MERIDEN — Every football coach is his own guy, and certainly no rookie coach in his right mind wants comparisons drawn between himself and a legendary predecessor who logged more than a quarter century in the same program.
And as much as a sidelines observer may want to play it down as well, the parallels between new Maloney head coach Pierce Brennan and the late Rob Szymaszek keep bubbling up.
Both were young — Szymaszek 26, Brennan 28 — when they were hired by Maloney to revive a football program that had fallen on hard times. Both came in preaching accountability, tradition and commitment. Both sought that balance between making football business-like, yet fun.
Heck, both had Dan Hatch on their staff as an assistant coach.
But more than that, it’s the core philosophy that echoes across the generations. When Szymaszek came aboard in 1976, he printed up bumper stickers reading “The Pride is Back,” and over his next 26 seasons, Spartan Pride was his mantra.
Who knows how well-versed Brennan is in Szymaszek lore, but here’s what he said Wednesday night, after Maloney scrimmaged Bunnell, when asked what will define success in his first season on the East Side.
“As a coach, you love not to say wins and losses, but that plays a big part of it. These kids are going to do everything they need to do to win, so I hope we have more W’s than losses. But I just want these kids to be proud of what they’re doing out here. Be proud of Maloney football, be proud of being together as teammates. It’s new for a lot of these guys, how much we’re hammering that home. But these are memories they’re going to have for the rest of their lives and I hope they’re good ones.”
The Spartans won’t begin making those Friday Night Lights memories until Sept. 20, when they open in Enfield against Fermi. They have a first-week bye. Purposely, they did not schedule an out-of-conference game to open this 11-week season, wanting instead to have extra time to adjust to a new head coach and a new system.
A new culture, too. It’s not just that Maloney went 4-6 in 2011 and 3-7 last year. It was more a sense that things had drifted irretrievably apart between the Spartans and head coach Bob Zito.
No one disputes Zito’s character or football acumen. He’s well-reputed on the field and off. He won state titles at Newtown in the early 1990s and took Maloney to the finals in 2007. But as the 2012 season came to a close with a 44-0 loss in the Stoddard Bowl, the Spartans’ fifth straight Thanksgiving loss to Platt, the final nail was driven. Maloney administrators quickly opted not to renew Zito’s contract.
So in comes Brennan, inheriting a team that may or may not immediately turn things around, at least in the standings. But the change in approach is already palpable — the demand for discipline perhaps biggest of all — and the majority of players seem to be embracing it.
“It’s a lot more uptempo. Practices are faster. We get more things done. I feel he’s doing a good job right now,” remarked senior linebacker Caleb Jean. “It’s more of a team atmosphere. If one person messes up, everybody has to do the punishment.”
Said senior quarterback Mike Gulino, who is likely to be named team captain along with Jean: “It’s been different, but it’s a good change. This year everything is more serious, everything is a team, everything is more football.
What can it translate into?
“Definitely more wins, more discipline on and off the field, and just more teamwork,” Gulino replied.
Gulino also senses he and the seniors might not be around to see the full fruition of the regime change.
“It doesn’t always have to be winning,” the quarterback said of this season’s expectations. “As long as we’re still a team by the end of the day and still working together. Winning is definitely a big part. We want to win a lot of games. It’ll definitely be a successful season if we win a lot of games. But overall, it’s just if we work together, because it’s a new program. It’s going to take time to adjust. The next couple of years should definitely be real good.”
After running a traditional option last season, the Spartans are employing the modern spread option with Brennan. Gulino, who split time last year at QB with Latrael Robbins, said he is comfortable in the new scheme. It fits with his penchant to run and throw.
“He does a real good job with it,” Brennan said. “He’s a real cerebral kid. He sees the field real well and makes the right decision. He takes some chances sometimes, which isn’t a bad thing. You need a kid like that who’s savvy with the football.”
The names of those touching the football this year for Maloney will be quite different than in recent seasons.
The principal graduation loss was K’Vone West, a cornerstone at running back and outside linebacker for four seasons. Last year he ran 192 times for 1,004 yards and caught 16 passes for 235. Those 208 total touches accounted for 53 percent of Maloney’s total rushes and completed passes (394).
Robbins, who saw more snaps than Gulino last season, ran for 102 yards and threw for 582. Receivers Dante Howell (14-246) and Dan Berger (13-131) have graduated. Fullback Handy Ellison (102 rushing) transferred to Platt.
The new era will be ushered in by a sophomore, Jaron Cogdell, who is in line to be the starting running back, not to mention a starting inside linebacker.
“He came into summer real young, acted real young, but he’s starting to become a man in front of our eyes. He’s probably going to be the guy,” Brennan said of Cogdell. “He’s a real smart kid, he knows the offense, he makes adjustments. He’s earning it on both sides of the ball.”
Among Gulino’s aerial targets are senior Kyle Hartenstein, junior Jakai Whittingham and Jean, who has moved from guard to tight end.
Up front, sophomore C.J. Smith returns to his starting guard position. Senior R.J. Mirabile is at center.
Twyman Miller, a starter at defensive end last season as a sophomore, lines up at right tackle. Jake Ellis anchors the left side. Junior David Rose slots into right guard.
Sophomore Chris Dingwell and senior Jophy Nieves provide solid backup at quarterback and running back, respectively.
Several key pieces were lost. Linebacker Brian Rosas was the team’s leading tackler with 84. Robbins, one of a handful of graduation losses in the secondary, had 56.
But back is the man in the middle, Jean, the latest in Maloney’s string of strong inside linebackers. He had 70 tackles last year, including 11 for loss and six sacks.
He’ll be paired with Cogdell behind the three-man front of Smith at nose and Rose and Miller at end.
The outside linebacking corps features Nieves, Josh Ramirez, Dante Smith and Dimitri Smith.
Jakai Whittingham and NaShawn Rhodes are the corners, Brad Pilonco the free safety. (Whittingham, by the way, is also the punter and return man. Only a junior, he could really have a breakout season.)
On both sides of the ball the rotation is mostly set, though certainly not set in stone.
“There were kids who didn’t do what they needed to do this summer who are slowly working their way back on the team. We’ll find a spot for those guys. They can play for us,” Brennan said. “And some guys are showing us things that we weren’t expecting, in a good way. It’s just a matter of finding the right 11 at the right positions. That’s going to take some more film study and a lot more practice, but we’re right there. We’re really not far off.”
The Spartans open with a Fermi team they beat last year 48-6. Division I Glastonbury is no longer on the crossover slate. That will help. But Division II titans Windsor and Middletown remain and Platt, with that five-year Stoddard Bowl reign, awaits on Thanksgiving.
What will it add up to? Time tells all.
“We’re going to compete in every football game. There’s no doubt about it. These kids know what’s expected of them and they’re not losers. They’re not. They want to win and they’re going to do what it takes to win,” Brennan said.
“But it’s going to be a process. We kept that first week open for a reason. We need the extra week and we’re going to use every minute of it and we’re going to be just fine.”