MERIDEN — Alonzo Relaford wasn’t just blowing coach smoke in the post-game huddle Monday at Falcon Field.
“This isn’t like any other team,” Relaford reminded his Wilcox/Kaynor Tech football players after a scrimmage with the CREC Co-op. “This is our team.”
And that is 100 percent true. Wilcox/Kaynor is unlike any of the 137 other teams playing CIAC football in 2023. Wilcox/Kaynor, by its own decree, is already out of postseason contention.
Here in August, the Wildcats already know there won’t be a December. And that’s perfect OK with them.
Call it a case of “all for one and none for all.” For the sake of keeping their co-op intact — the combined participation numbers between the Meriden and Waterbury schools have grown too high — Wilcox/Kaynor is foregoing a chance at making the CIAC tournament.
The Wildcats knew this was coming when they first joined forces in 2021. The enrollment numbers allowed for a partnership of only two years.
But it was a successful venture, one measured not so much by wins and losses — the co-op was 1-9 in 2021, 5-5 in 2022 — but by competitive metrics. The Wildcats played a far better brand of football together than apart, especially last year, when Relaford, the long-time Wilcox assistant, became head coach.
Wilcox hadn’t seen even a .500 season since its debut 5-5 campaign of 2007. Participation and quality of play had dropped to such a low level that, in 2017, Wilcox played JV-only for a season.
Kaynor, meanwhile, lost its previous co-op partner, Sacred Heart, when the Waterbury parochial school closed in 2021.
Simply put, without Kaynor, Wilcox would lack the numbers to be competitive and Kaynor, without Wilcox, would lack the numbers to even have a team at all.
Plus, it’s a harmonious pairing, a natural mesh of tech school kids rather than, say, tech school kids and parochial kids.
That’s why, on the final night of the 2022 season, when the Wildcats defeated VGW Techs in the Route 66 Bowl at Falcon, Relaford was already saying he wanted to continue the co-op at all costs.
Nothing has changed in the nine months since.
“Never a doubt,” Relaford reiterated Monday. “And the reason why I like this, too, is if we go back to being separate, they’ll have 30 (players), we’ll have 30 and by the end of the season we’ll be doing what we did in prior years. One year, we didn’t have enough players and went down to JV. I’d rather do this.”
Relaford didn’t have to sell it to Wilcox Athletic Director Steve Wodarski. The two are in lockstep.
“It means more to us to be able play football and be competitive — and Kaynor wouldn’t have a team; Kaynor doesn’t have the numbers,” Wodarski said. “Kaynor wouldn’t have a team and I don’t think we would be as competitve without Kaynor.
“Football at Wilcox is about giving the kids an opportunity to play football,” Wodarski added. “For us to maybe qualify (for the state tournament) and play a North Haven ...”
What Wodarski left unsaid: North Haven’s 50-0 quarterfinal win last year over Thames River in the Class MM state tournament.
The Wilcox/Kaynor story touches on the larger CIAC saga of what to do with the tech schools come playoff time — not just in football, but in all sports.
The Connecticut Technical Conference is a homogenous circuit. It features tech schools exclusively save for five football co-ops in which a tech combines with public or parochial schools — Abbott/Immaculate, Bullard/Kolbe, Northwest United, Quinnebaug Valley and Thames River.
While those five football co-ops raise competitive balance questions of their own, the CTC is, by and large, apples and apples. There is in-house parity during the regular season.
The CIAC tournaments are another story. More often than not, the tech schools are in over their head, with blowouts and skewed playoff brackets the result.
In the instance of Thames River football 2022, the tri-op of Grasso Tech, Norwich Tech and St. Bernard ripped through the CTC at 10-0, pitching seven shutouts along the way and outscoring opponents 485-19.
After routinely beating CTC opponents by 50 points, Thames River lost by 50 to eventual Class MM champ North Haven in the quarterfinals.
Northwest United, the football conglomeration of Wolcott Tech and several greater-Litchfield publics, also went 10-0 in the CTC last year and also made the Class MM tournament. Northwest United lost to Masuk in the quarterfinals, 46-6.
Only Abbott-Immaculate, which went 8-2, was relatively competitive in the 2022 football postseason — “relatively,” because after the Mustangs lost 28-7 to Rockville in the Class M quarterfinals, Rockville lost 42-7 to Berlin.
Against this backdrop, the Wilcox/Kaynor decision to forego the postseason for the sake of staying together appears a no-brainer.
“It’s not about making the playoffs, because you see what happens,” Relaford remarked. “All the teams that went 10-0 in our division played the public schools and got creamed.
“We’d rather stay in this, have our 10 games and say, ‘Good job; you guys got better.’”
That was the final word at the end of last season, and it wasn’t “coach smoke.”