Lacking Its ‘A’ Game, Middletown’s Season Ends In Class L Playoffs

After 10-0 Regular Season, Blue Dragons Lose 24-9 to 4-Time Defending Champion New Canaan in First Round

By Marc Silvestrini, Mirror Correspondent

MIDDLETOWN — Standing near midfield at Rosek-Skubel Stadium in the wake of his team’s 24-9 loss to four-time defending CIAC Class L champion New Canaan, Middletown High coach Sal Morello succinctly summed up his team’s difficult and disappointing evening.

“That was a very good team out there tonight,” he said. “They’re big, they’re talented, they’re well-coached. They’ve got a ton of weapons. We needed to bring our A game to come out on top tonight. We needed to play a lot better.”

The top-seeded Blue Dragons scored the first and last points of Tuesday’s first-round playoff game, but gave up 24 straight points over the first three quarters to create a deficit they were never able to overcome.

Though only outgained by 61 total yards — 266 to 205 — the Dragons continually hurt themselves with turnovers and penalties, most of which seemed to occur at the worst possible time. In all, Middletown lost three fumbles and was flagged for 11 penalties that cost them 80 yards of real estate.

“You can’t make the mistakes that we made tonight against a team like this,” Morello said.

Middletown finished its season at 10-1 after compiling a 10-0 record during the regular season — the first unbeaten regular season for a Middletown team since 1985.

The Dragons started off on the right foot, taking the opening kickoff and driving 81 yards in eight plays to the Rams’ 20 from where Mike Aresco kicked a 37-yard field goal to stake Middletown to an early 3-0 lead.

Quarterback Stone Belzo helped set up the score by going 3-for-3 on the drive, including a key 31-yard completion to Nico Cavaliere.

But New Canaan’s response was exactly what you’d expect from a program that has won every Class L title since 2013 as the Rams launched an 11-play, 69-yard drive off the ensuing kickoff.

The three-minute drive was aided by two critical penalties called against the Dragons –pass interference, which wiped out a third-down incompletion and gave the Rams a first down at the Dragon 18; and a borderline personal foul for a late hit that set up the Rams with a first-and-goal at the Middletown 8. It ended on the very next play when Drew Pyne, New Canaan’s nifty sophomore quarterback, rolled to his right, turned the corner and raced into the end zone to give the Rams the lead.

Grant Morse’s extra point made it 7-3 with just over four minutes left in the opening quarter.

One of the game’s key sequences, according to both Morello and New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli, took place in the opening minute of the second quarter, just after Middletown’s Nygell Smikle sacked Pyne in the shadow of his own end zone on the final play of the first quarter, leaving New Canaan with a fourth-and-17 from its own 3.

Marinelli sent out Morse, presumably to punt, but Morse took the snap and threw an accurate pass to Luke Morton, who was perched close to the first-down marker. But Middletown’s Amirh Brackett-White flashed across the field and hit Morton hard enough to jar the ball loose, resulting in an incomplete pass that set up the Dragons with a first-and-goal at the 3.

On the very next play, Belzo attempted to slip into the end zone but was met in the hole by New Canaan’s Jack Conley — all 6-foot-7 and 315 pounds of him — and fumbled, with the ball bouncing directly into the hands of the Rams’ Charlie Hane.

“That was a big play,” Marinelli said. “Who knows how things would have played out had they scored there?”

New Canaan stretched its lead to 14-3 with four and half minutes to play in the half when Pyne engineered a five-play, 85–yard touchdown drive. With the ball at the Rams’ 34, Pyne completed three straight passes to Quintin O’Connell covering 19, 27 and the final 22 yards to paydirt.

Morse concluded New Canaan’s next possession with a 29-yard field goal at the gun to make it 17-3 at the half.

The Rams extended their lead to 24-3 by taking the second-half kickoff and marching 70 yards in seven plays. Pyne capped the drive with his second eight-yard touchdown run of the day off an option play.

Middletown, showing the grit that enabled this team to enter the game undefeated, came back with a four-minute, 88-yard drive of its own late in the third quarter. The drive, which featured a marvelous 33-yard, toe-dance-on-the- sideline grab of a Belzo pass by Camryn Wynn, was capped by a 10-yard strike from Belzo to DeAaron Lawrence.

