MERIDEN — Alonzo Relaford will be the first to admit he’s not good with last names.
After more than 20 years of coaching football — first with the Meriden Raiders, the past 17 at Wilcox Tech — Relaford has worked with so many players that surnames simply escape him.
He’s good with first names, though, and even better at handing out nicknames.
Such as the one he bestowed upon the boy who brought a pot pie to practice one night and endeavored to eat it while the team was stretching out.
“He sort of had his body turned and I said, ‘Hey, what you got there?’” Relaford recalled. “He had a fork and everything. And the kicker was, it was still warm!”
And thus “Pot Pie” entered that season’s lexicon.
Which begs the question as the future cooks and mechanics and electricians of Wilcox and Kaynor Tech gather for the 2023 high school football season: Who will be this year’s “Pot Pie” for the Wildcats?
Who will be the hungriest player? Who will bring that chicken-potato-veggie mix of power, starch and speed and make it warm for the opposition?
Because while Relaford has some good players at the table, he needs more.
It’s not a question of numbers. In combination, Wilcox and Kaynor go more than 60 players strong in their third year as a co-op. It’s one that’s worked out so well that the Wildcats have opted to remain together even though it means, because of the high numbers, they aren’t eligible to qualify for the state tournament.
But Wilcox/Kaynor did lose key guys from last year’s 5-5 team to graduation, namely 1,241-yard rusher Brandon Alvarado and defensive end Connor Fletcher, and some starting positions remained unsettled after last Saturday’s 41-6 game scrimmage loss at Haddam-Killingworth.
Relaford made that abundantly clear to his team in the post-game huddle.
So this past week, the last of the preseason leading up to Saturday’s opener at O’Brien Tech, has been spent trying to forge a lineup.
“My linebackers,” Relaford said as an example. “We had a linebacker issue. We’ve got kids that want to be in the position, but they really don’t want to put that dedication into it. We just need a few underclassmen to step up and be leaders in those positions.”
Relaford does have cornerstones, such as Wilcox senior Pat LaChance, who is going to be smack-dab in the middle of things on both sides of the ball. He’s an inside linebacker and running back.
Wilcox/Kaynor also has good linemen. For these reasons, Relaford is confident his team will build on last year’s success — a success reflected not so much in the 5-5 record, but in the competitive level that far surpassed previous seasons.
“We’ve got to do some work, but I’m happy with where we’re at it,” said Relaford, who is in his second year as head coach. “Absolutely, I feel like we’re going to actually do way better than last year. These kids — most of them — know what they’re doing.”
Such as the offensive line. It’s got size and experience: tackles Gavin Davis, Clay Adkins and Markese Wright, guards Christian Kruger and Hunter Budris, and center Sergio Mendoza. All of them, save for the junior Budris, is a senior.
Sophomore Anthony Izzi-Mancinone will also see time on a line that will run block for LaChance and fellow senior Alex Oritz and pass protect for first-year quarterback Logan Stone.
Stone, a sophomore from Kaynor, will direct an attack that, like last year, will run behind a tightly bunched unbalanced line with two wing backs, a single running back and the QB under center.
The Wildcats will also roll out the I-formation, with sophomore Xavion Saucier coming in at fullback.
Additionally, Stone can wing it, which allows Wilcox/Kaynor to run a spread as well. It’s a new wrinkle, a definite work in progress, but one worth pursuing. Developing passing options will make Wilcox/Kaynor’s bread-and-butter running attack that much better.
Sophomore Ismeal Montanez and seniors Alex Lowery and Nick Barros are the top receivers. Senior Juan Coral is at slot and wing.
Barros is also the kicker and, as he proved last year, has accuracy and range. He’s fairly automatic on PATs and gives Relaford a field goal option once the Wildcats get inside the opposing 30-yard line.
Sizing up his offense, Relaford said, “Prior years, we had no time to throw the ball; we now have plenty of time to throw the ball. It’s a new-look team.
“Our line, I’m pretty proud of,” Relaford continued. “Our line is good; our line is coming back. It’s just everyone else. We’ve got to get some work done. (Stone) can throw, but we’ve got to work the receivers better.”
The line is also the strength of the defense. Four-man against the run, three-man vs. the pass, it features sophomore tackle C.J. Morgan, who started last year as a freshman.
First-year senior Keidi Pena, sophomore Cherod Brown-Robinson and Wright are also at tackle. Junior Jake Williams, Saucier, Davis and Kruger are the ends.
“Our strength is our 4,” Relaford remarked. “If you’re a running team, you’re not really going to run on us. The 4 is going to get you.”
At linebacker, Budris and junior Uzziah Nelson have been working inside with LaChance. Coral and sophomore Alexys Ortiz are on the outside. Izzi-Mancinone and junior Joe Gonzales are also getting looks at linebacker.
The secondary, where the Wildcats are young, sees Barros and the receivers at cornerback. Sophomore Tyler Wieliesz is the free safety.
“I’m not worrying about our front,” Relaford said of his defense. “You can’t really run on us. But they were torching us with the pass.”
Unlike last year, when they opened at Lyman Hall, the Wildcats will strictly play within the Connecticut Technical Conference this year. After this Saturday’s season opener in Ansonia against O’Brien Tech, the home opener is next Saturday, Sept. 16 against Thames River at Falcon Field at 6 p.m.
The Wildcats also host Cheney Tech (Sept. 30) and Prince Tech-Innovation (Oct. 7) at Falcon on upcoming Saturdays. In November, Bullard-Kolbe and Quinnebaug Valley come calling on the 3rd and the 17th. Both are Friday night games.
For road games, Relaford and the boys travel west on consecutive weeks to face Abbott Tech-Immaculate (at Immaculate, Oct. 21) and Northwest United (at Nonnewaug, Oct. 27). They’re in Milford on Nov. 10 to face Platt Tech.
The Route 66 Bowl against VGW Techs on Thanksgiving Eve is also away from home. Vinal hosts in Middletown at Pat Kidney Field.
“That’s the way I like it,” Relaford said of the all-tech school scheduule, though he would prefer tech schools not be allowed to co-op with parochial schools, which Thames River and ATI do — or, in the case of Northwest United and Quinnebaug Valley, with public schools.
“We’re a true tech school and I want to play true tech kids,” Relaford said.
Whatever the challenges of the schedule, the Wildcats are looking to go beyond .500 and post a winning record. It would be a first in program history.
“Every game that we should be winning, we’re going to win,” Relaford pledged. “It all comes down to our lines, and ours are very experienced.”