The Blue and Gold are coming off a vintage season in which they went 8-3 overall, won the CCC Division III East crown at 4-0 and qualified for the playoffs for the second time in three years.
They shucked off an under-achieving 2-2 start to win six straight, including a 34-14 win in Berlin that earned them the division title and a 44-0 rout of Maloney that earned them their fifth straight Thanksgiving victory.
Seeded No. 8 in the Class L playoffs, they had the unenviable task of taking on Hand-Madison at the Surf Club in the quarterfinals. The Panthers lost to the eventual Class L champ 55-26.
A case of the Panthers biting off more than they could chew? In one way, yes: Hand did finish ranked No. 1 in the state. But in another way, no. The Panthers did win eight games and they expect to be right back at the playoff table in 2013, hopefully with a better seat.
“We should repeat exactly what we did last year and possibly win more games,” said Bruenn. “That’s the key for us. We want to get that home-field advantage in the playoffs. If Platt’s ever going to do it, if any Meriden team is ever going to do it, you can’t go on the road in the first round. You’ve got to get the 1, 2, 3 or 4 (seed), preferably the 1.”
The Panthers are confident despite losing to graduation one of the best running backs ever to grace a Meriden football field. The numbers Justin Potts put up last year — 1,891 yards, 35 touchdowns and 224 points — were more any other running back at Platt or Maloney had ever previously put up in a single season since the city split into two high schools in 1958.
Potts finished with every Platt scoring record and was second only to Michael Shorter in career rushing.
Potts is now at Southern Connecticut State red-shirting as a freshman. The cupboard he left behind, though, is hardly empty. The Panthers have a proven play-maker in senior quarterback Andrew McBride, an experienced offensive line and an emerging star in Potts’ understudy, junior running back Tyzhan Leatherwood.
Platt’s offense averaged 35 points a game last year and should be strong again. The defense, which lost its starting front four in Brandon Crespo, Lazarick Hogan, Eli Aliaga and Gage Forney, is more a work in progress. But with senior captains Jason Nelson and Scott Dargan lining back up at inside linebacker, the cornerstones of that unit are certainly in place.
“Personally, and I think with the team, we all believe that we can do more than last year,” said Nelson. “There are high expectations for everybody this year. We’ve worked hard and we can only be as good as we want to be. If we put our minds to it, we should be as good as we should. We definitely have the talent, the size. We work hard. We just have to work hard consistently.”
“Jason said it all right there,” echoed Dargan. “Seriously, whatever we put our mind to. We can come out and play with anybody and compete with anybody and beat everybody on our schedule this year.”
There are 11 games on that slate, starting next Friday at Falcon Field against Waterford of the ECC. Home games with Rocky Hill (Oct. 11) and Berlin (Nov. 1) will also be big.
They’re all big when you have aspirations as high as Platt. The ingredients are there, including the recent arrival of Maloney junior transfer Handy Ellison, a starting fullback and linebacker since his freshman year.
But, as a gourmet like Bruenn will say, it’s all about how the ingredients blend together.
“We’ve got to keep working at it. We’ve got make sure as coaches we’re putting our kids in the best possible situation, and they have to respond,” said the seventh-year head coach, who has long-time assistants on staff in offensive coordinator Mark Thornton, defensive coordinator Jason “Birdie” Nelson, offensive specialist Brian Frederick, defensive specialist Sean Gannon and line coach D.J. Cooper.
“I see good progress. As coaches, we sometimes get a little ahead of ourselves. We’ve got to remember this is still a new year and everybody’s going to gel differently together. As a team, I think they’re gelling. I think they actually enjoy and like each other more than teams I’ve had in the past. But it’s going to be a continuous improvement.”
This unit is the better known commodity for Platt heading into the season. Yes, Potts is gone, but Leatherwood is quick and can break tackles. He’s much in the mode of former Maloney back Karim St. Luce: small, but shifty and gone sometimes before you even see him.
He’ll benefit from a strong offensive line led by returning All-State left tackle Erlin Colon and fellow senior Michael Barnett, who has moved from right tackle to center.
Senior guard Toledo Sharp is another returning starter, though he’s expected to miss 2-3 weeks to a knee strain suffered in preseason. In the meantime, junior Dante Davidson will fill in.
The other guard, junior John Bernardo, saw ample playing time last year, which means the only real rookie on the line is junior right tackle Kemar Campbell.
The offense will again be directed by quarterback Andrew McBride, who moved to Meriden from West Haven just before the start of the 2012-13 school year and quickly made a name for himself. A dangerous runner and passer, McBride rushed for 584 yards and threw for 1,244 last season.
He has virtually all of his receivers back, including the top two, 6-foot-2 senior Creme Watford (20-363) and 5-6 junior Olajuwon McLeod (19-374).
There are known commodities on this side of the ball: the leading tacklers, Nelson (109) and Dargan (86) at linebacker, junior Cyrick Watford at safety, senior Deion Lespier at cornerback.
But Platt did sustain heavy losses up front, led by the captains Crespo and Hogan, who combined for 109 tackles and 10 sacks.
Bruenn had hoped to two-platoon as much as possible, but found in the spring that some of his O-linemen were also some of his better defensive linemen, which is why Barnett will see a lot of action on both sides of the ball, and Colon and Bernardo will rotate in.
Others have re-emerged in preseason: seniors Noel Cruz and Alejandro Guzman and junior Leroy Walker.
It could come to pass that Bruenn settles not on one set front-four, but a variety.
“I don’t know if there is just one right combination for all situations,” he said. “When we’re playing against a spread team, it may be a couple different guys than what we have against a double-wing team.”
Bruenn is also looking for the right mix at outside linebacker. He’s got a pool of four to five players, led by juniors Troy Clemons and Jovon White.
Joe Mwamba, a rookie kicker last year as a freshman, has earned a cornerback position opposite Lespier. He’ll have big shoes to fill. Potts was also a defensive standout and led the team with four interceptions last year.
Creme Watford is the returning punter and Mwamba the returning kicker, though Platt has lately been a two-point conversion team.
McBride can also punt, which gives opponents something to think about on fourth downs.
Ultimately, though, what may shape the Panthers most of all is what they’re thinking when fortunes don’t go their way.
“What’s really going to make or break you is how you react to the negative times, how you react when you’re getting your butt kicked,” Bruenn said. “Are you just going to allow it to happen or are you going to man-up and get back to what you know and play hard football?”
Could be Bruenn’s just stirring the pot, but after seven years in the heat of the kitchen you learn what recipes work, when you’ve got a true special, and the temperature at which it is best served.