FOOTBALL 2017: Southington among the elite, yet driven to regain lost ground
FOOTBALL 2017: Southington among the elite, yet driven to regain lost ground
September 5, 2017 01:45PM
By Bryant Carpenter Record-Journal staff
SOUTHINGTON — It’s a unique perch Southington occupies on the Connecticut football tree.
It’s way up there, up where the eyes can lose perspective.
Over the past five years, by the measure of wins and losses, the Blue Knights (56-4) are in league with Ansonia (63-3), Darien (57-5) and New Canaan (55-8) — with Newtown (52-6) and Windsor (51-7) right behind.
And yet we know how it turned out in the end. Ansonia, Darien and New Canaan won recent state championships while Southington suffered the ignominy of semifinal routs at the hands of Darien in 2015 and 2016.
That’s how Darien, owner of a 38-game winning streak as the 2017 season dawns, has become the team Southington was in winning Class LL championships in 2013 and 2014. That’s how Southington, owner of a 31-game winning streak in that recent hey-day, has tumbled a few branches.
It’s not going out on a limb to say that Southington has dropped in esteem more than deserved. Memories can be short. The Blue Knights, though, have not forgotton.
“The past two years have definitely been tougher than the years we had before,” said senior captain and defensive back Sam Thomson. “We’re trying to bring back the championship mentality: kids flying to the ball every play on defense, offense moves fast every play.”
You could argue the mentality hasn’t disappeared, only the championships. The Blue Knights are, after all, coming off of their third straight 10-0 regular season.
Yet they are right back to where they were a year ago: a healthy machine with a gnawing hunger to do things right, prove doubters wrong and avenge Darien.
“I know that every day after every lift, that’s what I’ve been thinking about,” said linebacker/running back Ryan Montalvo, another senior captain. “That’s what my goal has been and I know the rest of the team, that’s their goal. We’ve been thinking about that a lot. The past two years, it’s a heartbreaker. Hopefully, we can turn it around this year and break their hearts.”
“Definitely, 100 percent, that’s pushed us to a new level,” senior captain and quarterback Will Barmore agreed. “Beating Cheshire [on Thanksgiving] and beating Darien [in the playoffs] have become two of our big goals every year. We know they’re going to be there waiting for us. We’ve got to push harder to beat them.”
The push is on. Led by Barmore, the Blue Knights return a core of regulars on both sides of the ball. They graduated All-State linebacker and all-time Southington rushing leader Vance Upham (SCSU), but return Montalvo, a player in Upham’s image who lost his junior year to injury after a strong sophomore season.
“We have about eight guys on defense who were either full-time starters or saw a lot of varsity time last year. Getting those guys back, and the team speed they have, that’s a strength,” noted head coach Mike Drury, who returns for his seventh season with a career record of 62-8. “Offensively, we have six starters back from last year. We have guys who have experience. That’s important.”
Southington has also bolstered its already formidable coaching ranks with the return of Frank Stamilio. The former offensive coordinator who installed the Southington spread offense with Jude Kelly in the 1990s is back as quarterbacks coach.
“I’m blessed to come back here. When they gave me the opportunity, I jumped at it because 21 years of my previous coaching life were here and a lot of great fond memories,” Stamilio said. “To be back and to work with these kids and work with this program again is really kind of an honor.”
“I know what he brings to the table and I’ve known that for a while,” said Drury, who in his days as a Bristol Central linebacker was a prime concern in Stamilio’s game-planning. “I definitely want a guy like that, with his caliber of coaching and his experience that he brings to the game.”
Add it up and the pieces are in place for Southington to, as Sam Thomson said, “carry on the tradition.” The question is, will the championship perch be regained?
“It’s so early in the season, so everywhere needs improvement,” said left tackle and senior captain Jake Monson. “But, obviously, there’s a strong base everywhere on the field.”
The attack begins with Barmore, who is coming off a solid first year as a starter. As a junior, he completed 142 of 242 passes for 1,815 yards and 24 touchdowns for a first string that got a ton of mileage on the ground from Upham (1,950 yards) and was often out of games early thanks to lopsided scores.
Montalvo steps right into Upham’s shoes as a power runner. The Southington ground game is further fueled by returning senior Brandon Kohl (66-651) and up-and-coming junior Ian Agnew.
In the passing game, the Blue Knights graduated leading receiver Anthony Plantamuro (46-666) and 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end Rich Rivera (27-344). They still return a tall ton, led by 6-foot-2 senior Jack Herms (21-253) and 6-foot-4 senior Tim O’Shea (19-228).
Jacob Drena, Will Downes, Tanner LaRosa and Jamie Lamson will have expanded receiving roles as juniors. Senior Jimmy Ringrose, a defensive back, is also in the aerial mix.
The most reconstruction is along the line. Three starters graduated, including All-Record-Journal players Dave Pastor and Julian Robles.
Monson comes back from an injury-abbreviated junior season to anchor the unit at left tackle. The 5-11, 235-pounder is a “brick wall” in the words of his quarterback.
Jimmy Starr, a 6-1, 285-pound senior, is the other returning starter. Senior J.J. Clark (6-2, 223), junior Owen Bouchard (6-2, 195) and junior Ethan Agli (6-1, 215) fill the vacancies.
You’ll note positions weren’t listed for those four. That’s because when a sixth lineman, the 6-4, 270-pound junior Sam McCarty, comes in for spot duty, those four will shift positions, with Starr going to center. It may be a fairly new line, but it is a versatile one, enabling Southington’s run game to essentially have different looks with the same play.
The word most associated with this unit is “speed,” which calls to mind the vaunted defenses that were so instrumental in Southington’s recent state championships.
The 2017 unit will be built around Montalvo, senior Ian Hall and junior Kyle Messenger at inside linebacker. Hall was a force alongside Upham last year, registering 79 tackles to Upham’s team-high 95.
Thomson, named to the All-Record-Journal Team after racking up 52 tackles, eight pass defenses and three interceptions, anchors the secondary with fellow senior returnee Shaun Wagner.
There are other returning starters. Senior outside linebacker Joe Koczera is coming off an 89-tackle season. Senior end Sean Scanlon (43 tackles, 5½ sacks) returns to the line and senior Anthony Vecchio to strong safety.
Senior end Cole Brock and junior nose Ryan Gavronski step into starting roles up front. Juniors Matt Thompson, J.T. Martin and Stephen Witte join the secondary.
Southington has run the CCC Division I West table three years in row. Simsbury, Conard, Hall and New Britain — in that order — will once again try to crack Southington’s grip on the league crown.
The Blue Knights will also crossover against all five teams from CCC Division I East: Glastonbury, Manchester, East Hartford, Enfield and South Windsor. The big one is at Glastonbury on opening night this Friday.
As usual, the only non-CCC game for Southington comes on Thanksgiving against Cheshire. This year’s Apple Classic is in Cheshire. The Blue Knights have won the last five.