Sports Fans, Rejoice: Sliders Ready to Spread Its Wings In City

A Sliders Grill and Bar official hopes its Middletown location will open its doors by the end of October.

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By Paul Augeri, Editor-In-Chief

When not looking back on their favorites teams’ most recent accomplishments or failings, sports fans like to look ahead.

Imagine, then, that it’s the afternoon of the first Sunday in November. Chores are done and you have time on your hands. Sadly, though, you’re stuck in one of three silos: Anti-Patriots; an ashamed Jets fan; or a disgusted Giants fan who accepted back in Week 5 that their season was finished.

Those are the local offerings on network television, and if you don’t have satellite TV plus an NFL games package, what to do? Sliders Grill and Bar on Route 17 might feed your football craving.

Sliders’ Middletown location, just before the turnoff into Wesleyan Hills – the same building that was home to Cypress Restaurant for 80 years — is expected to open in the coming weeks.

“In a perfect world, the end of October is our target for opening,” Todd DiBattista, the company’s vice president of operations, told the Mirror. “We’re moving quickly, we have a good staff, and the city of Middletown has been fantastic.”

Sliders is an independently owned company with establishments in Wallingford, Southington, Plainville, Berlin and West Hartford . Founded in the early 1990s by Fred Marcantonio, Sliders will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year.

As Middletown has become a destination for out-of-towners and foodies alike in recent years, Sliders will fill a niche that has been up for grabs – a sports fan’s hangout. Wings and bar-and-grill-type food can be found elsewhere in town, sure. And while Cromwell is home to Chicago Sam’s Sports Bar and Grille and its vast number of mammoth wide-screen TVs, even a scaled-down version of a similar restaurant hasn’t existed in Middletown until now.

This wasn’t lost on DiBattista.

“Fresh wings, live sports and family fun — it’s what we’re known for, and we never lost the sports aspect of it,” DiBattista said. “We’ve changed the décor of Sliders to keep up with the times, but we still have that sports atmosphere.”

“Sports on the wall,” as he put it. Translated: “Not one of our locations has less than 30 TVs. We thrive on the sports aspect of our business.” And with that, the potential to watch most any game in play at any given time.

Sliders has “always been attracted” to Middletown, said DiBattista, who considers the city “a restaurant mecca.” The timing was right to put Sliders’ stamp here when the Carta brothers put the Cypress property up for sale last year, he said.

Renovations of the aged building continue. Plumbing and electrical work have been completed, sheet-rocking is nearly complete, and painting, flooring and installation of the restaurant and bar equipment soon will be underway. There will be seating for 200.

The property abuts a pond. Behind the building, a patio will be constructed to accommodate additional seating for 40, DiBattista said. This will be Sliders’ first outdoor area, he said. There will be televisions and the same menu available to customers who are seated inside.

“There’s just a nice mix of things that come with the location,” DiBattista said. “With Durham and Middlefield just a 9-iron away, it’s a great location, and the patio is such a bonus.” The overall floor plan is between 5,000 and 5,500 square feet.

One advantage of being independently owned and operated, DiBattista said, is “we can change anything we want at any time.

“We like to adjust to our clientele and we’re flexible,” he said. “To have that neighborhood, family-oriented feel, we can break the rules per se, to make our customers super-ecstatic and happy and make sure they enjoy the experience.”

Middletown wins again, but tough tests lie ahead

By Paul Augeri, Editor-In-Chief

For teams operating on two different levels, Middletown unleashed what you might have expected Friday night – a dominant performance in its 38-16 victory over Hartford Public.

Coach Sal Morello was quick to flip the caution switch, however. The degree of difficulty in the Central Connecticut Conference is going to grow, and fast, starting with next weekend’s game at Farmington, while October will bring Bristol Central and E.O. Smith at home and Newington on the road.

For a little while, at least, Morello can savor what was an efficient and effective game from his Blue Dragons, who are 3-0. They played big, fast and physical and cut down on the mistakes that were all too prevalent in last week’s shutout win over Bristol Eastern.

Winless Hartford Public, with a small lineup to begin with, could not contain Middletown’s ground game and was unable to move the ball in falling behind by four touchdowns in the first half.

“Of the three games we’ve played, this was our best game,” Morello said. “It’s nice to be 3-0, but we have a lot of work in front of us.”

The first half was the story Friday.

Middletown scored on five of its six possessions in the half, three of which were touchdowns by junior Xzavier Reyes. Reyes, Tyreece Lumpkin and quarterback Stone Belzo made for a three-headed rushing monster that kept eating up yardage and kept Hartford Public’s defense guessing which one would get the ball. Reyes rushed for 156 yards in the half.