 “Give them a lot of credit. They were a good team, and they gave us one tough fight tonight,” Marinelli said. “I can see how they got to 10-0.”

Morello also was quick to give his team credit.

“Our kids fought and fought,” he said. “I told them I was very proud of them and very proud to be their coach. That was a very good team we played tonight, and we just came up short.”

He added that a10-0 regular season is a much better measure of his team than the playoff loss Tuesday night.

“We can’t let what happened tonight define our season,” he said. “We should always remember this as a great season, a special season.”

Blue Dragons Take Wind Out Of Windsor

Middletown dominates in 24-7 win, caps first undefeated regular season since 1985; New Canaan awaits in playoffs

 

By Marc Silvestrini, Mirror Correspondent

WINDSOR — Windsor’s defense registered the first big blow of Wednesday night’s clash of unbeaten powerhouses, but Middletown’s defense scored the knockout, yielding no offensive points, five first downs and 91 yards of total offense in a convincing 24-7 win at windy Jack O’Brien Stadium.

The win, Middletown’s first over Windsor since 2013 and coach Sal Morello’s second in seven encounters with the Warriors, concluded a perfect 10-0 regular season for the Blue Dragons and virtually assures them of the top seed in the Class L state playoffs. They will have a home quarterfinal game on Tuesday against a to-be-determined opponent.

The victory also provided Middletown’s football program with its first undefeated regular season since 1985 — a follow-up to the 1984 legacy team’s unbeaten, state championship season in the first year of the merger of the city’s two (Middletown and Woodrow Wilson) public high schools.

Middletown secured the No. 1 seed in Class L and will play host to four-time defending state champion New Canaan in the quarterfinals. Kickoff is Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Rosek-Skubel Stadium.

The Blue Dragons spotted the Warriors (9-1) a quick 7-0 lead when Joe Russell picked off an errant pass by Blue Dragons quarterback Stone Belzo and raced 18 yards to the end zone on the game’s third play. But from there, Belzo and the Middletown offense reeled off 24 unanswered points while the MHS defense pitched a shutout, allowing the Warriors offense to cross midfield but once the entire game.

“Their defense is good, real good,” Windsor coach Rob Fleeting said. “Actually, they’re pretty good on both sides of the ball, and on special teams. They’re a really well-balanced football team.”

Morello also praised his defense, calling the unit “the big reason why we won the game.” He also had high praise for his offensive line, which enabled the Dragons to control the football for huge chunks of game time, a trend underscored by Middletown’s 67-38 edge in offensive plays.

Morello also was effusive in his praise of Belzo. His senior quarterback overcame what could have been a catastrophic early-game mistake to engineer his team’s 10th straight win.

“The kid is just a gamer,” he said of Belzo. “He’s mentally tough. He doesn’t quit or get down on himself. He’s just a great leader.”

Belzo atoned for the interception by finishing an eight-play, 41-yard drive midway through the second quarter with an 11-yard run burst to the right of center behind the blocking of center Cam Barrett, guard Osbourne Richards and tackle Max Cyr. Mike Aresco’s extra point knotted the game at 7.

Belzo scored again with 24 seconds left in the half on a 2-yard dive to put the Dragons up for good at 14-7. The touchdown was set up by a key third-down completion from Belzo to DeAaron Lawrence that brought the Dragons to the 2 with 29 seconds to go in the half.

An interception of Windsor quarterback Julian Jackson by Ahmir Brackett-White set up a 28-yard Aresco field goal — his career 23rd, adding to his state record — midway through the third quarter that upped the Dragon lead to 17-7. But Windsor — which was held to 24 yards of total offense and one first down in the first half — wasn’t quite ready to call it an evening.

Down by 10 with just over six minutes to play in the third quarter, the Warriors launched their best drive of the game following Aresco’s field goal, marching 59 yards in 11 plays to the Dragons’ 6-yard-line, where they faced a critical fourth-and-2.

