You can’t begrudge Bruce Cunningham a slight smile to himself as he rides (golf cart) and strides about the Wilton High School athletic complex.

The Wilton High varsity football head coach, now beginning his eighth year, has every reason for the corners of his mouth to pop upward.

“Numbers,” you'll hear him say. “This year, we’ve got numbers. This is the best pre-season I’ve ever had — the enthusiasm, the morale, the culture. The benefits of what we went through last year are beginning to show.”

The Warriors kick off the 2016 at home on Friday night (7) against Fairfield Warde.

The increase in numbers does come as a slight surprise given the constant trending downward of participants over the last five years. The fact that the team was 3-6 last year and by season’s end could muster a roster of barely 25 healthy bodies did not bode well for this season.

But come to think of it, Cunningham did forecast this fortuitous circumstance a year ago, probably longer than that, when he predicted lean times followed by an uptick coming this year.

Still, many things potentially could have happened to derail a swelling cast of Warrior footballers. Those things did not occur and Cunningham is left with a battle-tested, senior-laden squad buoyed by an almost equal number of juniors. And the vast majority of them all have — there's that Cunningham smile again — experience at the varsity level.

The team graduated seven seniors, five of whom were starters — including a major hit with the loss of two-year starter at quarterback and star punter, RJ Romeo. Gritty center and defensive tackle Brennen Ryan has also moved on, as well as defensive standout Jack Ciaccio and the two Nicks, Petrov and Pica, who battled in the trenches of both the offensive and defensive lines.

But it’s what Cunningham has now that puts the enthusiastic, anticipatory sparkle in his eyes. First of all, last year’s defensive backfield returns intact. Seniors Chris Hyzy and Jake Savvaides will man the corners and senior three-year starter Matt D’Elisa will captain the defense from his safety position. Juniors Will Litton and Harvey Alexander will resume familiar spots as quasi-linebacker/DBs. Kyle Schifrin (junior), Jack Dooley (senior) and senior co-captain Ted Kedzierski will round out the back seven at outside and middle linebacker, respectively.

The defensive front, led by three-year starter Steffen Nobles (senior) got plenty of seasoning a year ago. Veteran seniors, co-captain Colin Carroll and Marty Zoruba, are at the tackles while AJ Pykosz (junior) looks to hold down the other defensive line slot.

The offense begins up front and Cunningham likes what he sees, with three juniors at critical spots. Jack DiNanno will start at guard as he did last year. Pykosz either started or rotated at offensive tackle throughout the season, and OT John Amato, though reserve more than starter, saw plenty of action as well.

Co-captain Carroll will move over from tackle to guard, leaving Anthony Sanzaro (senior) to snap the ball. Though he served as Brennen Ryan’s understudy and did not accrue as much starting time as he could have, Sanzaro still more than got his feet wet during last season.

And that is important because there will be a first-time quarterback under center.

That would be Matt D’Elisa, the three-year safety. He will have his work cut out for him, but in pre-season scrimmages against other schools he has performed well. A year ago, he offered serious competition to Romeo for the QB position. When he didn't get the call, he still prepared along with current back-up, Brian Calabrese (junior) in the event Romeo got hurt.

That experience has served him well.

“I’ve thrown more than any other time since I’ve been playing,” says D’Elisa, who feels he has benefited from seven-on-seven camp as well as other off-season training.

“Playing safety as a leader in the secondary has helped me, too,” he said. “I can see things from a defensive perspective and that helps me as I look over the other team’s defense.”

D’Elisa will be handing off to halfback Will Litton, who proved to be both a hard-running and explosive runner last year. He catches the ball, too, and seems primed for another standout season.

A cloud creeping across the horizon of Warrior blue-sky optimism comes at fullback. Joe McFadden, who played so well a year ago, only to see his season end due to injury, will have to sit out the opener this year as well. He is a pounding, punishing presence on both offense as a runner and defense as a linebacker. Alexander looks to take over the fullback spot, with Savvaides and Kedzierski held in reserve.

The wide receiving corps earned its spurs last season with the dynamic duo of Joe Pozzi (senior) and Robbie Hermann (junior) catching the bulk of passes. Tim Rizzo (senior) also corralled a number of passes and juniors Joe Scarfi and James Sweeney got their hands on the ball as well. Dooley and Schifrin at tight end can both catch the ball and with a year behind them look to increase the reception totals at that position.

Special teams will benefit again from the toe (instep) of junior Will Sullivan, who returns for his third straight year as the place kicker, bringing a stronger leg and even greater accuracy to field goals, extra points and kick-offs. He may punt, too, though that has yet to be decided.

“A lot of guys grew up,” said Cunningham, repeating a mantra-like saying he used often last season (“a lot of guys grew up today”) after blowout losses against the likes of Darien, Staples and Trinity-Catholic. “Now it’s time for them to step up and I feel they’ve played well and practiced hard to get ready for the season. We want to get going.”

Schedule


For updated schedule, go here .
Friday, Sept. 9 — vs. Warde, 7

Friday, Sept. 16 — at McMahon, 7

Friday, Sept. 23 — at Staples, 7

Friday, Sept. 30 — at Ludlowe, 7

Saturday, Oct. 15 — at St. Joseph, 2

Saturday, Oct. 22 — vs. Stamford, 2:30

Saturday, Oct. 29 — at Darien, 1:30

Friday, Nov. 4 — vs. Guilford, 7

Friday, Nov. 11 — vs. Danbury, 7

Thursday, Nov. 24 — vs. Trinity, 10:30 a.m.