(Editor’s Note: Football preseason opens this week. The Record-Journal will visit all seven area teams for a first-look report. Full previews will appear Sept. 7-12.)
MERIDEN — Being driven indoors by rain and lightning brought out the inner Vince Lombardi in Platt football coach Jason Bruenn on Monday afternoon.
Here it was, the opening day of preseason conditioning, and instead of being outside running full tilt, the Panthers were in the gym doing footwork drills at three-quarters speed.
That has a way of putting football coaches, who thrive on things going according to plan, on edge.
”YOU CALL THAT A SHIMMY STEP?” Platt’s head man roared more than once. “THIS IS A SHIMMY STEP!”
You can understand why Bruenn and his squad are eager to shimmy and shake onto the 2019 gridiron dance floor. The Panthers return a solid nucleus from a 9-3 playoff season that included the CCC Division II-West crown and their first postseason victory since 1997.
What’s more, after being one of the state’s smaller Class L football programs dating back to 2011, the Panthers have been reclassified to Class M just as last season’s Class M finalists, champion St. Joseph and runner-up Berlin, have been moved to Class L.
The prospects are promising — certainly far brighter than Monday’s horizon, when the dark clouds came rumbling.
“To me, we’ve always been a Class M, regardless of what the numbers say,” said Bruenn, who has led Platt to four postseason appearances, three of them in Class L, in his 12 seasons. “We were a very small L. There were times when we were the first, second or third smallest L. You go to the playoffs and you’re playing these teams that have 100 more boys than you, there’s a huge difference.
“So we’re happy to be in M because that’s where we feel we fit, size-wise. We’re hoping we can continue the success and, hopefully, push it farther.”
There is reason to believe the Panthers can. They return a 1,000-yard rusher in junior Roberto Salas (209-1,330) and they have experienced players on both sides of the ball, especially up front.
Bruenn’s son Clayton will center an O-line that returns starters Cristian Calero, Dan Hand, Lashaun Hill and Jaylen John, who was All-State a year ago as a junior.
Those players will also man the defensive line, which is further enhanced by returning end Jael Rivera.
Jasiah Cooper, the first sophomore to make the All-Record-Journal Team, returns for his junior season at middle linebacker.
“The cliche is games are won or lost in the trenches,” coach Bruenn noted. “That’s so true for us right now.”
The Panthers do need a new quarterback. Lorenzo Sanson threw for 1,458 yards and ran for 371 last year in his one season as starting QB.
Platt must also replace two guys who were three-year cornerstones: receiver Jake Baker and running back E.J. Dudley.
It’s not just their talents the Panthers will miss — Baker had a team-high 1,189 all-purpose yards and 14 TDs; Dudley was a two-time 1,000-yard rusher — it’s their leadership. Even when Dudley missed all of last year to an ACL tear, he helped Baker and fellow captain Nehemiah Vargas steer the club with a firm hand.
Thus far, the Panthers do not have their captains selected for 2019.
“It’s interesting when you lose guys like a Dudley or a Baker. It feels like they played forever because they started since their sophomore year,” Bruenn said. “So some of those pieces need to be replaced. We’re working on some things and trying to figure out who can be the best at those positions.”
The Panthers have 2½ weeks before their Sept. 13 season opener at home at Falcon Field against RHAM. They’ll scrimmage three times: against Masuk and SMSA on Aug. 31 at Falcon, against Newtown on Sept. 3 at Falcon and at Simsbury on Sept. 6.
The regular-season schedule features matchups with CCC Division-II West rivals Maloney, Newington, Wethersfield and both Bristol schools.
On the interdivisional grid, Platt crosses over against Windsor, RHAM and E.O. Smith of Division II-East, and crosses up against Division I Manchester, a Class LL school.
There is also a new twist. With the CCC and FCIAC joining the SCC, ECC and SWC in the Connecticut High School Football Scheduling Alliance, the 2019 season will feature nearly 100 interleague games.
Platt’s opponent is a good one: Notre Dame-West Haven of SCC Tier 1.
“They’re going to be a tough team,” Bruenn remarked. “I don’t care what their record is. They’re an SCC top tier team.”
For the record, NDHW was 6-4 in 2018. As for 2019, here’s the full schedule for Platt, with all home games at Falcon Field:
■Sept. 13 vs. RHAM, 6:30 p.m.■Sept. 20 at Wethersfield, 7 p.m.■Sept. 27 at Notre Dame-West Haven (Veterans Stadium), 7 p.m.■Oct. 4 vs. E.O. Smith, 6:30 p.m.■Oct. 11 at Newington, 6:30 p.m.■Oct. 25 vs. Bristol Central, 6:30 p.m.■Nov. 1 at Windsor, 7 p.m.■Nov. 8 vs. Bristol Eastern, 6:30 p.m.■Nov. 15 at Manchester, 6:30 p.m.■Nov. 28 vs. Maloney, 10:30 a.m.
Will the Panthers still be playing in December? We’ll see, when snowflakes, and not lightning, is more likely to fly.