WALLINGFORD — Wallingford has been a Sheehan football town since 2012.
And yet, as the Titans look for a 10th straight Thanksgiving Day win against crosstown rival Lyman Hall, the past won’t shape this year’s outcome. To the players, it may as well be a clean slate.
Before the season, Lyman Hall created its goals for the year. Ending the Thanksgiving losing streak was near the top of the list.
“I know they want to beat us,” said Sheehan senior John Gogliettino. “But our number one goal is to beat them, too.”
Sheehan hosts Lyman Hall at Riccitelli Field for the 50th annual Carini Bowl on Thursday at 10:30 a.m. Both teams are 4-5, meaning one of them will finish below .500, a fate to which Sheehan hasn’t fallen victim since 2015.
Lyman Hall is on a mission to rebuild its football program back to playoff contention. The Trojans have a new head coach, C.J. Monroe, who has so far inspired optimism about the future, and they’ve got a new quarterback in senior Tyler Casey, who remained consistent the entire season despite having no prior varsity football experience.
They’ve also gotten good leadership from a small senior class of just six players, led in part by standout wide receiver Cam Pragano.
“It’s going to take a collective effort if we’re going to win,” Monroe said after a recent practice. “I’m going to really look to our seniors in this game. Pragano and Casey, as well as some others, they’ve had a great year. You need your seniors to play their best in big-time games.”
While Sheehan has had plenty of success in recent years, highlighted by the Class S state title in 2019, there will be no playoffs this year. The Carini Bowl is everything.
“I can’t tell you one season, playoffs or not, that our players didn’t look forward to playing this game,” said Sheehan head coach John Ferrazzi, who will conclude his 18th year leading the Titans on Thursday. “Our kids don’t need much motivation for this. They look at this like a playoff game. This is a game that they grew up waiting to play in.”
Sheehan has been effectively out of Class SS playoff contention since their 41-14 loss in Week 6 to Class LL Hamden, which triggered a three-game losing streak.
Meanwhile, Lyman Hall was in Class M playoff contention until its most recent game, a heartbreaking 25-22 loss to Branford on Nov. 11.
The Trojans technically still have a long-shot chance to make the playoffs. They need to beat Sheehan and hope that Branford, East Lyme and Woodstock all lose, and that still might not be enough based on playoff point totals.
Since Lyman Hall’s 42-38 Carini Bowl win in 2011, Sheehan has won every Thanksgiving game by at least 19 points, the closest being last year’s 28-9 score. The biggest blowout was a 56-0 stomping in 2019.
Lyman Hall still leads the overall series, which dates back to 1972, 26-23.
Last year on offense, Sheehan featured a heavy dose of Jacob Shook runs and Ryan Gersz catches, quarterbacked by Paul Gorry. Shook and Gersz have since graduated. Gorry, now a junior, remains at quarterback and has thrown for 928 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Shook’s production was replaced by freshman Brady Rossacci, who leads the Titans with 924 yards and 11 touchdowns on 211 carries. Senior Romeo Cruz has added 260 yards and five TDs on 42 carries.
John Gogliettino leads the way at wide receiver with 34 catches for 597 yards and six touchdowns. Dante DiNuzzo (21-177, 2 TDs) and AJ Sutera (11-165, 2 TDs) follow at receiver.
While the Titans scored 170 points in their first five games, they scored only 28 during the three-game losing streak, which included a shutout by undefeated West Haven. In their last game, a 17-13 win at Hand, their offense struggled throughout, but found their footing just in time to pull out the win.
“You need to lose sometimes; I definitely think the losses got me stronger and more confident personally,” Rossacci said. “I would say Thanksgiving is going to be a good game. I feel like this last win against Hand gave us a lot of confidence as a team. I think we’re going to take care of business.”
On defense, Sheehan senior captain Shaine Salvador controls the unit at linebacker. He leads the team in tackles with 94, the next closest number on the team being 46. In addition, Salvador anchors the offensive line.
Gogliettino, who also plays safety, leads the secondary with five interceptions and is crucial in the run defense.
“I’ve learned to never stop going forward. When I started, I didn’t know if I had it in me to play a full game, but I just keep going and keep going,” Gogliettino said. “I expect a lot out of myself every game, but the game on Thanksgiving is my last at this field. I want it to be the best game I’ve ever had. I want a win overall, but this game is important to me.”
For Lyman Hall, this will be the first Carini Bowl of the C.J. Monroe era.
“It should be a great atmosphere,” Monroe said. “We’ve both had our ups and downs this year. They’ll be well prepared; they’ll be well coached. I think it’s going to be a great game. They’ve won the last nine meetings, but that doesn’t mean anything right now. We’ll be ready to go.”
While their four wins so far this season came against middling or weaker opponents, a running storyline is that the Trojans are comprised of many young players and few seniors, so they only have room to grow.
Monroe has repeatedly stressed that the entire locker room has improved every week.
“You look at our first five games; we were 1-4. It was a big learning curve for our kids with some of the stuff we tried to implement,” Monroe said. “In our last four games, the kids have started to understand and buy into different techniques and philosophies. The improvement is as clear as day.”
If you ask the players, the overwhelming theme is that the Trojans are proud of the effort they’ve put in each week to get better.
“I think it’s going to be a tough game, but if we do our job and do what we’re capable of doing, I think that streak might end,” Cam Pragano said. “Right now, we’re focused on building ourselves up. We’re taking it one day at a time, one practice at a time, one play at a time. If we’re going to win, that’s how we’re going to get it done.”
Pragano suffered a season-ending ACL injury last year, but seamlessly returned and leads the R-J coverage area with 52 catches for 645 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior captain Ethan Saez (26-304, 4 TDs) and junior Kadin DeWallace (24-279, 2 TDs) follow as receivers.
At quarterback, Casey has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game so far. He has 1,521 passing yards with 17 touchdowns at a 58 percent completion rate.
“In my 10 years of coaching, as an assistant and this one as a head coach, for a quarterback to have the season he’s had with no prior experience is truly remarkable,” Monroe said of Casey. “He’s a student of the game. He’s always wanting to learn and get better. That’s really contributed to the success that he’s had.”
The Trojans’ ground attack is led by junior Cristian Roman-Koenig, who has 140 touches for 771 yards and eight touchdowns. Junior Gavin Janowski shined in the wins against East Haven and Bassick, rushing for a combined 220 yards and five touchdowns, but had just 45 combined rushing yards in the other seven games.
Where Janowski especially makes his mark is on defense. At strong safety, he has three interceptions and acts as the heart and soul of the defensive unit. Additionally, Roman-Koenig leads the team in tackles (38) at his linebacker position.
“Each player needs to make sure that they’re ready to go and that they do their job to help their team win,” Monroe said. “We’ll have to play a great game in all three phases — offense, defense, special teams.
“We can’t give them extra opportunities and our playmakers have to make big-time plays in a game of this magnitude. If we do all those things, I like our chances Thursday morning.”