CHESHIRE — After going 6-4 last season and 2-2 in SCC Tier 1, the Cheshire football team is looking forward to getting better this upcoming campaign.
Like every year, it will not be an easy road.
For starters, the Rams have a tenacious schedule. Along with a tough SCC Tier 1 schedule versus Shelton, West Haven, Notre Dame-West Haven, North Haven, and Fairfield Prep, Cheshire plays a crossover against defending state Class L champion Daniel Hand and non-conference games against perennial powerhouses Newtown and Southington.
For another thing, the Rams must replace the majority of their starters, including three-year starting quarterback Jack Raba and several All-Record-Journal and All-Conference players now suiting up in college — lineman Dan Covel (St. Lawrence), linebacker Nick Nelson (Pace) and four-year safety/wide receiver Michael Jeffery (Amherst).
Add wide receiver/captain Eric Angelone to that list. Add kicker/punter Ethan Bronson, who was also All-RJ and All-Conference.
There are a lot of positions to fill, which means there are a lot of opportunities.
“We are working hard,” said Don Drust, who is entering his seventh year as Cheshire’s head coach. “Guys showed up understanding that we had to get a lot of work done. We had a lot of holes to fill; we graduated a lot of seniors last year. The good thing is everybody has embraced it and everybody understands what we have in front of us and what we have to do.”
The Rams certainly aren’t ducking from the challenge.
“We’ve been a very energetic team. We’ve been wanting to get after it in the first couple practices, which is great,” said senior Jason Shumilla, who started last year at cornerback and looms as Raba’s replacement at QB. “I’ve seen a lot of the new guys picking it up and starting to get things rolling, and it is looking good.”
The team’s young energy and the uncertainty over starting positions is something the Rams will look to work to their advantage going into the season.
“Competition breeds success,” Drust said. “I know it’s cliche, but I am a firm believer in it.
“We have to take it day by day more than ever,” Drust added. “We are replacing a lot of guys and we have a lot of guys that graduated, and we have to understand the process, understand what we have to get better at. And we have to understand that we have to learn from everything we’ve done wrong and right.”The offense
The Rams bid farewell to a senior class of 27. Even for a Class LL program like Cheshire, that’s a large number.
So is the yardage that must be replaced.
Raba, now playing lacrosse at Loyola-Maryland, departed as the program’s all-time leading passer (3,913 yards, 28 TDs). His understudy, the more-than-serviceable Will Graikoski, also graduated.
Of the 1,528 passing yards Raba and Graikoski dished out last season, senior receivers, led by Jeffery (670) and Angelone (431), accounted for all but 90 of them. Cole Escoto (Bridgton Academy), Tim Hoynes (UMass lacrosse) and Tom Wnuck are also key receivers who graduated.
Shumilla and senior Jackson Telese are looking to fill the shoes at quarterback. Seniors Tim Krutz and Jacob Simsik, along with junior Alec Frione, are the leading candidates to fill the open receiver spots.
Up front, Cheshire brings back just one starter, senior Tom Cherneskie. A pair of juniors, Will Bergin and Sean Cangiano, look to help fill the breach.
Where the Rams do return experience is at running back. Jake McAlinden was the team’s leading rusher last year as a sophomore with 681 yards on 112 carries.
He’s the lightning in the Cheshire ground game. The thunder is 215-pound senior Elijah Alston. A third-year starter, Alston rushed for 343 yards last year.The defense
The Rams took graduation hits at all three levels on this side of the ball.
Along with Covel, the line lost Dan Calbo, Connor Whelan, Owen Reach and Andrew Zebarth. Calbo is now at St. Lawrence with Covel. The 6-foot-7, 325-pounds Zebarth is at Sacred Heart.
At linebacker, along with Nelson, Cheshire lost Jay Como and Cole Escoto. Led by Nelson’s team-high 118 tackles, that linebacking trio accounted for 255 tackles a year ago.
Gone from the secondary, aside from Jeffery, Angelone and Hoynes, is Nick Quint, whose five interceptions were the team high.
Shumilla brings experience back to the secondary. The linebacking corps will be rebuilt around Alston. The line will be reforged with Bergin, Cangiano and Cherneskie.
These are the players Cheshire will count on heavily for their maturity.
“Jason Shumilla started at corner; he understands it,” said Drust. “Will Bergin started on the offensive and defensive line a couple games; he gets it. And Sean Cangiano understands, too. We are leaning on these guys to help bring the others along and to be leaders and take on some of those roles.”The schedule
With Shelton’s turf field being resurfaced, the season opener with the Gaels has been moved to Thursday night, Sept. 6, at West Haven’s Ken Strong Stadium.
The Rams stay on the road in Week 2 (Newtown) and Week 3 (North Haven). The home opener is a SCC crossover against Jonathan Law on Sept. 28.
Cheshire also hosts Fairfield Prep (Oct. 12), Notre Dame (Oct. 26), Hand (Nov. 2) and Harding (Nov. 9). This year’s Apple Classic is in Southington.
Simsik likes what he has seen so far from his teammates in practice and is ready to get the season started.
“I’ve seen that we are going to be a team that plays very hard and finishes games,” said Simsik. “I can’t wait for Friday nights. There is nothing like them. Can’t wait for the first game against Shelton.”