By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The Bristol Central football team has been a model of consistency over the last three scholastic seasons.
Head coach Jeff Papazian is a tough taskmaster but he’s brought a winning brand back to the program after several sub-.500 campaigns.
And the Rams have the experience and the grit once again to capture a share of the CCC Division II-West championship though the program will have to start off with a different option at quarterback.
Here’s what to expect from the squad this year from the 2017 Bristol Central gridiron bunch:
Head Coach: Jeff Papazian (fourth season, 20-10 in three seasons as head coach).
Last Year: 6-4 overall (4-1 and co-champs in Division II-West play, did not qualify for the state tournament).
Strength: Athleticism, speed
Losses: Cody Hildebrand (WR/LB); Luis Medina (RB/DB); Tom Nelligan (OL/DL); Connor Staubley (TE/DL); Patrick Kenney (FS); Brett Adams (K); Scott Larson (OL/DL); Jeremy Ganavage (WR/LB); Ed Irizarry.
2016 All-Conference: Mike Guzman, Dathan Hickey, Cody Hildebrand, Alex Lape, Luis Medina, Isaiah Miller, Tom Nelligan, Connor Staubley
Players to Watch: Dathan Hickey (sr, WR/DB); Isaiah Miller (sr, QB/DB); Justus Fitzpatrick (jr, WR/DB); Michael Guzman (sr, LB); Alex Lape (sr, OL/DL); Adam Ewart (sr, OL/DL); Isak Gonzalez (jr, DL); Frankie Jenkins (sr, RB/DL); Nigel West (sr, WR); Deklan Zukowski (jr, LB); Devon Dawson (sr, RT/DL, transfer from St. Paul Catholic); Jake Salinas (fr, LB); Joshua Carrasquillo (sr, DL); Jose Navedo (jr, CB); Nate Rosa (jr, WR); Darrell Payton (jr, RB); Ryan Rodriguez (jr, TE/DL); Gabe Updegraff (sr, OL/LB).
Analysis: Outside of the Week 1 last season, the Central football program could have easily won nine games and been a 2016 state tournament participant.
And while going 6-4 overall was impressive enough after a 0-2 start, expect to see that same competitive spirit from this year’s squad looking to match and exceed that .600 ledger from one short year ago.
“It’s a good group,” said Papazian of his squad. “There’s a lot of experience there but they’re still learning too. They’re buying in, they’re coachable…these guys want to be coached. They want to get better and it may sound like a simple thing but I think when you can get that out of high school kids, it’s really important.”
The Rams, due to injury, will have go into the first few games with a different QB at the helm and that meant incumbent starter, senior Isaiah Miller (62-for-125, 858 yards, six TD’s in 2016) opened the season on the injured list.
With Miller banged up, jack-of-all-trades competitor senior Dathan Hickey will slide over to the quarterback position and bring his speed, intensity, and guile to the position.
Hickey (26 carries, 204 yards, two TD’s; five catches, 79 yards) is certainly athletic and will do a quality job filling in at QB until Miller makes his return.
Though probably not the chucker Miller is, Hickey will find the seams that the Central defense will create and collect several yards off contact to keep the chains moving.
And NCAA Division I programs, like Yale, have its eye on the elusive fellow.
“He’s a dynamic athlete anywhere you put him on the field,” said Papazian of Hickey. “He’s gathered some pretty solid Division I attention and with good reason. He’s intelligent, he’s athletic, he’s picked up the position well. He’s working very hard at it to get better every day.”
He’ll also churn up several dozen yards a game when not at quarterback as will junior running back Darrell Payton and senior Frankie Jenkins, helping to offset the loss of speedster Luis Medina (186 carries, 1,031 yards, eight TD’s).
When Miller comes back, he’ll also help in that rushing department (126 carries, 566 yards, 11 touchdowns) as Central will pound opposing defenses with its running schemes.
Junior’s Justus Fitzpatrick and Nate Rosa will take their positions at wide receiver, as will senior Nigel West, while junior Ryan Rodriguez is also an option to catch a ball or two from tight end.
Creating holes and giving the QB a little time to chuck the ball will be Adam Ewart (sr, OL/DL), St. Paul Catholic transfer Devon Dawson (sr, right tackle/DL) and Gabe Updegraff (sr, OL/DL) among others.
Defensively, Central was a force in 2016, allowing just a shade under 21.0 points-per-game.
Senior Alex Lape is all of 6-foot-3 and will be a force on both the offense and defensive line and when Rodriguez isn’t helping from tight end, he’ll be on the defensive line as well.
Fitzpatrick is over at defensive back, veteran Michael Guzman (sr, linebacker), Deklan Zukowski (jr, linebacker), Jose Navedo (jr, cornerback), Joshua Carrasquillo (sr, defense line), and even freshman Jake Salinas (linebacker) will hold some sort of responsibility in the defensive packages.
Most of those warriors have been getting varsity time early on in their careers and, as always, experience counts in large amounts.
“You’re talking about Gabe, Lape, Guzman, Isaiah and Dathan have all started since they were sophomores,” said Papazian. “Usually when you start young kids like that, you kind of take your lumps a little bit but they’ve actually had success. We’ve won a decent number of games with them since they’ve been sophomores so sometimes you look towards their senior years as the payoff and hoping for a big year but they’ve been really successful since they’ve been young in there.”
It’s a double-edge sword for Central, and the rest of the squads from Bristol for that matter, as depth is a bit of a concern despite all that veteran leadership and experience.
However, the Central coaching staff has turned to its bench over the years in critical situations and those youngsters who have been thrust into the fold have responded, just like Hickey will at quarterback.
“Our depth will be tested at some point,” said Papazian. “That’s on me [and] that’s on my coaches to try to develop some of these younger guys to get them ready to go. Just talking to [other] coaches in the preseason, I’m quite sure we’re not alone in that area.”
And, without getting too much into Central’s CCC Division II-West schedule, Hartford Public and newcomer, the Capital Prep/Achieve co-op, are new on the schedule in terms of opponents for the 2017 campaign.
“Hartford Public is going to be athletic,” said Papazian. “Coach [Harry] Bellucci has been there for a long time. He does a good job within the program. Capital Prep is a perennial state playoff team. They’re going to be really good competition.”
The goal for the Rams is to be competitive every week and over the last three seasons, the program has not wavered from that stipulation.
Expect more of the same this year as Central will be looking to mirror the same path that has led to several winning seasons in a row.
“I think we’ll be really competitive every week and that’s what we try to do,” said Papazian. “We want to get the most out of them all day, from the time they come into the building, through class, [being] on time, being accountable in class, being respectful in the hallways…just how they carry themselves and that spills over onto the field and I think if we can continue to stress that every day, like we have, the kids will continue to respond.”
Division II-West Outlook: Bristol Central won’t be ducking anyone in division play again in 2017 as each conference game will be an intense battle.
Newington, Wethersfield, Maloney Platt and, of course, Bristol Eastern, all provide the Rams a different kind of match-up on a weekly basis but despite that diverse slate of games, Central has the tools to once again grab a share of the Division II-West crown.
The real “fun” comes in the form of Windsor and Middletown, state powers that rarely have off years.
Along with Hartford Public and the Capital/Achievement co-op, CCC Division III-West challenger East Catholic popped on the Central’s schedule and a game off for the Rams will not be possible in this alignment.
“I think up and down the schedule, it’s going to be a real challenge for us every week,” said Papazian. “We’re going to really have to show up and be ready to go every week.”