September 1, 2014

Sweet Victories and Happy Memories

For the casual football fan, Thanksgiving Day is an opportunity to watch the Lions and Cowboys – preferably over dinner – and spend some down time with the ones you love.

My Thanksgiving for the last several years has begun at Andrus Field, the oldest continuously used football field in the United States, with several thousand people.

Corwin Stadium at Andrus Field in the heart of Middletown, Connecticut has been the one and only playing field for the Wesleyan University football team since the 1880s. Surrounded by academic buildings both modern and historic in the center of the campus, it has become the Thanksgiving meeting place for high school football zealots eager to see the city’s crosstown rivalry, the Middletown Blue Dragons vs. the Xavier Falcons.

This year’s contest produced more than 5,000 spectators for the 10 a.m. contest, the results of which, to my satisfaction, were the same as last year: the Falcons rolled to a decisive 48-6 victory. The win capped the second consecutive undefeated season for Xavier (10-0) and secured the top playoff seeding in defense of its Class LL (Connecticut’s largest high schools) state championship.

Throughout the season the Falcons had narrowly enjoyed the number one ranking in the state polls. Despite having won 23 straight games at this point, Xavier was still just a vote or two away from being supplanted by the Masuk Panthers of Monroe, quarterbacked by Connecticut’s two-time Gatorade player of the year, Casey Cochran. The players knew they had targets on their backs. Every opposing team and player was “up” for the match against them, wanting the prize of knocking off the state’s best team.

The Falcons were by no means a group of no names, but the team’s strength was in its unity. With 20 seniors, the group had formed a bond – an interdependence and trust – that produced confidence and incredible sense of purpose.

The defensive squad, particularly, had a synergy that made it a dominant force, allowing an average of just eight points per game throughout the season. The blitz-oriented scheme not only was stingy in surrendering points, but also resulted in frequent tackles in the backfield. Resulting field position gave the Falcons run-first offense frequent opportunity to find paydirt.

The following Tuesday, the Xavier squad beat the eighth-seeded Glastonbury Tomahawks 34-6, holding them scoreless until the fourth quarter. Four days later, in the semifinal game, the Falcons trailed for the first time this year, 7-6 against Norwalk. They recaptured the lead just three plays later and didn’t look back, beating the Bears 55-14. Masuk’s season came to an end however, losing to Hand High School of Madison.

Saturday, December 10, brought the sublime: the state finals against the Staples Wreckers of Westport. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state’s governing body for high school sports competition, had wisely secured Rentschler Field (home of the UConn Huskies) for its championship games. In the state’s premiere football stadium, the Falcons triumphed 42-7, defending their title and securing the unanimous number one ranking. To add to the sweetness of the championship, Xavier’s resounding defeat of previously undefeated Staples was a bit of vindication too. Staples was the last team to beat the Falcons, in the 2009 semifinals.

The undefeated streak now stands at 26 games.

Xavier will bid farewell to its 20 seniors, but will send with them fond memories of two undefeated seasons and consecutive state titles. Of more enduring value however, will be the bonds of friendship and the sense of confidence in staring down adversity.

The experience of playing sports in high school offers little in comparison. Developing personal skills, practicing teamwork and devising strategies to succeed and advance are cemented. The Xavier players have all this, and an abiding sense of accomplishment too.

Ansonia Captures CIAC Class M Championship Over Ledyard

The 2011 Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) Class M Football Championship featured a match-up of two of Connecticut’s most storied football programs. Ansonia was making its state record 25th appearance in a championship game and was looking to add to their record for most championships won (16). Ledyard was appearing in its 10th championship game and has won four state football championships. Both teams last won a championship game in 2007. This year’s championship berth is Ansonia’s fifth in the last six years, and Ledyard is making their first appearance since they lost to Brookfield in 2008, head coach Jim Buonocore, Jr.’s first season at Ledyard.