But Warriors tailback Tomasz Johnson was stopped for no gain by Camryn Wynn and Richards on the ensuing play and Belzo responded by capping what amounted to a 94-yard drive with a 9-yard strike to a diving Lawrence in the end zone to push the MHS lead to 24-7 with just over six minutes left in the game.

The long touchdown drive took more than nine minutes off the clock. It was greatly aided by a towering, 49-yard Aresco punt that was fumbled deep in Warriors territory and recovered by DaJuan Sowatey Lomotey at the Windsor 6-yard-line, enabling the Blue Dragons to maintain possession.

Belzo finished the game completing 11 of 16 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown, and rushing for an additional 47 yards and two scores.

Not a bad ending to a game that didn’t start off all that well.

“Coach Morello is always saying that you have to remain strong, you have to keep fighting and keep playing hard when things go wrong, and that’s what I tried to do (after the interception),” Belzo said. “You can’t let it bother you and take you out of your game. You can’t just fall into a hole.”

Xzavier Reyes rushed for 99 tough yards on 29 carries for Middletown, while Nico Cavaliere caught five of Belzo’s throws for 48 yards and had an interception.

Aresco, on a chilly, blustery night, no less, also was 3-for-3 with his extra-point tries and punted twice for a 48-yard average.

Kicking Up A Storm

Unassumingly, Michael Aresco made his way into the record books and leaves a remarkable impression on the MHS football program.

By Paul Augeri. Photos by Mirror correspondent Edison Byrd.

Michael Aresco says what he’s accomplished in his four years as Middletown High’s varsity kicker is no big deal. His coach, his teammates and his family know better.

His success is undeniable — two Connecticut high school records, a share of a third, and four school records. That’s awfully good for an athlete who decided at the last minute as a freshman to fill coach Sal Morello’s need for a kicker. So long, soccer career.

Aresco is aware of others’ appreciation of his ability, and while his contributions to the undefeated Blue Dragons are widely known, he’d meet that with a shrug.

“I’ve always been a shy kid, so that’s been one of my biggest challenges to get past, getting past those nerves of going out there and doing my job,” Aresco said during a recent interview. “That was probably the toughest part for me, getting comfortable when I first started to kick for the team.”

Aresco and the Blue Dragons are 9-0 and beginning the last phase of preparation for next Wednesday’s annual showdown against Windsor (9-0). This was no off-week for them after beating Platt last Friday. For four-year players like Aresco, they’ve never beat Windsor. Morello is 1-6 against the Warriors since he became Middletown’s coach.

“Down time? There is no down time,” Morello says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of film to watch.”

The week did allow for some reflection on Aresco’s success. His 43-yard kick in the second half against Platt set the state record for most field goals in a career – and it would have been good from as least another five yards or more.

Celebration? Not a hint of self-acknowledgment. No look-at-what-I-did moment, not even a fist pump. Aresco picked up the tee and that was it — for him. His teammates moved in of course, for hugs, pats on the helmet and some handshakes.

Next thing you knew, Aresco was focused on preparing for the kickoff.

“Coach tells me all the time he can see that I’ve grown up in the past four years,” Aresco says. “I’m totally different from freshman year to senior year. It’s kind of cool to hear that.”

maresco

Morello considers Aresco “a weapon” that not many teams have – a player whose field-goal range easily lies in the 40s, can reach 50 or more, and regularly turns out unreturnable kickoffs.

Skimming through the Connecticut high school football record book shines a light on Aresco’s exploits.

 

  • Most Field Goals, Career
    Michael Aresco, 22, 2014-17
    Austin Stefano, Wethersfield, 21, 2014-16
    Also: Michael Morello, Middletown, 11, 1987-90
  • Most Field Goals, Single Game
    Roberto Inesta, St. Mary-Greenwich, 4, 1970
    Michael Aresco, 4, 2016
  • Longest Field Goal
    Rico Brogna, Watertown, 54, 1987
    Tyler Timion, Fermi, 54, 1987
    Matt Paola, Pomperaug, 54, 2011
    Rico Brogna, Watertown, 52, 1987
    Charles Gallagher, Hartford Public, 52, 2006
    Michael Aresco, 52, 2016
  • Most Points Kicking, Single Game
    Michael Aresco, 16 (4-for-4 FGs, 4-for-4 PATS), 2016

 

Brogna gave Middletown football fans a glimpse at his talent in 1986. A prolific three-sport athlete who went on to play Major League Baseball for nine seasons, Brogna, a quarterback who had a fantastic left arm and left leg, kicked a 48-yard field goal at Miller-Fillback Field. Middletown won that game.

