By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – A two-win campaign by the Bristol Eastern football squad might not seem like an impressive total in 2017 but the program is miles away from where it started a couple years ago.
Off a 0-10 ledger in 2016, the Lancers improved to 2-8 and it was a big step forward.
And it’s a credit to the nearly one-and-a-half dozen seniors on the team, leading the group and helping the entire program in the second season of the coach Anthony Julius era.
“I’m really proud of the effort the guys gave this year,” said Julius after the Thanksgiving Day loss to Central. “It’s a dramatic improvement from last year.”
Those seniors have seen three different varsity coaches (Mike Archangelo, Paul Phillippon and Anthony Julius) in four seasons come through the program but Julius has stabilized the outfit and given the squad excellent direction, both on and off the field.
While the senior rushing core, consisting of Central Connecticut Conference, Division II-West All-Conference selection Ariza Kolloverja, (team leading 127 rushes, 614 yards, 921 yards in total offense, and seven touchdowns), Steven Hopkins (76 rushes, 285 yards, two TD’s), and Tyler Mason (3.9 rushing yards per carry) did a solid job leading the troops on the ground.
But next season, Eastern is going to have to replace its running outfit but quarterback Justin Marshall and Matt D’Amato will help augment some of that loss.
And in the passing schemes, minus Kolloverja, Eastern is in tremendous shape.
That starts with Marshall, a skilled passer, who already has put up numbers that ranks with some of the best QB’s in Eastern program history as a junior.
This season, Marshall went 105-of-191 for just under 1,475 yards passing.
Those impressive totals included 12 touchdowns to only nine interceptions – a tremendous turnaround from the previous year by the junior.
Only a handful of Eastern quarterbacks had a better year throwing the football in a single season.
In fact, only Steve Mills, Dean Pecevich, Dennis Schermerhorn, and Matt Yopp are the QB’s that have thrown for more career yardage than Marshall and the current quarterback at Eastern has a chance to pass all but one of those players in total throwing yardage by the completion of his career.
Mills (4,908 career throwing yards) truly is the only quarterback out of reach for the crafty Marshall (2,291 career passing yards) to catch but the youngster grew so much from his sophomore to junior year that anything is possible.
Against Platt this season, Marshall passed for 324 yards, throwing for three touchdowns, and that yardage total is one of the highest in a single game in program history.
Records are sketchy from back in the day but currently, only Schermerhorn (356 yards versus Manchester on Oct. 23, 1970) threw for more in a single Eastern contest.
And Mills’ best during his senior season in 1989 was when he popped Hall for 21 passes and 305 yards as Eastern put up 50 points on the scoreboard over another winning effort.
As a sophomore in 1987, Mills had a game of 316 yards on 19 completions and those two games looked to be the best the all-time leading passer compiled in program history.
However, Marshall should have another amazing campaign come his senior season and could put up a record or two.
And his favorite target is back in the fold in 2018 in the form of Jaden Laprise.
Laprise is the real deal – on both sides of the ball – and has one of the best hands on the squad since the likes of Linsie Esau III, one of the program’s best wide receivers, that was the favorite target for Mills when the chucker was a sophomore.
But the ultra-talented juniors of 2017 had one of the best seasons in terms of receptions and yardage.
It wasn’t a school record total but Laprise still made 43 catches for 820 yards and seven touchdowns and those numbers rival just about any totals from any era at BE.
And this is where the records get tricky once again because Esau might have established the single game record for receiving yards back in 1987.
In a 25-15 loss to Hall on Oct. 2, 1987, Esau hauled in 237 yards on 11 catches – a yardage tally that has been mentioned in more than one place over the years but was never officially declared an Eastern record.
That 237 yard total pops up on Esau’s bio at the Bristol Sports Hall of Fame website and is the standard pointed to over the years.
But during that game against Platt this past fall, the one where Marshall threw for 324 yards, Laprise totaled 238 yards in receiving – one better than Esau.
And now, that outstanding effort should be considered the program record for reception yards in a game at Eastern.
“Jaden is an All-State football player,” said Julius of Laprise. “Whether or not he receives that honor this year, I don’t know. But Jaden is an All-State football player.”
For his efforts, Laprise, at the very least, earned CCC Division II-West All Conference honors for an excellent campaign.
It was certainly an amazing achievement for the young man but it wasn’t just the Marshall-to-Laprise show this year on offense.
D’Amato made a few catches in critical situations and another sophomore stud, wide receiver Elijah Gagliardo, came on as of late, giving Marshall another target opponents had to be wary of.
Gagliardo is another rising star who ended up tying a Thanksgiving Day mark due to his numerous receptions.
On T-Day, Gagliardo snared eight passes for 93 total yards.
The eight receptions tied a game-record for most receptions on Thanksgiving, sharing the mark with Eastern’s Rick Schmaltz who established the standard back in 1970.
“The last few teams that we’ve played have pretty much tried to scheme to stop [Laprise] so we need a guy to be able to step up and answer and Eli was able to do that” on Thanksgiving said Julius. “For our receiving core, the future is really bright and something we’re excited about.”
The squad had a sure pair of hands this year, losing just two fumbles, while Laprise (three) and Gagliardo (two) snared critical interceptions over the course of the season.
Defensively, Trinidad Gonzalez, an All-Conference selection in 2017, led the squad in tackles, capturing 75 over his nine games and tallying 10-plus tackles in three contests this year.
D’Amato and Laprise were also team leaders in tackles and the group of athletes will be back next season – along with Gonzalez – to do more of the same.
They’ll be some changes with that outstanding senior core graduating from the program but there’s an excellent underclassmen group who will be ready for expanded roles in 2018.
Zach Giblin, a 5-foot-9 bulldog on the line, also earned CCC, All-Conference honors and is a junior who never got the credit he deserved this past season.
And this has to be said again: Eastern was in all four of its final contests after the 39-point explosion against Platt on Friday, Oct. 20.
After dropping a winnable game as Hartford Public by 10 points, Eastern lost to Wethersfield (14-13), Manchester (25-20), and Bristol Central (33-27), falling to those squads by a combined 12 points as the Lancers five-game losing streak to end the year didn’t look as bad as it could have been.
“It’s been a season of could haves,” said Julius. “We could have done this and we could have done that and as this program continues to grow and get better, hopefully those could haves become we did.”
“The effort out of the guys was really good all year long and I’m extremely proud of them.”
Bristol Eastern seniors who played in their final game for the program were Dayton Forges, Jake Lafferty, Bryce Beebe, Tyler Varasconi, John McPhee, Hidekel Mangual, Andrew Consalvo, Ben Ferraro, Kenny Rondeau, Keegan Bartis, Andrew Cercone, Jason Tompkins, Steven Hopkins, Tyler Mason, Rajon Collins, Ariza Kolloverja, and Justin Davies.