SOUTHINGTON — With so many talented players coming back, it’s easy to pencil the Southington football team into its fifth consecutive postseason.
But getting to the playoffs isn’t the end goal for these Blue Knights.
The goal? Winning the school’s first Class LL football championship in nearly a decade.
“I definitely think we are a state championship-caliber team,” senior wide receiver and safety John Flynn said. “We just have to mold together; we’ll be there.”
“A lot of guys know what it takes to get to (a state championship),” added senior quarterback C.J. DiBennedetto. “We are coming out with a chip on our shoulder.”
DiBennedetto and Flynn are two of Southington’s four senior captains for 2023. The other two are last year’s leading tackler, linebacker Aaron Borkowski, and two-way starter Evan Anderson.
At full strength a season ago, the four were part of a Southington squad that was certainly among the best teams in the state.
In Week 3, the Blue Knights went down to No. 1 Greenwich and beat the eventual CIAC Class LL champion 29-28. As a result, the Blue Knights earned their first No. 1 state ranking since 2015.
SHS would lose its top ranking (briefly) a month later when it lost 31-28 to then-No. 2 Maloney in double overtime at Falcon Field. Two weeks later, the Blue Knights were once again No. 1 and, over the course of a 9-2 season, spent eight weeks atop the GameTime CT state media poll.
Come the Class LL state playoffs, the Blue Knights entered as the No. 1 seed and were looking to win their first state championship since 2014. But the season ended abruptly in the quarterfinals when a depleted SHS squad lost at Fontana Field to No. 8 Trumbull, 35-34.
It was only the second loss for Southington at Fontana Field in five years.
“When you lose at home in the quarterfinals, yes, that’s very frustrating,” said Southington head coach Mike Drury, who enters his 13th season in charge of the Blue Knights.
Under Drury’s direction, SHS teams have reached the postseason in 11 of the past 13 seasons (Covid wiped out the 2020 season). Drury also won his 100th game at SHS last season.
Southington’s quest to finish No. 1 in the state in 2023 starts next Thursday, Sept. 7 when the Blue Knights host New Britain in the season opener.
SHS will no doubt enter the game with a preseason ranking. (The Blue Knights finished No. 9 in the final 2022 poll.) Then, after 10 regular season games, it’ll likely be headed to the postseason.
“The standard is the standard; it’s going to be high every year,” Drury said. “Our goal is to play championship-level football.”
How last season ended just fuels senior two-way starter Chris Totonis and the rest of the Blue Knights.
“Obviously, in playoff football, anyone can beat anyone, but (last year) we felt like we had the guys who could win a state championship,” Totonis said. “It was definitely a disappointing end.
“We took the loss and, yeah, it sucked,” Totonis added. “We never want to feel that again. We know what we have to do. Let’s go win a state championship and let’s prepare even more than we did last year.”
Totonis is one of 14 returning starters back for their senior season in 2023. DiBenedetto (2,304 yards, 22 touchdowns) returns to lead the offense. Borkowski (team-high 10½ tackles a game) leads the defense.
Also returning are a plethora of weapons on the outside. Receivers Flynn (32 catches, 457 yards), Anderson (21-421), Rashard Willians (37-471), Jared Ierardi (13-177) and tight end Blake Stevens (11-118) give DiBenedetto plenty of options.
“I’m excited; I’ve got a lot of guys to throw the ball to,” DiBenedetto said. “Everyone knows the offense; we just have a lot of confidence coming into the season.
“We are really a strong group,” Williams said of his fellow wideouts and the connection each has with DiBenedetto. “I feel like we have a lot of chemistry; we’ve been working together since our sophomore year.”
On the other side of the ball, Borkowski is one of five returning defenders. Fellow linebacker Totonis, who will pull double-duty as the starting running back, notched 8½ tackles a game as a junior. Totonis also led the team with 5½ sacks.
Where Totonis lines up on offense this year fills a glaring hole. All-everything running back Lincoln Cardillo amassed an area-best 1,690 yards rushing a season ago. The All-State running back now totes the ball for the Red Foxes of Marist College.
Cardillo found the end zone 26 times last season and scored 199 total points, both area highs. Cardillo also did the kicking last year while rushing for 153.6 yards a game.
“It’s obviously very difficult when you lose a great player and great leader, but he paved the way,” Drury said. “Guys see how (Cardillo) carried himself every day.
“Obviously, from a player standpoint, he freaking did it all; he was great,” Drury continued. “But it’s like every year when you lose those talented guys: Who’s going to step up?’ Whose turn is it next to be ‘The Guy?’”
Totonis knows he won’t be “The Guy,” at least on offense. Nobody expects Totonis to put up the kind of numbers Cardillo did last season. Totonis carried the ball just five times last season. Last year’s backup to Cardillo, senior Owen Hunt (24-202, 2 TDs) is nursing a bad ankle.
