APPLE VALLEY CLASSIC: What happens on the field is just the tip of the iceberg for Southington, Cheshire football families

On Sunday at Cheshire High School, the best teams in the Shoreline Youth Football Conference played for championships.

Among those taking home trophies were Southington’s sixth- and seventh-grade teams. Two years ago in 2019, before the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season, Cheshire boasted the best eighth-grade team.

Over the next five years, on Thanksgiving morning, many of those same kids will reach the pinnacle of their high school football careers by carrying on the tradition of the Apple Valley Classic. Some will play in a game their fathers played in. Others will follow in the footsteps of brothers or uncles.

All, however, will wear the Red & Black or Blue & White that they’ve dreamed of donning since picking up a football for the first time.

For the past 25 years, Southington and Cheshire have come together on the football field to create an atmosphere as electric as any in the state on Thanksgiving.

And what will end for many Southington and Cheshire football seniors Thursday morning started years ago. It’s a 17-year journey made possible by two communities who love their football — from the cradle to the gridiron.

“It’s an unbelievable tradition,” Southington athletic director Steve Risser said. “Thanksgiving morning football: It doesn’t get any better.

“It’s just great to see the two communities get together for high school football; it’s really one of the highlights of the athletic calendar,” Risser added. “The four Friday nights and Thanksgiving morning, whether it’s here or at Cheshire, it’s special. It’s a happening.”

Feeder systems

What makes the Apple Classic so special on game day is made possible by the work done by organizations who support the programs around the year, and it starts with the town’s youth football programs.

Referred to as programs that “feed” into the town’s high school, Southington actually boasts two youth football programs. Neither middle school in Southington offers football, so the Travel Knights (who play in the Shoreline Conference) and the Southington Valley Midget Football League (SVMFL) both groom players in grades 3-8.

The same is true in Cheshire, where Cheshire Junior Football is the only game in town. It, too, produces hundreds of future Rams.

Combined, the three programs play a major role in making Cheshire and Southington high school football among the best programs in the state.

“It happens in a blink of an eye,” said Kim Beaudoin, whose son Kam played football in the Southington youth programs from the age of 5.

Kam is the oldest of four Beaudoin brothers. He’s a junior cornerback on this year’s Southington High team. His brother Konner is on the freshman team. A third Beaudoin boy, Kaden, plays on the Southington Travel Knights fifth-grade team, while 2-year-old Kyler is a Knight in waiting.

Kim’s husband, Jerry, coaches within the Travel Knights.

“I’ll be here for a little while,” said Kim Beaudoin, who serves as the marketing director of the Southington Travel Knights.

“We are lucky to have strong youth programs,” continued Beaudoin. “Other towns may have one youth program; we have two that feed into the high school. That’s how big football is in Southington. It’s a really big deal.

“The reason it’s so big is Southington football is a family. It’s based on family, loyalty and teamwork. It starts at the youth teams and goes all the way up to high school. We have the best coaches, ever, teaching more than just football. They’re teaching life skills.”

It’s the same story in Cheshire, where familiar names are found up and down the high school roster — names that became household during the seasons of youth football.

“I’m not going anywhere,” joked Tony DiDomizio, whose oldest son Nick came up through Cheshire youth program and scored a touchdown in the 2019 Apple Classic. Tony also has twin 8-year-old boys.

When Tony was playing Cheshire youth football, his parents started the Cheshire concession stand in 1985. What started out of the trunk of Tom and Joanne DiDomizio’s car is now a cornerstone of the Cheshire High School athletic complex.

If the name DiDomizio sounds familiar, it should. The Tommy DiDomizio Memorial Award is given out annually to the Cheshire senior football player who demonstrates an unselfish commitment to the football program. Nick was the school’s 29th recipient.

Nick received the award named after his late uncle, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1992 prior to his sophomore season at Cheshire. A rock just beyond the football field bears a poem and plaque remembering Tommy.

Tradition calls for the Rams to touch a rock prior to every practice and game.

“Everyone buys in; you have to,” Tony DiDomizio said. “All the guys on the team are here to be part of the Cheshire football family and its community.

“Southington is a great program and on Thanksgiving Day we’re bitter enemies,” continued DiDomizio. “We want to get Cheshire to the next level. We want to do things that make other towns say, ‘Hey what is Cheshire doing?’ We want to do that. How do we do that?’ Southington has that.”

“Route 10 is busy, but on football night you can’t move, because everyone wants to be involved in Cheshire football.

What’s in a name?

Southington and Cheshire share more than just a border and the love of high school football. Their major fundraising football groups also share the same name: The Gridiron Club.

The football teams’ success on the field isn’t possible without either. High school athletic budgets are shrinking while the costs of running a program at the level of Southington or Cheshire are rising. That means groups like The Gridiron Club are vital.

Both local clubs are football specific and are made up of parents of current players on the high school teams. Both clubs boast annual fundraising in the tens of thousands.