Through opportunity and accuracy, Aresco has doubled Brogna’s career field-goal output, 22-11. Aresco has missed only four attempts in four years. He’s heard the name “Brogna” in conversation. Maybe one day Brogna will know the name “Aresco.”

Michael’s favorite moments? He has two — the 52-yarder last season at Farmington, part of a four field-goal game that also produced the single-game record for most points by a kicker; and his very first field goal attempt, a 31-yarder to cap the first drive of the first game of his first season.

Other thoughts as he and the Blue Dragons get ready for Windsor and, later, the 2017 playoffs:

On taking the field for that very first field goal attempt: “I feel like I wasn’t even thinking. I just went out there. I remember not even acknowledging that I was going out there, because I was so nervous inside.”

On dealing with nerves as a freshman kicker: “Just from playing on that team, I think we were ranked third in the state at the time, I feel like that was the most nerve-wracking part, (not) messing up on that team. But eventually as the season went along, getting my confidence up, I kind of lost the nerves a little bit.”

On his working relationship with his holders: “The first three years I had Trevor Getek, then Stone Belzo this year. The holder position, with Trevor and Stone, they have been phenomenal. How fast they put the ball down, the laces just right.”

On the synchronicity of blocking, snap, hold and kick: “It has to be perfect every time. If the snap’s off, the timing is all messed up.”

On practicing over time: “After my junior season I’ve really practiced every single day in the spring and summer to get ready for those college camps, to get ready for my senior season. That’s really when I started to practice religiously.”

On when he realized he could be a college kicker: “Probably after my junior year, that’s when I really felt I could actually go to college and kick.”

On his biggest on-field challenge: “Probably working from the hashes. You’re not always in the center of the field. I’ve had to work at kicking from the hashes and angling where I’m supposed to put the tee, and getting used to that.”

On what he’s thinking about before an attempt: “I try not to think of anything, just take a deep breath and have a clear mind. And then just kick it. Baseball, soccer, the sports does no matter. Don’t think of anything. Just do it.”

On contributing beyond kicking and punting: “There’s definitely been some times when I’ve had to make some athletic plays. The snap has gone over me sometimes, had to run back and then get the punt off. I’ve made a tackle only a couple of times, really. I remember junior year, I didn’t even have to make the tackle, something in me just decided to run that way and do it.”

On his booming kickoffs into the end zone: “(Teams) realize they have to go 80 yards if they’re going to score on us.”

On his accomplishments: “I think football in general, looking back on it when you get older, all the moments you have will stick with you and your teammates.”

On what it would mean to the team to beat Windsor: “I haven’t beaten Windsor all four years. Beating them would be huge. But we wouldn’t stop there.”

It Was Mike Aresco’s Night

Middletown High senior kicks way into state record book for career field goals

A really good kicker can elevate a high school football team from good to great, and that’s what Mike Aresco does for the Middletown Blue Dragons.

Aresco, a senior, hit a 43-yarder with ease late in the third quarter of Friday night’s 51-20 win over Platt. It was his 22nd career field goal, which set the Connecticut high school record. All along, fans of the program knew this night would come and underscores their belief that he’s the best kicker Middletown’s ever had and that his right leg is just getting warmed up for the next level.

Only Windsor stands between Middletown and a 10-0 regular season. The Blue Dragons and Warriors square off the night before Thanksgiving, Nov. 22, in Windsor.

Quick thoughts:

Can Middletown finally beat Windsor? Yes.

Windsor is undefeated as well. The Warriors have to beat Norwich Free Academy next weekend to create a 9-0 vs. 9-0 matchup.

Some believe at this point in time that the annual game determines whether Middletown has a good or a great season. The Blue Dragons haven’t beaten Windsor in Sal Morello’s time as coach.