As a result, Drury calls his backfield a “running back by committee” situation, with a trio of juniors also expected to line up behind DiBennedetto.
“I know I’ve got possibly the best running back in Southington football history’s shoes to fill,” Totonis said. “And I’m working as hard as I can to fill those shoes to the best of my ability.
“I don’t know that I will, but I’m hoping to do my part offensively to let all the other playmakers around me make plays,” Totonis added. “I’ll just chip in as much as I can.”
One senior who is pegged for a big season is Anderson, who until tearing is meniscus in the fifth game of last season was on pace to be one of the state’s top players in 2022.
In 4½ games, Anderson caught 21 balls for 421 yards and four touchdowns. One of Anderson’s TD catches came against Greenwich. To complete a breakout performance that day, Anderson also threw a touchdown pass and ran in the winning two-point conversion.
In Week 5 at East Hartford, Anderson scored twice — including on the game’s first play — before tearing his meniscus. He didn’t play the rest of the season, but still averaged team-high 84.2 yards receiving a game.
“I’m definitely ready to get back out there,” Anderson said. “Obviously, (losing to Trumbull) wasn’t what I expected to happen.
“We have to do a lot better than (just making the playoffs),” Anderson added. “The playoffs aren’t good enough. A (state) championship is where we want to be … The past two years we’ve gotten knocked out in the first round; we are looking to take it a step further.”
Southington lost at New Canaan in the 2021 state quarterfinals.
“Our strength is we had a lot of juniors who’ve now turned into seniors who played last year,” Anderson continued. “It’s very nice to have us all back. We had a lot of people step up.”
One of those juniors who found the spotlight was Williams, who fought through a foot injury last season to grab a team-high seven touchdown catches. A threat to score every time he touches the ball, Williams found the end zone four times in a 49-21 win over Hall last season.
Another junior who shined was Flynn. He enters his third varsity season after starting as a sophomore at tight end. Flynn hauled in six touchdowns last season and, after the injury to Anderson, became DiBenedetto’s main target.
Flynn is another two-way starter. He’ll also line up at safely and also does the long-snapping.
“I got a lot of confidence (late in the season), and confidence for a wide receiver is key,” said Flynn. “It lets you dominate.”
With so many weapons at wide receiver and a sizeable hole in the backfield, it’s hard not to harken back to the days of Southington’s “Air Raid” offense before Drury’s arrival.
Drury, however, knows balance is the key to success. During Southington’s back-to-back state titles in 2013 and 2014, the Blue Knights were a threat to score on the ground and through the air.
‘You have to be balanced,” Drury stressed. “We have to have a good balance, but our talent (is outside).”
To that end, the Southington offense will be dependent on the strong-armed DiBenedetto, the latest in a long line of productive SHS quarterbacks and the first since 2016 to return as a starter.
DiBenedetto’s heath was thought to be an issue. A pitcher in baseball, DiBenedetto injured his right elbow prior to the state tournament this spring and didn’t pitch for the Blue Knights in the postseason.
DiBenedetto, however, says he’s fully healthy for his senior season of football.
“Honestly, I feel like we just have to keep pushing (and) take it game by game,” DiBenedetto said. “Get to the playoffs, win a few games and get that state championship.”
“C.J. brings a fire and intensity to the position that this offense needs; it feeds off him,” Drury said.
SHS isn’t just stacked at the skilled positions. The Blue Knights also return three starters on the offensive line, and while most of the defensive line has graduated, plenty of senior defenders are ready to make an impact on the varsity level.
Drury will be the first person to say Southington’s success starts up front.
Twins Jack and Quinn Walsh anchor the offensive line. The pair started as juniors with Tristen Rosenberg.
Senior Marcus Tarfano will also start up front, but Drury expects nine players to rotate along the offensive line.
“The offensive line is the hardest group to come together and you have to have five guys working as a fist,” Drury said. “I’ve really seen them come together as a group in our scrimmages” against Darien, North Haven and top-rated St. Anthony’s out of New York.
On defense, Borkowski and Totonis lead the way, but have plenty of returning support.
Linebacker Zack Brilla also returns, and look for junior Andrew Mikosz to make his share of plays on the defensive side of the ball.
The secondary is full of seniors. Joining Anderson, Flynn and Williams will be Caden Angelo.
“Obviously, we wish we could have gone a lot further last year,” Borkowski said. “But we have a lot of guys back both on offense and defense, so it’s going to be a good year.
“Playoffs are great, but it’s not our end goal,” Borkowski added. “Winning a state championship is our goal.”
The Blue Knights will get their first true teston Sept. 22 when they host Staples in a Connecticut Football Alliance game. SHS also hosts Maloney in a CCC Tier 1 showdown at Fontana Field on Nov. 3.
“They have a chip on their shoulder,” Drury said. “This senior group has done a great job leading this team. They’re hungry, they are competitive and they want to win.”