Buonocore (4th year, 35-10 record) had been the head coach at Stonington and Fitch before taking over at Ledyard when Bill Mignault retired in 2008 with a state record 321 wins, 10 Eastern Connecticut Conference championships and four state championships. Mignault was inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame in 1991.

Ansonia head coach Tom Brockett (6th year, 70-7 record) has lead Ansonia to four Class S state championships games in his first five seasons, winning the title game twice (2006 and 2007).

Today’s game was expected to be a ground war between two teams that feature record setting running backs. Ledyard senior Alex Manwaring broke the ECC single-season rushing record this season with 2,435 yards (and counting) and his 317 yards against Bacon Academy broke the Ledyard single-game record of 301 yards (set by Tim Curtis vs. Stonington in 1976) which led to him being featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces In The Crowd“.

Ansonia’s Arkeel Newsome (5-6, 150 pounds) had rushed for 3,399 yards this season and needed at least 198 yards to break the state’s single-season record, set in 2007 by former Ansonia running back Alex Thomas. He also broke the previous single-season state scoring record of 294 points, set by Tim Washington of Bristol Central in 2000, with 370 points so far this season.

Ansonia had allowed less than 12 points per game before today’s game and scored an average of 45 points. They defeated #8 seed Bethel and #4 seed Berlin in the first two playoff rounds by a combined score of 83-20. Ledyard’s two first round wins over #6 Waterford and #7 Wolcott were both shutouts (combined score 61-0).

On paper, it looked like the Colonels were going to need everything to go its way if they were to beat the Chargers. Buonocore felt that they would need to limit the Chargers to fewer than 50 offensive plays and control the clock.

Ledyard won the coin toss and elected to receive. Ansonia chose to kick with the wind at their backs. Ledyard’s first drive was brief – starting from their 24-yard line, they attempted three plays for five yards and had to punt after two minutes. Ansonia made their game plan clear when, after returning the punt 15 yards to the Ledyard 46, they ran the ball eight times and seven of them were carried by Newsome, including a 13-yard run for the first points of the game. The score was 6-0 after a failed extra point attempt.

Ledyard’s next drive started at their 30 and again they weren’t able to do much against Ansonia’s defense. They ran the ball three times for seven yards and punted. Ansonia took the kickoff to their 34-yard line and then put together an impressive drive down to the Ledyard 10. Ansonia seemed to be in total control of the game at that point but the Colonel’s defense rose to the occasion. Two Newsome runs for a net of zero yards with an incomplete pass in between left Ansonia facing a 4th and goal from the 10-yard line. The swirling wind on the field probably played a part in their decision not to attempt a field goal and they instead ran a pass play that fell incomplete. The first quarter ended shortly thereafter with the score Ansonia 6, Ledyard 0.

The 2nd quarter was more of the same for Ledyard. They moved the ball just one yard on three plays and once again had to punt. Newsome fielded the 35-yard punt and returned it 32 yards to the Ledyard 29. The four play drive was capped with a 7-yard pass from Elliott Chudwick to Roeshaun Finney. After a failed 2-point conversion, Ansonia led 12-0.

Ledyard’s offense finally started to show some life with nine minutes left in the half. They strung together eight plays and two first downs with some help from a 15-yard pass interference penalty against Ansonia but the drive stalled at the Ansonia 47. Shane Baxley’s punt was downed at Ansonia’s 1-yard line. Ansonia once again seemed to have no trouble moving the ball, using six plays to get the ball out to the 32. Then Ledyard’s Joshua Lawrence forced a fumble that was recovered by Cal Williams on the Ansonia 28, giving Ledyard it’s first shot at the red zone. After an incomplete pass, Ledyard’s John Rainey was intercepted by Miky Mason who returned it 11 yards to the Ansonia 38. Ledyard’s defense held Ansonia to three plays and a punt with 32 seconds left in the half.

