate into a longer playoff life?
We’ll find out Tuesday night when the second-seeded Titans host No. 7 Wolcott of the Naugatuck Valley League in a quarterfinal game at Riccitelli Field at 6:30 p.m.
Sheehan was in the same spot a year ago. Home field was of no avail in a 47-34 loss to Joel Barlow.
A quick exit this time around is not in the plans of a Sheehan team that has pretty much hit all of its benchmarks so far in 2018, including a third straight SCC Tier 3 title and a seventh straight Carini Bowl victory.
“With our preparation, we knew if we executed we could be back in the playoffs again,” said Sheehan’s third-year quarterback, senior Wes Terzi. “Last year was our first time in 22 years being in the playoffs, so no one on that team had any playoff experience. I think that kind of hindered us a little bit. The experience that most of the team has this year gets us much more prepared.”
“Last year we lost, which wasn’t good,” echoed senior lineman Willie Seay. “This year, we’re coming in with a better attitude — an attitude of not going out in the first round.”
To advance to Sunday’s semifinals, the Titans will need to get by a Wolcott team better than it’s 7-3 record might indicate. For one thing, the Eagles lost only two games on the field — to Class L qualifier Naugatuck on opening night (14-0) and to Class S qualifier Woodland Regional in Week 4 (41-14).
Wolcott’s third loss was a forfeit to Sacred Heart/Kaynor Tech on Nov. 9. It was self-imposed by Wolcott school officials in the wake of a locker room vandalism incident following a 44-28 win at St. Paul on Oct. 26.
That forfeit put Wolcott in a must-win situation on Thanksgiving. Playing the day after the holiday, the Eagles rallied from 12 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Holy Cross 30-26.
At the same time, East Haven was losing to Branford 20-3 to fall out of the Class M picture.
This last-minute game of Class M musical chairs caused some scrambling for Sheehan head coach John Ferrazzi and his staff. While the Titans have had their playoff berth wrapped up since Game 8, they didn’t know who they’d be playing in the quarterfinals until late Friday afternoon.
As the East Haven and Wolcott games were playing out in real time, the Sheehan staff was generating film and tendencies on East Haven ... then on Wolcott … then, when it appeared both might lose, Rockville.
All this, of course, was necessitated by the short turnaround from Thanksgiving to the first round of the playoffs. There are only four days max to prepare. Sheehan and Wolcott didn’t have even that.
The saving grace is the Titans, as a veteran group, have learned to maximize prep time. And, having already played four games in November, including two on short weeks, they’ve grown accustomed to marching on double time.
“With the players, they just have to show up and bring their focus and be totally dialed in,” Ferrazzi said. “Sometimes, when you’re working with 15, 16 and 17-year olds, that can be a challenge. The nice thing is that we have some experienced older players, especially 15 seniors, who can lead the charge and they’ve done a real good job down the stretch.”
Wolcott, having survived Holy Cross, must reckon with a Sheehan juggernaut averaging 408 yards and 45 points a game and one that plays some stout defense to boot.
In turn, the Titans face a Wolcott team led by senior quarterback Anthony Ligi. While the Eagles deploy out of the spread formation, they do it almost exclusively to run. Ligi was over 1,000 yards by the time Wolcott beat St. Paul.
Ligi had 200-yard games in wins over Seymour, Torrington and Watertown. He ran for three fourth-quarter TDs to rally the Eagles on Friday.
“He can really run it. He’s their leading rusher and the film shows it,” Ferrazzi said. “He’s a playmaker. We’ve got to have a plan for him, for sure.
“They’ll go into empty formations and use motion to create a perimeter threat. Even when there’s a back in their backfield they’ll do the same thing. which we’ve seen before. But a team solely focused on their quarterback as the runner we haven’t seen that this year.”
Wolcott also has a strong running back in senior Jake Sforza, who ran for 246 yards in the win over St. Paul. Middle linebacker Jake Filippone leads the defense.
“They do have a really good middle linebacker,” noted Sheehan junior running back Terrence Bogan. “They’re really big front up, so we’re going to try to spread them out a little bit.”
Bogan will be a challenge for Wolcott. With a 153-yard game against Lyman Hall on Thanksgiving, Bogan went over 2,000 yards for the season. He’s at 2,049, averaging nearly 11 yards a carry, with 30 touchdowns.
On Friday night, Bogan was named the SCC Tier 3’s Player of the Year, following Sheehan predecessors Zach Davis (2016) and Stephen Zenisky (2017).
“It’s an amazing feeling, an amazing accomplishment,” said Bogan. “I’ve got to give up to the O-line and all my teammates. Obviously, I wouldn’t be here without them. I’m real grateful.”
Bogan’s running has opened up the passing game for Terzi and his receivers — and vice versa. Terzi has completed 98 of 160 attempts for 1,529 yards, 20 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Jake Smith (31-593), Aaron Simmons (29-480) and Jordan Davis (22-328) are the leading targets.
Providing the muscle to this dynamic attack are Seay and linemates Luke Willette, Jason Klemm, Miguel Pinos and Tom Dipasquale.
On defense, the T-Men are solid front to back. Senior safety Ryan Paul is the tackling leader with 117. Fellow safety Michael Lemay has 76.
Linebackers Tyler Ekstrom (84 tackles), Braedon McCarthy (79), Nick Barbieri (76), Jake Smith (55) and Kyle Simmons (50) are all having solid seasons. Willette (49), Mickey Deming (47) and Seay (43) lead the rotation up front.
All of these players are senior or juniors. All were aboard for the playoff ride a year ago. So there is no dizzy buzz over being back. It’s a case of business as usual.
“We had an expectation to be here, so it’s not something that is a surprise, it’s not something that was unexpected, so I think everybody’s handling it as if it was going to happen and should happen,” Ferrazzi said. “So how we approach practice every day hasn’t changed. There’s no different approach; there’s no special approach. It’s ‘stay consistent, stay on schedule.’”
This doesn’t mean the Titans don’t whistle while they work. In fact, they practice with music blaring over the Riccitelli sound system. It replicates crowd noise. It generates a beat Sheehan aims to sustain.
“I think all of our hearts are in it a lot more that last year,” said Bogan. “Last year was our first time in making it in forever. We didn’t come back here to lose again. We’re going to play our hearts out.”