WESTPORT -- It may be the first time in over a decade that this is the case, but the Staples football team appears to be flying under the radar on the eve of the high school season. Sure, the Wreckers went 8-3 a year ago and missed out on the state playoffs by a single game, but it's conference powers New Canaan, Darien and Greenwich are getting the preseason hype.
It won't take long to find out if Staples is a contender or a pretender. In the second year of the FCIAC-SCC challenge, the Wreckers are set open the season on Sept. 12 with Xavier, which also went 8-3 and missed out on a chance to compete for a state title after winning Class LL the year before. What does Staples need to do in order to return to the conference and state tournament picture? Here are five questions the Wreckers face heading into the season.
How will the Wreckers replace QB Jack Massie?: Oct. 30, 2010 was the last time the Wreckers entered a game without Massie as their starting quarterback -- until next week. Senior Teddy Coogan -- who had time at wideout and defensive back last year in addition to mop up opportunities at quarterback -- will be the new man under center when the Wreckers meet Xavier. While Coogan will be spending a lot of the time orchestrating the option-run attack, Coogan has a potential playmaker outside in Jake Melnick. 22nd-year head coach Marce Petroccio is also excited about junior tight end Evan Gilland, who could provide Coogan a security blanket in the middle of the field.
Who will carry the football?: Not only will the Wreckers have a new quarterback, they will have new horses in the backfield as well. Leading rushers Patrick Lesch and Jack Greenwald, who combined for over 1,700 yards on the ground, have graduated. Petroccio plans on using a running back-by-committee initially to get a feel for who might carry the load later in the season.
There will be opportunities to go around in the Wreckers' option attack -- Staples averaged just 15 pass attempts per game last season. Seniors Tyler Tsang, Owen Burke and Charles Lomanto, juniors Connor Adrian and Jack Griffin and freshman Ethan Burger could all see the field this year.
Is Staples' success tied to the offensive line?: The men in the trenches get little credit, but the key to the offense this year will likely be determined by how the line fares against its biggest challengers. Despite the loss of All-FCIAC first team tackle Nick Ward, the unit appears it can be one of the best in the league. Led by captain and tackle Jackson Hoeberman and center Jackson Ward, the Wreckers return four starters. With so many moving parts in the backfield, the continuity up front becomes even more important.
"The biggest difference is experience," Hoeberman said. "Last year we only had one returning starter and this year we have four. Everyone is more comfortable with each other."
Will the defense improve?: The biggest Achilles' heel for Staples last year was its inability to get stops against its toughest opponents. In their three defeats to Xavier, New Canaan and Greenwich, the Wreckers yielded a combined 1,020 rushing yards. Tackling ballcarriers this year will be senior linebacker Nick Esposito and defensive back Jake Melnick.
"We've done a great job in the weight room; we've gotten faster on defense," Petroccio said. "And we've worked on tackling every single day and it's starting to show in these scrimmages. Even when a team breaks a 15-yard run, it's not a touchdown. Last year those were touchdowns."
Will Staples be one of eight state champions?: Because of safety concerns, the back end of the season was altered this year to ensure teams wouldn't be forced to play multiple times in a short span. In a one-year alteration to the four-champion, 32-team format used since 2010, the 32 teams will vie for eight state championships in order to eliminate the quarterfinal phase. The Wreckers have qualified for the state playoffs in 10 of the last 12 seasons.
"I was on that committee; we really didn't have any other choice," Petroccio said. "I'm not a fan of having eight state champions. It is what it is; it's a one year deal. If they name a state champion, I don't care if I'm one of eight or one of two. I'll take it any way I can get it."