Given Ansonia’s dominance in the first half, Ledyard had to feel lucky to be down only 12 points at halftime. If they could get some points on the scoreboard quickly in the 3rd quarter, they’d be right back in the game. They forced Ansonia to punt after three yards on three plays on the first drive of the 2nd half and got the ball back on their own 29-yard line. Instead of seizing the moment, Ledyard ran three plays and lost 20 yards, forcing them to punt from their own 9-yard line. Baxley’s 44-yard punt was returned by Newsome 16 yards to the Ledyard 37. Ansonia found its rhythm again and moved down to the Ledyard 10 on seven plays, but Matt Daggett intercepted Chudwick’s pass to end the drive. Ledyard, still unable to find a weakness in the Ansonia defense, ran three plays for a gain of two yards and punted the ball back to Ansonia, landing out of bounds at the Ansonia 43. With three minutes left in the 3rd quarter, Ledyard was still in the game somehow. Ansonia took the ball 57 yards in six plays, capping the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Chudwick to Andrew Matos. The 2-point conversion attempt was thwarted and the 3rd quarter ended with Ansonia leading 18-0.

Ledyard had some success on their next drive, but it stalled after six plays at midfield. Ledyard, sensing they were running out of opportunities, tried a pass play on 4th down needing five yards for a first down. The pass fell incomplete and Ansonia took over on downs. Newsome gained two yards on 1st down, and then sealed the game with a 50-yard dash for Ansonia’s fourth touchdown of the day. Once again, Ansonia failed on a 2-point conversion attempt. After another drive of three plays and a punt, Ansonia scored again using five rushes by Newsome and a 6-yard rushing touchdown by Tyler Lester. With a successful point after attempt, the score was 31-0. On Ledyard’s next possession, a 43-yard run by Alex Manwaring finally got Ledyard inside of the Ansonia 20 for the first time of the day but three plays later they were forced to go for it on 4th and 3. Rainey’s pass to Baxley was just out of reach at the 1-yard line.

Ansonia had one more highlight left in them. Taking over at their own 5-yard line, Newsome took the handoff and raced 95 yards down the field for the final score of the game. Another extra point put the score at 38-0. With the outcome of the game long decided, Ledyard got one more nice run from Manwaring, 42 yards to the Ansonia 38. Ledyard’s final play of the game was a 1-yard loss.

Ansonia was 9 of 16 on 3rd and 4th down conversions, while Ledyard was 2 of 13. Ansonia scored on four of their five chances in the red zone and out-rushed Ledyard 405-166.

Ledyard’s Alex Manwaring rushed for 116 yards on 23 carries for the Colonels, but 85 of those yards came on two caries in the 4th quarter when there was no doubt who would win the game. Dallas Smith led Ledyard with 12 tackles and Matt Daggett had 10 tackles and an interception. Ledyard finished their season with an 11-2 record. They have most of their starters returning next season and they should be contenders again next year.

Ansonia’s Arkeel Newsome had 193 of his 364 yards in the 4th quarter. He set state records for single season rushing yardage (3,763), rushing touchdowns (58) and total touchdowns (62) as well as setting the record for points in a season (388). Ryan O’Connor led Ansonia with nine tackles and Tyler Wood had seven tackles. Ansonia becomes the first team in the state to finish a season 14-0. Look for Ansonia to be back in the championship game the next couple of years as Newsome is only a sophomore.

 

25 Years Later

My senior year of high school our football team was ranked number-one in the state of Illinois and also ranked nationally.  We expected to win the state championship and had a very good season but ended up losing in the state quarterfinals on a terrible call.  I can still see that game, and that call, 25 years later and the pain of losing, the agony of falling short, the humility of seeing our dream die on a Saturday afternoon has laid dormant over the past two and-a-half decades but has never gone away.

I can only imagine the anguish I would feel if I actually got to play in the games.

Yes, I was a benchwarmer but it was my bench.  My team.  My joy and my pain.

