Two weeks ago,
North Haven (Conn.)
celebrated perhaps its biggest victory in football program history, a stunning 42-28 upset of three-time defending Class LL champion Xavier.
"It was an obvious, big accomplishment for our team being that we're a smaller school than they are, and they certainly have done so much in their recent history," North Haven head coach Anthony Sagnella
"I remember our team kind of growing up (in a loss to Xavier last season) in that process. Being on the field with a team of that caliber was an eye-opener for our guys. In their hearts they believed they could compete with Xavier, and they got on the field and did that."
North Haven meets Hand (2-1), whom Sagnella calls North Haven's biggest rival, Friday night at the Surf Club in Madison in yet another major test. The Indians have not defeated Hand since 2001.Sign up to Qwixcore the North Haven at Hand game on Friday night.
North Haven (3-0) has never been to a state championship game, and made the playoffs for the first time in 2007, when they were beaten by Hand in the semifinals. They've been back two times since but were stopped each time in the quarterfinals, by Hand in 2010 and Masuk in 2011.
Still, that's impressive for a school that has been known more for its baseball program, with legendary coach Bob DeMayo, than for football. The recent turnaround really started in 1997 when Sagnella became head coach.
One of Sagnella's most significant moves came in 2006, when he started employing a single wing offense, an attack popular in the 1930s and earlier that is rarely used today, in short-yardage situations. Only two other programs have employed it in the state in recent years, Housatonic and St. Paul.
At the time, North Haven was using a pistol (shotgun) offense and was basically an option team.
"We ended up putting in a very basic single-wing attack, and what we found was No. 1, our kids loved it, No. 2 it was fundamentally sound and 3, it became something that we cared about a little more than our opponents did," Sagnella said.
"Even though it was being used only four or five times a game, they were important downs for us and we were successful in those downs. If we needed a yard we got it. If we needed two we got it."
Sagnella and his staff started to expand the single-wing into a two-point conversion offense. In 2008, because of graduation losses at tailback, Sagnella found a series in the single-wing that his tailback was better suited for, and he started to employ the offense about 50-50 with the pistol.
Without a quarterback that could run the option in 2009, Sagnella made the full transition to the single-wing, which employs an unbalanced line —two tackles on one side of center, two tight ends —and features direct snaps to the tailback, with the quarterback often a blocking back except on passing plays. The Indians have won four consecutive Southern Connecticut Conference Division II East titles since '09.
North Haven's continued recent success is connected with the rejuvenation and new leadership within the town's youth program.
"It's an offense that is flexible, you can be a power offense, it's a misdirection offense, you can throw the ball out of it, you can run option," Sagnella said. "It was easy to teach and there are fundamentals that an 8-year-old can do. Some of these spread offenses, I'm not so sure that you can teach and 8-year-old how to effectively zone block.
"I knew we had to realign our program for us to maximize with the town's ability level, and it's just better, it's better for everybody if you're all talking the same language."
The Indians have five runners with between 94 and 253 yards rushing through three games. Sophomore Mike Montano
(253 yards, 22 carries), senior captain Evan Suraci
(233-28), quarterback Mike Holloran
(166-26), junior Cole Pecora
(146-19), and sophomore Nick Ponzio
(94-10). Sagnella also sites senior receiver Evan Manemeit
and junior Tom Gallagher
as other talented offensive threats.
"Ethan's a bull, he's our leader, he's a captain, he's a hard-nosed kid," Sagnella said.
Although teams, particularly in the SCC Division II East, are now familiar with the Indians' offense because they've run it since '09, it still presents problems for the opposition.
"Yes, it is unique to see it. You have three or four days to prepare," Sagnella said. "There's a certain amount of physicality that is embedded into our philosophy because of our offense, and I think that carries over to our defense (a 3-4 formation).
"It could be a problem if you play four or five spread teams in a row, you haven't had to close in the off-tackle hole. It's a little different experience for a teenager."
North Haven has a healthy number of returning starters and players with experience this season, particularly on the line. Sagnella believes that is a big part of the team's early season success.
"The core is really built around our linemen," Sagnella. "We returned our entire offensive line at some level of experience. Every guy that's playing on the line, played last year. The offense appears to be complex with a lot of movement by the line, there's a lot of pulling and trapping and double teams."
Those linemen include: left tackle/weak-side guard John Tondalo
, center Mike Millard
, strong-side guards Austin Mahon
, Pat Vanavore
and Mike Biehl
, strong-side tackle captain Mike Siwek
, and tight ends Alex Baglioni
and Zach Kastenhuber
Friday night's game at Hand presents another challenge for every position.
"We have a long history with them; Hand is a rivalry for our kids. They've played against these kids since they were 8 years old. This is a rivalry game," said Sagnella, noting that the towns are in the same youth program.
The schedule doesn't get much easier after this weekend, with Hillhouse and Darien down the road, but Sagnella isn't concerned now about the playoffs.
"We've got some other (good teams) ahead of us if we're going to march on, so one (game) at a time," Sagnella said.Paul Rosano, the former assistant sport editor of The Hartford
Courant and sports editor of The New Haven Register, is a MaxPreps contributor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.