Football preview: Cunningham preaches consistency

The 2013 edition of the Wilton High varsity football team opens its season tonight as it travels to Guilford for a 5 p.m. contest against the host Indians at Kavanaugh Turf Field.

The Warriors, who finished 4-6 in 2012, will have to face the chronic problem that confronted them a year ago: A loss of talent and depth due to both graduation and the departure of underclassmen to private schools.

Traditionally, Wilton puts together strong starting line-ups on both sides of the ball despite the loss of key performers. But after that, potential talent falls prey to lack of varsity experience and attrition wreaks havoc with a squad that already begins thin in numbers.

Wilton will lose fewer bodies this year than last (a club-ravaging 15 seniors, 10 of whom had gained All-FCIAC recognition), but these losses may hurt more. Gone to graduation are lineman Mike LaSala (All-State, All-FCIAC first team), running back/defensive back Mike Burns (All-FCIAC first team), lineman Luis MacIntyre (All-FCIAC), wide receiver/defensive back Weston Wilbur (who broke the program record for receptions in a season), linemen Mark Padovan, Patsy Romeo, Kyle Barnett and John Luse, and tight end/linebackerGrant Woolard.

Two other key players — kicker/punter Ben Rappaport and wide receiver/linebacker Zack Laurinaitis — have left for private schools, as has up-and-coming running back/linebacker Kyle Andersen.

Last year, the Warriors suffered through a tidal wave of injuries. Second- and third-team reserves were called upon to step up, which they did. Unfortunately, the team didn’t deliver a winning record, but many players got baptism-by-fire experience. Several of them were seniors, but numerous others were underclassmen. Their more than a cup-of-coffee exposure to varsity ball should serve them well this fall.

“Consistency is what we need,” said head coach Bruce Cunningham, who he begins his fifth year on the job. “Consistency in how we practice, in how we carry out our assignments, in how we execute.”

Cunningham gets both consistency and continuity in his quarterback, senior Brett Phillips. The All-FCIAC first-team senior captain has played starting varsity football since his freshman year. Last year as the starting quarterback, he was awarded captaincy as a junior, a rare occurrence and honor for an underclassman.

Cunningham has often said that having Phillips is like having a coach on the field. This year the team will need Phillips even more in that role as players, young in age and starting varsity experience, attempt to mesh into a cohesive unit.

Though the offensive line took a serious hit, a seasoned nucleus remains. Center Tyler Mirabile stepped up as a force last year, and the two tackles, third-year veteran Joe Fraccaroli (6-3, 295) and Dan Holland proved they could both run block and pass protect. The two guards — Chris Sanzaro and Tom Courtney — are new starters, but in the wake of last year’s injuries both saw significant playing time.

Jack Dexter will take over full time at tight end. In his third year of varsity play, Dexter has blocking and pass-catching skill. He is also the long snapper on special teams. Carter Vail provides an excellent back-up/alternative.

Lining up behind Phillips will be hard-running fullback John D’Elisa (5-8, 210). He is both sturdy and quick as a runner and delivers a load as a blocker. Patrick Ryan provides scat-back speed to the outside and surprising toughness inside. He will catch passes out of the backfield as well.

TJ Savvaides will get plenty of snaps at fullback, with James Arbisi also likely in the mix. Andrew “Ace” Sakamoto will spell Ryan, with Jeremy Jefferies alternating as well.

Unlike a year ago when Cunningham had a pair of lanky, rangy receivers in Laurinaitis (6’6) and Wilbur (6’5), the current crop resembles the Smurf corps. Ethan Segall (5’11), Dan Baird (5’9), and Paul Sorbo (5’8) collectively possess good hands, but how they will fare under the every-game pounding of defensive backs and linebackers remains to be seen. Segall saw extensive action last season; Sorbo not as much, but he runs well and will see time at running back, too. Baird, who did not play football last year, has emerged as a pleasant surprise — not pleasant enough yet, however, to offset the unpleasant news that captain Griffin Bender (wide receiver/linebacker) will be out indefinitely.

Baird has seen the most action as a punter, while senior EJ Sassani has been kicking field goals and extra points as well as kick-offs. Phillips, too, has been kicking off, adding more to everything he already does.

The defense features many of the same faces. Up front there are Fraccaroli, Holland and Sanzaro, with Mirabile playing a hybrid/linebacker spot. Peter Ciaccio looks to play at either tackle or end depending on the alignments. Vail will also play at the defensive end position. Outside linebackers will be D’Elisa and Savvides, with Dexter patrolling the middle.

Cornerbacks Sakamoto and Ryan are small but savvy, tough and seasoned. At safety, Segall will step up to full-time while Baird should see major minutes. And don’t forget about Phillips, who has been held out of many defensive snaps during scrimmages in order to conserve his energy and health as he represents such a big part of the team’s offense.

Cunningham and the Warriors will know much more after facing Guilford/

“Guilford will be tough,” Cunningham said. “They have a great quarterback and up there, we’ll be going into a hornet’s nest. We’d better be ready.”