MERIDEN — The new era has dawned in Maloney football.
Literally. First-year coach Pierce Brennan had his Spartans out on the field Wednesday for the first day of preseason at 7 a.m.
No footballs yet, but the Spartans were still able to run through pass routes and other plays on offense, get in some special teams and defensive work, and some individual drills.
Then it was time for “team building,” a little exercise comprised of quick bursts off the line, five yards out, five yards back.
Over and over, skill guys to the left, linemen to the right, the five-yard box off the south goal line quickly showing wear.
“What number are we on?” Brennan would ask before blowing his whistle for each rep.
In this instance, “Four,” was the collective reply.
And so on. There would be some stumbles. Guys would jump before the whistle or not touch the 5-yard-line. That resulted in up-and-downs for everybody and the count would revert back.
“What number are we on?”
With the start of preseason for football teams like Maloney that did not hold traditional spring practice, Wednesday was indeed square one. This was especially the case for teams like Maloney that underwent a regime change in the offseason. (There were quite a few in Connecticut; about 20 programs are headed by new coaches.)
Maloney’s change was somewhat messy. The contract of Brennan’s predecessor, Bob Zito, was not renewed after last season, his ninth with the Spartans. There were also some bruised feelings when Brennan, who grew up on Long Island and played his college ball at the University of Albany, was hired over two finalists with city ties.
That being said, Brennan has already struck a deep chord in the Maloney football community. One of his first orders of business was to reach out to alumni to bring former players and coaches back into the fold.
Brennan was present at the “Green Bay for Coach Smaz” event on June 1 that former players put together in honor of late Maloney coach Rob Szymaszek. Among the assistant coaches aboard as preseason opened Wednesday were ex-Spartans Joe Ferreira, Adam O’Leary, Scott Harris, all of whom returned from last year staff, and — coup of coups — Dan Hatch, who once coached with Szymaszek and has come out of retirement.
Brennan may be a math teacher (that part of his new job at Maloney starts in two weeks), but he’s got a historian’s perspective born of his own playing days at Sachem High School, where Fred Fusano led the troops from 1971-2002, and at Albany, where Bob Ford, who just announced his retirement, has been coaching since 1970.
“When I took the job, I knew there was a rich tradition here,” Brennan said Wednesday. “That’s why we have Coach Hatch on the staff. I’ve gotten great feedback from a lot of the alumni of all different ages. Maloney’s a special place and we really need to bring those alumni back. I think — I know — we’re going to put a good product on the field they’re going to be proud of.”
“There are some great names that have come through the school and he’s embracing that,” said Harris, a Spartan from the late 1980 who helps with the freshman team. “He’s showing that he cares about the people who came before him.”
Naturally, Brennan also strives to put his individual stamp on the program. This is the first head coaching position for the 29-year old, who has moved to Wallingford with his wife Danielle, an assistant women’s basketball coach at Quinnipiac University, and their 4-month-old daughter Michaela. Among Brennan’s previous stops was as an assistant at the University of New Haven and, most recently, an assistant at Trinity Pawling, a prep school in New York.
He comes to Maloney stressing structure and accountability.
“It’s going to be uptempo, but a well-disciplined machine,” Brennan said. “I and my staff don’t have time for petty things to deal with.”
True to the mathematics background, Brennan’s rules are black and white. No exceptions, no gray areas.
Players’ cell phones are collected first thing each day in the locker room. No distractions, here, boys. Players who didn’t have permission slips signed on time did not participate Wednesday, a group that included at least one veteran starter.
Once school begins, players will be expected to stop by Brennan’s classroom first thing in the morning, shake hands and sign in. Don’t and there will be consequences. A line’s been drawn and it’s not in sand.
“You’re buying in or you’re buying out. It’s not a halfway kind of thing,” Brennan said. “It’s not a God-given right to play Maloney football. It’s a privilege. You’ve got to earn that privilege every day you’re out here.”
That sentiment resonates with the Old Guard, who appreciate Brennan embracing what’s come before as he looks to move Maloney forward.
“I think it has to be Brennan football, and yet we’ve got tradition here at this high school that can’t be forgotten,” said Hatch.
If coaches feared laying down a hard line would drive players away, it hasn’t come to pass. Numbers stayed consistent through summer workouts. There were about 50 guys going through the paces Wednesday, and if anyone took umbrage when that sprint count got cycled back to one thanks to someone else’s mistake, it was kept private.
There were lapses in focus, but not in spirit.
“It’s going to be a process; it’s going to take time,” Brennan remarked. “The kids are working hard; they’re embracing what we’re giving them. That’s all we can ask for right now.”
Brennan certainly doesn’t want to drive any of his players away. In a meeting with parents on Tuesday night, he urged them above all not to let their sons quit the program. The chance to play high school football is too brief, he reasoned, and in the longer run quitting becomes a learned habit.
“We want to try to break that cycle and turn these kids, most importantly, into good men,” said Brennan. “I think that’s kind of why we coach high school football. We’re trying to develop men of character.”
On Wednesday, at square one, character was a lesson administered in five-yard doses. Five out, five back. The grass at one end of Szymaszek Field was turned anew.