FALL PREVIEW Defending FCIAC champion Staples football dealing with uncertainty
Published 3:14 pm, Saturday, September 7, 2013
It was merely a preseason scrimmage against a non-conference opponent, but Tuesday's 35-7 defeat to Fairfield Prep provided a stern reminder for Staples: It's not 2012 anymore.
Last season, Staples steamrolled nearly every opponent in its path, piling up eye-popping statistics en route to a second-consecutive FCIAC championship. But the stars who made that happen are now gone -- almost all of them.
The Wreckers graduated all but four starters, leaving plenty of questions and few answers concerning the roster.
"This team is very young and inexperienced," said head coach Marce Petroccio, a year after reaching the semifinals in Class LL. "We're experiencing some growing pains right now."
There's stability at quarterback with senior Jack Massie returning, but the dual threat will need to find new playmakers to operate with in the read-option offense. Gone are the team's leading receiver, James Frusciante, who hauled in 45 passes for 932 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2012, and two explosive running backs, Joey Zelkowitz and Nick Kelly.
Senior Will Johnson, who had 12 catches last season, is the team's leading returning wideout.
"He had so much talent around him last year," Petroccio said of Massie, who engineered an offense that led the state in points (49.1) and yards (500.5) per game. "He was kind of able to be a small piece of the machine. This year, he's a much, much bigger piece."
Staples also has uncertainty along the offensive line, where just one starter -- 6-foot-4, 290-pound tackle Nick Ward, a senior -- is back. Petroccio said Tuesday that junior James Black and sophomore Jackson Ward are likely entrenched as starters at tackle and center, respectively, but stressed that the line as a whole is raw.
In Tuesday's scrimmage, Staples' front five was manhandled early, with Prep's imposing defensive line bull-rushing Massie on multiple snaps.
Petroccio -- now in his 21st year at the helm -- said his team took "two steps back" in its scrimmage, but he stressed patience. Staples' first official test is likely to be daunting: Wednesday at three-time defending LL state champion Xavier.
The Wreckers will be without their leading returning rusher, senior Patrick Lesch, who's recovering from offseason hip surgery. Lesch, who carried the ball 46 times for 716 yards and nine touchdowns last year, is hoping to be medically cleared for Week 2 against Wilton.
Zelkowitz led Staples with 1,105 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns last season, while Kelly totaled 625 yards and 10 scores. With Lesch out early, that leaves Massie (683 yards rushing, 10 TD in 2012) as the team's most experienced runner.
"When I get the ball, I try to make the best of it," Lesch said. "We've got a lot of good players who can now carry the load also, so we all rely on each other."
"Without Patrick Lesch, we're a completely different team," he said.
Despite the uncertainty on the roster, Massie believes that Staples possesses plenty of options.
"I think there's talent all across the board," the signal-caller said. "It's just more unknown names.
The Wreckers were also forced to overhaul a stringent defense this offseason because of graduations. They lost nearly everyone from a unit that notched 27 sacks and 15 interceptions.
Lesch, Johnson, Melnick and Burke are expected to play in the secondary, while Nick and Jackson Ward, Black, senior Bryan Porter and junior Jackson Hoebermann are all likely to see time along the front seven.
Although there's plenty of roles to be filled on both sides of the ball, Lesch, like his teammates, believes that new faces will produce.
"We've always had a big program with a bunch of younger kids ready to fill in the positions," Lesch said. "We've got a great coaching staff that's always ready. ... For the most part, we have plenty of kids ready to step up."
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Coach: Marce Petroccio (21st year)
2012 record: 10-1 (FCIAC champion; Class LL semifinals)
Players to watch: Sr. QB Jack Massie (6-1, 185, 27 TDs); Sr. RB/CB Patrick Lesch (5-10, 170, 716 yards, 9 TD); Sr. OL/DL Nick Ward (6-4, 290); Sr. WR/CB Will Johnson (5-10, 172, 12 catches, 136 yards); Jr. WR/RB/CB Jake Melnick (5-10, 150, 50 tackles, 2 INT); Jr. Owen Burke (5-10, 155); Jr. OL/DL James Black (5-8, 186); Sr. TE/DL Bryan Porter (6-3, 225), Jr. OL/DL Jackson Hoebermann (6-2, 185).
Reason to smile: A traditional power, Staples returns one of the sport's brightest coaches and an experienced playmaker at quarterback.
Reason to worry: With only four starters back, the cast has almost entirely changed off back-to-back FCIAC titles.
Outlook: The Wreckers believe they'll develop into a strong team, but it will take some time. There's plenty of youth and inexperience on both sides of the ball. With a challenging schedule ahead, the Wreckers face an uphill battle to continue their reign in the conference.