FOOTBALL 2018: Coming off first playoff trip since ’06, Maloney looks to raise the bar further

MERIDEN — Last year was the breakthrough.

Maloney football went 9-1 and, after an 11-year absence, returned to the state playoffs, falling in the Class L quarterfinals to Windsor.

Now, for the 2018 Spartans, comes the challenge of building — and not resting — on the accomplishments of 2017.

”For us, we’re still trying to build the program,” said Kevin Frederick, who enters his fifth year as Maloney head coach. “We feel like we made the playoffs last year, but to really be a good football program you can’t just make the playoffs one year and then have a mediocre year, win 3-4 games the next year. That’s not really a sign of a great program.

”So we’re looking to build off a 9-2 season, get back to the playoffs and try to make some noise in the playoffs.”

The Spartans have ridden an escalator on Frederick’s watch. The inaugural run of 5-6 in 2014, coming on the heels of a 1-9 the year before Frederick’s hire, was followed by back-to-back 7-3 seasons.

Then came last year’s nine wins, which included program victory No. 300 and a 5-0 CCC Division II-West championship.

Returning players have no intention of taking a step back.

”In Coach Fred’s system we’ve improved every single year, and the only way to get better is to keep working harder,” said senior captain Max Ganter. “Last year was successful, making it to the playoffs. We want to go farther and do a lot better. I think we can definitely win a championship with this team.”

Maloney will need to fill some key vacancies to get there.

Two-year quarterback Larue Graham, the holder of virtually of every program passing record, has graduated. So has Mitch McEwen, three-year starter at linebacker and the leading tackler for the past two.

Gone are D-line dominators Desmond King and O’Neal Ward. Gone are defensive backs Josh Oquendo and Stoddard Bowl MVP Cruz Lenhart. Gone is running back Aden Valentin, 2017 Record-Journal Player of the Year.

All of those players were All-Conference.

And yet the Spartans are poised to not miss a beat. They return a solid core, led by All-Conference wide receiver Victor Marquez and running back Freddie Hidalgo, who missed his sophomore season to a knee injury after a promising freshman campaign.

It’s a large core, too. Wait until you see the offensive line.

”From year to year you’re always going to lose key guys who are seniors. We try to fill those voids as we go,” Frederick said. “We were blessed to have some great players who played last year and left a legacy here and paved our way.

“We’ve got some pretty good depth, I think, at some positions,” the coach continued. “The great thing we’re doing now is guys are competing. There are no starting spots yet. The next guy is pushing the first guy and vice versa. The competition level is great. When guys are coming out here and they’ve got to claw for playing time, you’re going to get guys who work hard.”

Ganter and fellow captain and lineman D.J. Posey say Maloney’s mindset is in the right place. There is no complaceny. Nor is anyone intimidated by the challenge of following up a 9-1 season.

“We’re becoming better as a team; we’re doing what good teams do,” said Posey. “We’re stepping up withthe young guys … we have a lot of guys coming back, so I think we can do way more than we did before, and I’m excited about it, too.

“We’re ready,” Posey added. “We’re ready to do damage in this conference.”

The offense

After Graham’s record-setting run, the QB reins are in the hands of senior Elliot Good.

A program veteran, Good was injured last season. Now healthy, he’s looked sharp in preseason.

“I’m super-excited for Elliot,” Ganter remarked. “We’ve been friends for a long time. I’ve watched him go through high school. He’s training every day. He was injured last year, but he was making sure that he knew everything he had to do, taking mental reps. I think he’s going to be real good.”

Hidalgo, the running back, is also ready to resume an injury-interrupted career. In 2016, as a freshman, he ran for a team-high 561 yards.

Hidalgo will be joined in the backfield by sophomore James Tarver. Elijah Stevenson, a junior linebacker, will factor in as a fullback. Sophomore Kameron Hartenstein and senior Devon Gardner, a Platt transfer, are the H-backs.

Marquez leads the receiving corps. Last year, as a junior, Marquez led area receivers with 60 receptions, 743 yards and nine TDs. 

Opposing secondaries won’t be able to just lock in on Marquez. Senior Maurice Brackett (12-156) is also poised for a big season.

“They bring high intensity to the program,” Frederick said of his wide-outs. “Extremely competitive kids. Those guys want the ball every play.”

Jaylon Nixon, a returning senior, and Quanell Grimes, a junior transfer from Platt, occupy the slots.

The anchor of the Maloney offense is the line. It is experienced and it is large, as embodied by third-year senior center Ryan Martel, who looms 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds.

Junior Trevor Santiago, a 6-4 and 300-pound left tackle, started last year as a sophomore. Ganter returns to left guard and Posey to right tackle.

The lone non-returning starter is right guard Andy Cruz. Junior Toby Canales, who did start, has been moved to D-end and will rotate in on O.

This is an offense that averaged 25.9 points a game last year. Don’t expect that calculus to diminish.

The defense 

There are more shoes to fill on this side of the ball, starting up front with the departure of King and Ward, who last year combined for 133 tackles, including 45 for lost yardage (24.5 were sacks).

This year, Santiago and Posey will see two-way duty at tackle, while Canales and senior Julius Rivera step into starting roles on the ends.

Senior Richardo Sandoval and juniors Danny Roldan and Eli Henderson provide the depth.

The linebackers will align around Stevenson, who moves into McEwen’s spot in the middle.

Nixon is back on the weak side. His 67 tackles last year were third high on the team.

Grimes slots in on the strong side. Marquez, starting safety last year, moves down to outside linebacker.

As with the front four, there is depth at linebacker. Frederick points to senior Jacob Esposito, junior Kody Talento and sophomore R.J. Plumberg.

The coach speaks equally high of his secondary, which features returning starters in Brackett and junior safety Kamron Moreno.

Junior Sergio Muniz joins Brackett at corner. Tarver, Gardner and Platt transfer Vincent Martinez, a sophomore, provide additional wheels.

“We have a very athletic secondary, guys who communicate with each other really well,” Frederick said.  

The schedule

There is no easing into the season. Up first is Windsor, which handed the Spartans their lone regular-season loss last year and beat them again in the Class L quarterfinals.

Both games were in Windsor. This time, the teams tangle at Falcon Field in the season opener Sept. 7.

“We’ve learned a ton from those games,” said Frederick. “We’ve been preparing and we’re going to bring a great effort. We’ve got to bring the execution.

“We’re excited for the game, for sure. We’re glad to play them at home this year. The competition Week 1, you can’t ask for anything better than that.”

The Windsor game is a CCC Division II crossover. The Spartans also cross over against E.O. Smith, Farmington and Hartford Public. Platt, Newington, Wethersfield and the two Bristol schools are the West Division rivals.

The schedule is rounded out by a “play-up” conference game against Division I Conard.

 After the opener with Windsor, the Spartans do not play at home until Wethersfield (Oct. 19), Farmington (Oct. 26) and Newington (Nov. 2) come calling in successive weeks.

All Friday night games at Falcon Field kickoff at 6:30 p.m. The Thanksgiving game with Platt is at 10:30 a.m.

“We’re not really looking too, too far ahead,” said Frederick. “We’re looking day to day and just trying to improve our craft.”

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