It was only my second year on the team that year, 1986, as I’d spent my freshman and sophomore years trying wrestling and loafing before finally, thanks to a good dean and a nice coach, discovering weightlifting.  Many hours in the weight room made me realize that my nascent muscles would give me a chance to survive at football (my favorite sport) even though I was still small, slow and inexperienced.  So, in my junior year, 1985, I went out for the team, survived three-a-day practices, stayed disciplined in the weight room and our team won our conference and reached the state semi-finals before losing a heartbreaker in the rain.

And I never played.  Not a single play in a varsity game.

I had a little more hope for my senior year as another year of lifting weights and learning the system transformed me from the worst player on the team into, and I write this with a lot of pride, one of the worst.  As a five-eight, 160-pound linebacker-cornerback-fullback-split end without much speed or skill, I never would have been a great football player even at a small school.  But I was strong.  And tough.  And those things mattered even at a huge school in a major suburban conference outside Chicago.

Despite being stronger and better I didn’t see much playing time my senior year, either.  The coaches were nice for allowing me to even be on the team but, perhaps feeling the pressure of being considered the best team in the state, never wanted to give lesser players much of a chance even during a blowout.

It’s a quandary that coaches face.  We hear so much today about children as self-entitled narcissists, who expect to win all the time and are given trophies for just showing up to games, which is sad.  Playing time should be earned and awards should be given out for being better, not just for being there.  That was the sporting world in which I played in 1986 and, looking back, I think it was better.  But it didn’t feel too good at the time.  The true reward for my months of sweat was the feeling of pride I received for being on the team, the friendships, the camaraderie, and the memories.  But a few more moments of action on the field would have been nice, too.  Sometimes kids should be given things they don’t deserve.

Professional athletes have been heard to say they would rather be the worst player on a championship team than the best player on a cellar-dweller.  Multi-million-dollar contracts aside, that’s probably true for most people and probably also would ring true for me.  But I ended up getting the worst of both worlds.  We were good, but not champs, and I was a genuine “Pine Brother,” pickin’ splinters on the bench.

So why the hell am I writing about it?

I realized recently that I was approaching the 25th anniversary of that final game but admit my memory was a little off.  I was convinced the date was November 9, 1986 but an Internet search told me that November 9 was a Sunday that year and I know our playoff game was a Saturday so the game had to be November 8.  The past had crept up on me even more quickly than I expected.

It was a grey, overcast day and our stadium was packed with more than 3,000 fans and we jumped out to a lead and I, watching from sidelines, figured we’d win and move on. And then…God…things went wrong.  We ended up falling behind on a bad call in the final seconds and we had a chance for a final kickoff return and I remember thinking I should have inserted myself into the game for that play, I just should have done it and…then there was a fight.  A big fight, mayhem all over the field with players, fans and coaches and…it was over.

Our coach cried that day.  Before the game.

Afterwards in the locker room we all cried.

And I remember I walked home alone.  In the rain.

I never played organized football again.  Some would say I never played organized football at all.

Happily, and honestly, I don’t think very much about how my life would have been altered if we’d won that game and went on to win the state championship.  Certainly it would have been different but I don’t know if it would have been better.  Maybe the best thing about it would have been not greater bragging rights but, simply, more memories.  In the end they are all that matter.

My senior year of high school, my teammates, classmates and coaches all deserve more than this.  The coach who let me be on the team, who let me lift weights, died many years ago and at least one of our assistant coaches, the one who specifically put me in a varsity game for the first time, is also gone.  They all deserve greater tribute and more vivid remembrance than I’m giving them here on this page.  But it’s just so damn hard to dig deep, to recall the pain, to endure it all over again.

And I didn’t even get to play.

Teddy Roosevelt famously and inspiringly said, “…the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”  Words to live by, run by, love by and keep close.  Twenty-five years later, though, I still don’t know if I was in the arena.  I was there.  I had a helmet.  I could taste the terrible aftermath.  But I don’t know if I was ever really in the fight.

