WOODBURY - It's playoff time for Connecticut High School football with teams are battling for state crowns along with bragging rights about conference supremacy and which part of the state plays the best football.
A quick look at the brackets shows perennial powers like Ansonia, New Canaan, Masuk and Staples heading into the semifinals this weekend. Those teams are talented, established and have a football tradition - something that a pair of local programs are trying to build.
Football is in its relative infancy at Lewis Mills and Nonnewaug, a pair of schools that are a part of a growing wave of programs popping up around the state. Being new programs that are competing against both larger and more established programs, Lewis Mills and Nonnewaug are going through some growing pains.
The Spartans won their Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Chiefs and have won four games in two varsity seasons. They have bookended each of their two varsity campaigns with victories while taking their lumps in between.
"We're building and we saw our kids never give up," Lewis Mills coach Greg Todd said. "We had some tough games against some of the big boys, but the kids competed and I think it showed them what they have to do to compete at this level."
Nonnewaug is about a season behind Lewis Mills and it showed a bit in their Turkey Day tussle. Neither team was perfect but the Spartans made more big plays and fewer mistakes in the 26-7 victory.
The Chiefs played the last two seasons at the JV level, going 6-3 each season, building up interest and numbers before competing at the varsity level in 2011. While Nonnewaug showed flashes of being competitive, it finished the season without a victory.
"We don't know how to win yet," Nonnewaug coach John Oko said. "We knew we were going to take our lumps this year. We think we are going to be more competitive next year and I think we have a chance to be a pretty good football team in two years."
The Chiefs are saying good bye to only six seniors and only had a handful of juniors on the roster this season as well. Oko's optimism comes from the fact that the program has a good foundation of support and a lot of young players that are gaining valuable experience on the varsity level.
"We had 48 kids come out for the program and we've been able to sustain that number, so that's a good thing," Nonnewaug athletic director Bill Nemec said. "This season has been a tough one, but the moral of the kids has been good and we are looking forward to the future."
Mills will graduate more than double the amount of players but Todd is confident that the incoming freshman class will replace them in numbers and that the program will continue to grow down the road.
It will take time.
Wins will likely come if the the players stick with it and the programs take hold. Both schools put competitive teams together in a number of sports including soccer and field hockey to name a few and Nonnewaug won four Berkshire League titles in the fall. These schools are soccer and field-hockey schools, throw in boys volleyball on occasion at Mills and cross country at Nonnewaug. But those programs have been in place for years.
But both football programs will also need some help.
I'm editorializing a bit here but with that said, both schools have to get better facilities. Mills needs a home field, not a pseudo home down Route 72 in another town. Nonnewaug is a bit better off, they seem to have acres of land behind the school and hosted the Thanksgiving game on campus, but the bleachers were modest, the press box was a scaffolding stand and can somebody's band show up for crying out loud.
"We would love to have our own site, don't get me wrong, we love Muzzy it's a great facility but its not our own, it's a rental facility," Todd said. "We have talked to some of the powers that be and there is a lot of enthusiasm about doing something in the future. Attendance builds up, the community gets involved, Friday night lights, all that stuff helps."
Nonnewaug is in the same boat. Nemec says that discussions about field improvements and a possible stadium are ongoing and Oko wants to see facilities improved.
"We have a lot of fan support, the school, the board, they are behind us," Oko said. "We need to make some decisions about improving facilities, improving the weight room, that's something that is a major obstacle right now."
Another obstacle is experience. Being young programs, both Mills and Nonnewaug are getting players that are in their first years of playing football but the hope is that local youth programs can serve as feeders to the high school teams will start to get an influx of experienced talent. You are definitely at a disadvantage as a team if your kids are putting on the pads for the first time as freshmen, that's juts the way it is.
You think the kids at Xavier and Masuk or Ansonia or New Canaan are getting introduced to football as freshmen? I think we all know the answer to that.
After experience, both schools will need to ramp up their commitment. The season ended for these kids on Thanksgiving Day, if they don't pick up a ball or a weight until preseason camp then they can't expect anything to change.
"I think right now the emphasis is to get the younger kids enthused. Not only that but to understand where we kind of fell short this year and that means offseason commitment," Todd said. "Both programs ultimately realize, and coach Oko and I go back, and we know that to build a program the key is to have that offseason commitment."
Mills will opt for a spring practice in 2012 rather than an earlier start to the preseason as Todd wants to keep the momentum from this season going. There are a number of spartans that will also attend a passing league and summer camps in the offseason.
"We work hard and now they have to put in the time in the offseason," Todd said. "The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary."
And as cliche as that may sound, he's right. It's like anything else. Want good grades - hit the books, study. Want to win games - prepare right now, get in the weight room, watch film, stay in shape.
Whether the Spartans and Chiefs have what it takes remains to be seen but there are success stories out there. Coginchaug went from a co-op to its own team and is a solid football team and was in the hunt for a playoff berth this season. Norwalk went to West Hartford on Tuesday night for a Class LL playoff game against Conard and won the first playoff game in school history.
Will Mills or Nonnewaug turn things around and become successful? We'll see, but Oko is confident because he has a young team and good numbers and some of the Mills seniors also feel the program is heading in the right direction.
"I think that we have grown a lot, the players got more into it and the commitment level has risen," Mills senior Bobby Martinotti said. "I feel like the kids that we are passing the torch to will keep moving the program forward. We have a good group of kids that are coming up."
"We are leaving it in good hands," Spartans linebacker Parker Colby said. "They understand the concept of family and sticking together and watching each others backs. The program is heading in a good direction."
The fact that Mills and Nonnewaug even have football programs is a victory, and there are a number of people involved in making that happen, including a pair of dedicated parent/booster groups. But now is not the time for complacency in Burlington or Woodbury, there still is a lot of work to be done, but the end result will be worth it.
That result will be something both schools can be proud of. Tradition.