Football: Cunningham upbeat as Warriors open season tonight

A year ago, Wilton High varsity football head football coach Bruce Cunningham had to piece together practice times, schedules, even games, as the brutal effects of Tropical Storm Irene and then a late October nor’easter played havoc with the FCIAC regular season.

Out of that chaos, the Warriors were able to fashion a 6-4 record, their first winning campaign under Cunningham, who begins his fourth year at the team’s helm when the Warriors take on Bridgeport Central tonight (7 p.m.) in Bridgeport.

This fall, Cunningham is confronted with a lot of new moving parts: Five new assistant coaches and a team that lost 15 seniors. Four of those players were All-FCIAC East first team (Sean Carroll, Connor Devane, Alex Ward, Hunter Geraghty); four made the second team (Marko Piedmont, Robbie Keers, Travis Stella, Connor Buhler); and two were Honorable Mention (Brendan Chapey, Brian Parese).

With the loss of so much depth, talent and experience, one would think Cunningham might be a little less than upbeat. Not at all.

“Hey, after last year this is all a piece of cake,” he said. “We’re young and we’ve got a lot of work to do. That sophomore class of a year ago still didn’t get in all the work they could have had.”

The same attitude applies to his five new coaching assistants, including former Westhill head coach Dick Cerone, who will take over defensive coordinator responsibilities. “I don’t know. He (Cerone) coaches this defense just the way I want it. It makes me feel kind of useless,” said Cunningham with a smile.

There is plenty of wood for Cunningham to build with, starting at quarterback where junior Brett Phillips will take the reins from departed starter Sean Carroll. Phillips has both talent and experience at the varsity level, having started last year on defense. He also started for an injured Carroll against Darien and orchestrated a dazzling fourth-quarter drive that sent the game into overtime. The Warriors finally succumbed to the Blue Wave, but Phillips’ performance was off the charts, especially for a sophomore.

“Brett took over the huddle a year ago against Darien and the guys all had confidence in him,” said Cunningham. “What he needs to learn is how to emotionally balance both sides of the ball. He has to come off playing defense to being cool and collected playing offense. You’ve got to throw the switch. Sean [Carroll] had to learn it, too.”

Protecting Phillips will be a trio of veterans: Senior center Mike LaSala (6’2, 265), senior tackle Luis MacIntyre (6’1, 235) and junior tackle Joe Fraccaroli (6-3,295). Senior guard Mark Padovan (5’8, 225) and junior guard Dan Holland (6’0, 245) look to have secured the other staring slots on the offensive line.

The group will not only protect Phillips as a passer, but it will also open holes for him and senior tailback Mike Burns and junior fullback John D’Elisa to run through.

Phillips will throw to a cadre of talented but relatively inexperienced receivers. Senior Weston Wilbur (6’5) and junior Zach Laurinaitis (6’6) should give fits to defenders on jump balls off of end zone fade patterns. Junior Griffin Bender and sophomore Jack Dexter both possess good hands and good speed. Junior Ben Rappaport will provide both blocking and pass catching capabilities at tight end.

The defense will feature a lot of new faces, but not on the front four. Holland will be the newcomer as he joins LaSala, MacIntyre and Fraccaroli on the defensive line. The linebackers will be another story as Bender, in the middle, is flanked by first-time starters Rappaport and Dexter.

At the corners, Burns was a starter last year but missed some time due to injury. Junior Andrew Sakamoto, however, is scheduled for his first starting action. The two safety positions will involve a three--man rotation among Phillips, Wilbur and Laurinaitis, with Phillips providing the most varsity experience.

Rappaport will return as the kicker and Laurinaitis will punt. A year ago he won the job but was unable to perform it until the final game — the game against Trinity Catholic in which the Warriors never punted. It was Dexter who filled in admirably and who this year likely will be the long snapper.

“I was pleased with our pre-season performance at the Jamboree and with our scrimmage against Bunnell up until we had just 1:18 left in the first half,” Cunningham said. “But that’s all pre-season. When the season starts for real, it’s a whole different matter. Game experience can’t be taught. You just don’t know how people are going to respond.

“I know we’ve worked hard and for a lot of guys this is the first time they’ve had to go through the grind of summer because of all the time we lost a year ago. I think we’ll be all right, though. We just want to play the games.”