The Tigers’ football campaign looks to be one of great change following two straight undefeated seasons that each culminated with Class L state championships.
In his 25th slate as head coach, Steve Filippone leads a squad that graduated 29 seniors a year ago after seeing 26 depart from the 2011 Hand roster. Despite the two-time defending title holders holding a team with many new starters, Filippone is confident that his men can surpass the gridiron’s growing pains this fall.
“What tends to happen after a string of years with big senior classes is that we have a rebuilding type of a year,” said Filippone, whose Tigers are currently in the midst of a 26-game winning streak. “We do, though, have a group of young, tough, and hard-working guys that have to know learn how to win out there; they have to learn how to do it under a new set of circumstances after being on the sideline in the past.”
With its three-piece objective list of having a winning season, taking home the SCC Division I East crown, and making the state playoffs, Hand will be led by three seniors captains in quarterback Hayden Atwater at quarterback, nose tackle/offensive guard Ian Dieli, and running back/outside linebacker Pat Rogers in only his second stint with the Tigers after transferring from Weston following his sophomore year.
“Hayden can have a tremendous year for us,” says Filippone, whose squad holds 11 seniors. “He is a big, physical kid with a strong arm who runs the offense very proficiently. He is a capable kid who isn’t flashy; he is your prototypical stand-up, pocket passer. Ian is in his third year starting and, in my opinion; he ranks as one of the top 20 defensive players in the SCC, if not the state. Pat established himself quickly as a member of this team; he is a tremendous athlete who is can run, while being agile and tough. He has been a tremendous addition to our team and will now be in key positions.”
Filippone is equally optimistic about a pair of strong players on each side of the ball. Offensively, he looks at seniors of wideout/utility man Tommy Wilson and tailback Conor Dowd, while he spots defensive standouts in the backfield with junior safeties Scott Sweitzer and (another) Tommy Wilson, along with a special teams talent in junior placekicker Tyler Phan.
“[Senior] Tommy Wilson returns kicks and punts for us, while he is also a wide receiver that runs great routes,” said Filippone. “We can also stick him in the backfield, and he can honestly do anything for us. Conor built himself into a physical specimen; he runs a 4.8 for a 40-yard dash and is a great pass and run blocker. Scott is big, powerful, and will terrorize receivers over the middle. [Junior] Tommy Wilson is a smart kid, very strong physically, and can run. Tyler was great for us kicking last season, and his leg is even stronger this year.”
All of these key upperclassmen will carry the Tigers through a rough 11-game regular season. After starting off at New Canaan on Wednesday, Sept. 11 as a part of the inaugural SCC-FCIAC [Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference] Football Challenge, Hand then takes on defending Class M state champion Hillhouse before its home opener versus Cross. The Tigers will then trek into a remaining stretch of strong conference competition with North Haven (home), Cheshire (away), Fairfield Prep (home), Shelton (away), hosting reigning LL champion Xavier, traveling to West Haven, Notre Dame-West Haven (home), and finally being guests to rival Guilford on Wednesday, Nov. 27 for Thanksgiving eve.
“For us, we don’t have an easy game on the schedule and every matchup is huge,” said Filippone. “The SCC is the toughest league in the state and we are in its toughest division [Cheshire, Cross, Notre Dame-West Haven, and West Haven]. North Haven is perennially the best team in the conference with Hillhouse; Cheshire has a tremendous tradition, as does Shelton, while Prep is another great team. If we make it to the Prep game with three of four wins, then we can get to 8-3 or 7-4 and have a shot at the playoffs. It will be an uphill climb, yet we will be a better team in October and November than in September with the young team we have.”
Even with his more youthful unit this season, Filippone is looking forward to the yearly grind again, and to him, the obvious but crucial component will be keeping guys off the injury report.
“I’m excited about it, and they can play well if they keep their wits about them,” said Filippone. “The key will be staying healthy; if we stay healthy and get better then by the sixth or seventh week, we will be a tough team to beat.”
Filippone will be assisted by associated coach Mike Ciotti, defensive coordinator Dave Mastroianni, offensive coordinator Erik Becker, along with Gary Gravina, Mike Ferraiolo, Paul Philpott, Don Giles, Rich Bella, and freshman Head Coach Scott Sweitzer.