The lesson is supposed to be that I have had a richer life because at least I was there.  I tried.  I wasn’t sitting at home.  The lesson is supposed to be what Teddy Roosevelt said which, strangely, is sort of a tribute to, or maybe even an inspiration for, the ego-protection at every turn that so many youth sports leagues live by in 2011.  You have to get in the game to have a chance to win.  That’s supposed to be the lesson, right?  You have to be there.

But when I stare deep into my own heart and consider the years that have gone by and grasp for the meaning and lessons of life and how they were born out of losing a high school football game, my last game, the only thing that truly still dwells in me is the pain.  I just wish we had won.

Taking A Knee

The 0-4 Minnesota Vikings, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams have several options.  They can either play out the string while trying to grasp a modicum of dignity and hint of respectability, they can ask for admission into the Pac 10, or pro football’s quartet of bottom feeders might want to steal from the playbook of Morrill High School.

The Morrill Lions, from western Nebraska, have cancelled their season – and no one can blame Curtis Painter.

The Lions mercifully pulled the plug on Tuesday when its 18-member team was reduced to 12, and that 12th guy doesn’t even like football.

As reported by the “Associated Press,” Morrill’s starting quarterback broke a hand and another player fractured an ankle in last week’s game and parents were concerned that a friendly football season could quickly devolve into something immoral, if not illegal.  And so the cheerleaders (did they have more than one?), players and fans packed it in and will wait until next year.

No doubt the Morrill Lions gave it their best in going 0-5 and getting outscored 243-32.  One is reminded of T.C. Boyle’s gritty short story, “56-0,” about an overmatched college football team finishing the season in a cold, muddy and desperate scramble for pride.  But, like W.C Fields once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”

Part of Morrill’s problem was that the school was out of its league, almost literally.  Morrill played in the smallest division in Nebraska that plays 11-man football and school officials say next year they’ll probably move down to Eight-Man football which has got to be more fun anyway.  Morrill’s coaches told the “A.P.” they were saddened that more of the school’s 50 boys didn’t go out for the team but who knows? Maybe Morrill just has more fun things for a young lad to do on his weekends than get his head bashed in on every play.

Maybe Morrill just needs a little updating.  The school’s website still wishes everyone “a good summer” and the lunch menu is from last May.  But at least the Lions dined well that spring: Taco Salad, Pigs-in-a-blanket and Biscuits & Gravy are some of the offerings on the cafeteria menu. Unappetizingly, though, in the middle of the month the culinary choices are narrowed down to just one – “Cook’s Choice.”  Do you get the impression that “Cook’s Choice” consists of whatever tacos, biscuits and pigs can fit in a blender or on a slice of toast?

Morrill may feel forlorn but it isn’t alone.  In Amarillo, Texas, Arbor Christian Academy has also punted away the 2011 season after going 0-6 including last week’s 58-0 assault against Memphis.  Like Morrill, Arbor Christian now has downsizing on its mind as the school will switch to Six-Man in 2012.

The Vikings, Dolphins, Rams and Colts have looked like they’re playing with just six or eight guys this year so maybe they can jump leagues as well.  Maybe the NFL can implement a policy similar to that of European soccer leagues (“football associations”).  Imagine if promotion and relegation existed in all American sports – the Cleveland Browns, Chicago Cubs and Golden State Warriors would probably be on Morrill or Arbor Christian’s schedule by now and the New England Patriots and New York Yankees would only play each other, perhaps in a golden palace owned by Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman.

Or, maybe Morrill and Arbor Christian can get some special exemption and combine forces and play 14-man football while the other team only plays 11 but gets all the biscuits and gravy it can handle.

We can’t help wonder if those in Minnesota, Miami, St. Louis and Indianapolis almost envy these high school kids.  Between the four NFL teams they’re already 0-16 and, shudder to think, since none of these fumbling four play each other this season, each of them could actually finish 0-16 themselves.  Fans in Morrill and Amarillo will be watching.  But how will they be rooting?