“We take great pride in the tradition of the players who came before us,” former Cheshire Gridiron Club president Kim Cangiano said. “The legacy they hold today’s players to the Gridiron Club facilitates the development of those ideas.

“This would absolutely not be possible, to this level, without the Gridiron Cub,” continued Cangiano. “Every school has a budget for their sports program and they are never as large as we’d like them to be. What we bring in, we spend. We make sure we pay it forward on a continual basis. We are very, very proud of those who came before us.”

Current Southington Gridiron Club president Karen Walsh echoes Cangiano.

“We fund a substantial portion of what is involved in the program,” said Walsh, who has twin boys on the junior varsity team. Her oldest son, Ryan, played for Southington before graduating in 2019. “We budget every year for different items, depending on what is needed. It’s a year-around commitment.”

Feeding The masses

With turkeys cooking in ovens, thousands of Southington and Cheshire residents will descend upon Fontana Field on Thanksgiving morning.

It’s Southington’s turn to feed ’em.

In 2019, that task fell on Cheshire and specifically on Mike Federicl, who has been in charge of the Cheshire concession stand since 2014.

Two years ago, when Cheshire hosted the Apple Valley Classic, Federicl was at the field by 5:30 a.m. He and his staff of volunteers prepared 30 dozen breakfast sandwiches, as well as countless hamburgers, hot dogs, steak sandwiches and pepper & sausage grinders.

It’s this type of menu at both schools that separate them from the rest. Another source of revenue, the money generated from every sandwich or burger sold goes toward athletics.

The Southington concession stand is manned by football parents and revenue goes directly to football. Cheshire’s concession stand, meanwhile, is manned by the school’s booster club and benefits all Ram athletes.

Both generate thousands of dollars. And, in any given year, Cheshire’s booster club hands out up to $10,000 in scholarships.

“It’s a lot of fun; I enjoy doing it,” said Federicl, who had four kids play athletics at Cheshire.

Preparing for this year’s game at Southington will start at 7 a.m. Thursday.

“Bagels at 5,” joked Walsh.

Hey, aren’t you …

When generations gather for football on Thanksgiving morning, there’s bound to be more than a few familiar faces on the field, stands and sidelines. One such face is Scott Putnam, who’ll be in the stands Thursday morning watching his son Mike play in his first Apple Valley Classic.

Putnam can also be found on the sidelines as the SHS freshman football coach the past three seasons. He is also a 1992 graduate of Southington.

Putnam’s son is the second Putnam to play for SHS, and a third Putnam is on the way. Scott’s 5-year-old son is starting his Southington football journey with the Travel Knights.

“I see it in all aspects,” said Putnam, who has lived in Southington 47 years and coach youth football for 14 years. “It’s gotten bigger and better. It’s been a long, long tradition here at Southington.”

Cheshire, too, has several familiar names. From Hunter to Bowman, Cunningham to DiDomizio, there’s bound to be a reunion of some sorts Thursday morning.

“What brought me back was going to events; it’s like a family reunion,” said David Hunter, who graduated from Cheshire in 1997. His two brothers are also Cheshire grads.

“We had a great run in the 90s, won a lot of games,” David Hunter continues, referencing Cheshire’s five-year string of state championships and state-record 49-game winning streak.. “But all of these guys (in the Alumni Association) are involved and want to be involved in the program.

“We are here giving back to the team and program. We don’t have to ask twice when we ask a guy to step up and are very willing to give back to the kids and program.”

Mike Bowman is a junior offensive lineman for this year’s Cheshire team. Like several past and present Rams, he’s following in his father’s footsteps. The elder Bowman is the Alumni Association president.

“It runs deep in the blood,” said 2008 Cheshire graduate Casey Nugent, one of five Nugent brothers to play in the Apple Classic. “There are lot of families throughout this town with generations of Cheshire football players.

“From youth up, it’s a family,” Nugent continued. “There are guys who I played with who I can call, and they’re still brothers. It’s like you’re back in high school again. It doesn’t skip a beat.”

Walsh concurred.

“Something that’s special is when you see all the boys come back,” Walsh said. “They still have these great relationships with the coach; they see their brothers on the field. That camaraderi there is nothing like it.”

With her oldest son Kam playing in the family’s first Apple Valley Classic, Kim Beaudoin has experienced her own personal journey, one she’ll gladly repeat with her other sons.

“Starting out in football, we had no idea what to expect,” said Kim Beaudoin. “I didn’t know what to expect in high school, but now we are in it. All the years going through (youth program), building up to (high school).

“This is the epitome of what we built up for: high school football. The experience these guys get, in front of these fans and students, it’s an event.”

Cheshire head coach Don Drust, who played in two Apple Valley Classics and will be coaching his ninth Thursday, summed up the vibe best when he said, “It’s two towns with a ton of passion, with a tremendous amount of care for football. When you put two towns like that together, this is what you get. You get in year in and year out.

“It’s awesome.”

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