Wilton football: Rebuilt defense will be key to success

The Wilton High football team opens its 2017 season this Friday night at 7 against Brien McMahon at the Warriors’ Tom Fujitani Field.

Head coach Bruce Cunningham, entering his ninth season, has cause for optimism given the team’s 7-3 finish a year ago that included a big win in the Thanksgiving rivalry game against Trinity Catholic.

“Every year is different,” Cunningham said. “This is a public high school. You deal with what you’ve got, the situations that come up. Right now we’re looking at how we make up for the loss of eight starters on defense. That plus the fact that Will Litton, our starting tailback and a huge part of our offense last year, will be going off to boarding school. Our veterans and especially our seniors will have to provide strong leadership. It will be extremely important.”

Last year marked the first time since 2007 that Wilton’s reached the seven-win mark. The Warriors wound up 10th in the Class L state rankings, just missing out on the field of eight for the state playoffs.

The team must replace eight off 11 starters from a defensive unit that held opponents to seven points or less in six of 10 games a year ago.

The litany of loss is substantial. Beside Litton (all-FCIAC East RB), quarterback and all-FCIAC First Team defensive back Matt D’Elisa, all-FCIAC Second Team OT Colin Carroll, DL Steffan Nobles, all-FCIAC East DB Chris Hyzy, and all-FCIAC East Honorable Mentions Jake Savvaides and Anthony Sanzaro are all gone. Throw in a TJ Kedzierski, Marty Zoruba and Jack Dooley and there is a sizable hole to fill. Not a crater, though. Plus there is quality fill to plug the gaps.

In terms of service, Will Sullivan ranks first as this is the fourth year he will man the Warriors’ place-kicking duties. He will also return for a second year as punter, a role that brought him all-FCIAC First Team honors a year ago.

The two captains, third-year starter OL/ DL Jack DiNanno and second-year starter RB/LB Harvey Alexander (all-FCIAC East), appear to have absorbed the leadership mantle to good effect.

“Last year’s captains told us that this year would be our last and to give it our all. It doesn’t matter who you are; everybody has a purpose. What they do is important,” DiNanno said.

Alexander followed up by talking about getting on and off the field.

“In our practices, we practice getting on and off the field. It helps the whole team if we can rotate people easily in and out of the huddle and to do that everybody needs to understand their roles.”

Senior A.J. Pykosz, all-FCIAC Honorable Mention, will anchor the line on both sides of the ball at OT/DE. He will be joined by last year’s starter at OG/DT, senior John Amato. In league with the triumvirate of Pykosz, DiNanno and Amato will be senior Trey Snyder and, depending on the situation, either junior Jack Ferguson or senior Mike Wehrli.

The linebacking corps, so crucial to the effectiveness of the defense, took a hit. But both Alexander and senior Kyle Shifrin (all-FCIAC Second Team) return to spearhead the unit which could potentially include junior Drew Herlyn, senior Eric Chubinsky, junior Tyler Previte and junior Alex Acosta-Rua.

Brand-new cornerbacks will make their varsity debuts. Talented, proven senior WR Robbie Hermann will move to the other side of the ball as well, showing both promise and capability. At the other corner, senior Joe Murtha returns to playing football after a year’s absence and has thrown off any rust in a hurry. At safety, junior Kyle Phillips will be master of all he surveys in front of him. He logged a lot of time sharing the position with D’Elisa last year and offers as a young veteran, skill, experience and a high football IQ.

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For three years, senior Brian Calabrese has served conscientiously as a backup quarterback. During that time he has made a start or two and filled in as required. This year, it’s his team, his turn, his time to hold the reins and guide the offense.

He will have solid support when he throws, hands the ball off or keeps it himself. In Hermann, he has a topflight receiver and deep threat. Seniors Joe Scarfi and James Sweeney should also see considerable action at WR. Shifrin looks to hold down the TE slot with junior Mike Angerame and sophomore Kyle Hyzy spelling him.

Cunningham sees his backfield as a strength. It starts with Alexander as the veteran presence with a stable of fast, hard-hitting, pass-catching, talented but varsity inexperienced halfbacks. Junior Tyler Previte ran hard and well in cameo appearances last year. Murtha looks great in his return. In addition there are both Kyle and Drew Phillips (a sophomore), Acosta-Rua, Herlyn, junior Connor Wyman and sophomore Jimmy O’Brien, who with Kyle Phillips can back up Calabrese.

A bright spot of 2017 Warrior varsity football is that for the first time in several years, the roster shows more than 50 players. It ostensibly has provided the team with some depth, though that can change drastically day by day. Whatever advantages the team has, including numbers, will be much needed. Wilton will play Darien, Staples, St. Joseph and Ridgefield — four of the best teams in the state let alone the conference. The remaining opponents — Brien McMahon, Fairfield Warde, Bridgeport Central, Stamford, Westhill and Trinity Catholic — are no slouch either.

After last week’s scrimmage at Greenwich, Cunningham was pretty upbeat about his team.

“I liked the approach we had right from coming off the bus. I know that Greenwich didn’t have all its players but I thought we executed well and did a lot of the things we needed to do, especially with our second- and third-team players. It was the first time out under game conditions for our special teams and I was pleased with how they responded. Now, we just have to get better each day of practice so we can be successful against McMahon.”