But this could be the year you consider a fantastic kicking game and a very good defense supports the deep offense provided by Stone Belzo, Xzavier Reyes, DeAaron Lawrence, Tyreece Lumpkin and others.

Can Middletown win a state championship in Class L? Maybe.

It’s been a tough go in the playoffs for Middletown over the years. The Blue Dragons haven’t won a playoff game since 2013. The division in 2017 includes Windsor and undefeated teams Masuk and Fitch. One-loss teams New Canaan, Hand and Maloney are lurking.

This much is guaranteed: It will be fun watching how it all turns out.

 

Middletown Spreads The Wealth, And Farmington Pays

Offense, defense click all the way as unbeaten Blue Dragons roll to 41-0 win

By Paul Augeri, Editor-In-Chief

FARMINGTON — Middletown’s versatile offense moved the football however it chose to Saturday night. The running game was fierce. The passing game was dead-on. Ah, and the defense tucked away another shutout, too.

It was a most unpleasant 48 minutes for Farmington all the way around as Middletown’s ground game produced 207 yards and four touchdowns, quarterback Stone Belzo missed his receivers just twice, and the Blue Dragons’ defense scored as well in a 41-0 win over the Indians.

Middletown never let up its effort on either side of the ball. The outcome gave the Blue Dragons a 4-0 record as the season shifts to October and left coach Sal Morello to admit this: “We know we can play with anybody. It’s just a matter of going out and executing.”

“We have a ways to go, but I like the progression,” he said.

Xzavier Reyes and Tyreece Lumpkin rushed for two touchdowns apiece and Belzo had another terrific outing, finishing 7 of 9 passing for 112 yards, 36 of them with a touchdown toss to DeAaron Lawrence.

Middletown’s offensive line blasted holes in Farmington’s front throughout the game, and then Reyes punished them further with his bruising, drop-the-shoulder style of power running. He had 13 carries for 79 yards and stuck mostly to the middle of the field, where he ate up yards because they were there for the taking.

“Reyes ran hard. He’s doing his thing. Our ground game has been really good,” Morello said.

“I thought we were excellent up front. I watched film of Farmington coming in and they’re a scrappy bunch. They gave some good teams problems defensively, but we were able to handle any pressure they put on us, any blitzes. Our kids did a nice job executing the game plan. It was simple.”

Already holding a 7-0 lead Garrett Dandridge 48-yard interception return in the game’s opening minutes, the Dragons scored on their next three possessions to put the game away. Belzo found Lawrence on a post route for a 14-0 lead. On the next drive, Reyes and Nico Cavaliere split four touches to cover 55 yards, with Reyes going up the middle from five yards out to make it 21-0.

Middletown’s fourth score came out of a bam-bam-bam drive that lasted 10 plays and was marked by distribution of the ball. In no particular order, Reyes carried it four times; Belzo hit on all three pass attempts; he also ran it twice; and Dandridge had a carry. Reyes scored on a 1-yard rush.

“The thing I’m most happy about, and it has been a point of emphasis, is our passing game,” Morello said. “It’s not about throwing the ball 25 times for balance. We just want to be efficient. I think we’re just mixing it up and taking what the defensive is giving us.”

The thing about the Dragons’ 10-play drive is they pieced it together without utilizing Lumpkin, a dangerous option in his own right. The junior can turn a corner with his speed, and he’s shifty and sturdy enough to gain extra yards that don’t seem to be there at first.

Lumpkin scored on a 1-yard run on Middletown’s first possession of the second half. When Farmington fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, the Dragons started on the Indians’ 21-yard line and Lumpkin did the rest — runs of 5, 10 and 6 yards to cap the Dragons’ production.

“Tyreece is a forgotten guy,” Morello said. “He’s built low to the ground, he’s got great speed and he’s very elusive. It’s hard to get a clean hit on him. He never goes down on the first hit. He keeps his legs under him.”

Bristol Central (2-2) visits Skubel-Rosek Stadium next Friday. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m.

“The CCC is well-balanced. Just look at the scores,” Morello said. “There are no freebies the rest of the way.”