“Reyes is getting better because he’s one of our best practice players,” Morello said. “That’s how he practices and how he plays. I’m happy for the kid. He’s working really hard. He did a really nice job finishing his runs. He’s getting tough to take down.”

Morello also praised Lumpkin, who scored Middletown’s final touchdown on a 17-yard run late in the third quarter.

“We’re just trying to distribute the ball and make it hard for teams  to defense us,” the coach said.

DeAaron Lawrence’s 7-yard touchdown reception from Belzo and Michael Aresco’s 22-yard field goal accounted for Middletown’s other scores.

Meanwhile, Middletown’s defense allowed only three first downs and forced Hartford Public to punt on five of its six first-half possessions. The one time the Owls did not punt, they were held on downs on a fourth-and-1 run near midfield in the first quarter.

“Our defense was pretty solid again,” Morello said. “We executed up front and our tackling was much better. We practice it three days a week. It’s good to see that it’s getting better and the kids are getting to the football.”

Throw out a questionable personal foul on the Blue Dragons early in the first quarter and Middletown committed only one penalty in the first 24 minutes – a false start. The Blue Dragons also limited their turnovers after committing six combined in their first two games.

“These first three weeks we have cut down on the penalties. The first two games I was upset with the turnovers more than anything,” Morello said. “A point of emphasis was to clean up some of our sloppy play. Ball security has been a focus and will be for the rest of the year.”

So Far, So Good for the Blue Dragons

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Senior DeAaron Lawrence scores on a 28-yard reception to cap Middletown’s win over Bristol Eastern. (Photo courtesy of Nolan O’Reilly)

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By Paul Augeri, Editor-in-Chief

On Sunday night, just 48 hours after his Middletown High football team kicked around an overmatched Bristol Eastern squad, coach Sal Morello had moved on, as is the routine.

Maybe with one eye open, because coaching and raising a young family will put you in a bleary state earlier in the evening than later, he was outlining the game plan for the Blue Dragons’ next opponent. Hartford Public visits Middletown on Friday.

Morello, his coaching staff and the players spend at least two hours watching film each Sunday following Friday’s games. Players are grouped by position – linemen, receivers, et cetera — with the coach who oversees that position. Performance on both sides of the ball is broken down and evaluated.

“We spend a lot of one-on-one time,” Morello said, “and we give not only constructive criticism, cover not only mistakes, but we reinforce the good things they’re doing. They pay attention.”

Middletown is off to a 2-0 start for the second straight season following its 35-0 victory over Eastern. In a recent conversation with the Mirror, Morello touched on a variety of topics.

MM: Two games in, what is one of the more positive takeaways of this team?

SM: I like the chemistry of the team. A lot of the seniors have played varsity since they were sophomores. I like the maturity. A lot of the kids know what to expect. Their leadership is really good. They know the routines (of the program), know the practices, the study halls, how we do things.

There are 20 seniors on the team and a lot of them are four-year kids of the program who understand the process. They’re helping the young kids along, so I like that.

It’s always good as a coach, when you’re sitting at 2-0, knowing there’s a lot of room for improvements.

MM: Between the pass and run, would you say the offense is balanced?

SM: When you talk about balanced attack, you run it 50 times and throw it 50 times, you say that’s balance. But the key for me is how efficient are we throwing the ball? Even if we throw 12 to 14 times … we don’t throw it just to throw it. We just want to be efficient throwing it. I’m happy with the offensive line, number one, because it’s been able to protect our quarterback. Stone Belzo is a first-year starter and I’m happy with him. He makes good decisions and he has great, great leadership ability. And he can put the ball down and run with it – the ultimate dual threat.

MM: What are the best attributes of the defense at 2-0?

SM: We are big and fast, fast and physical. And it’s an older defense. Some are three-year stdarters. It’s as good a defensive line as we’ve had.

We’re really trying to instill in the kids to worry about what we control. It’s Week 3 and we’re still trying to field depth. We’ve got really six to seven capable kids to play on the defensive line, so we have depth at that position and we’re trying to create healthy competition. The defensive backs and the linebackers (are areas where) we’ve got some depth. We’re trying to keep the kids fresh.

MM: At this level of football, how many teams out of 10 have the leg power and the kicking ability of Michael Aresco? (note: Aresco put four kickoffs into the end zone against Eastern and was 5-for-5 on extra points. For one kickoff, Morello instructed Aresco to kick the ball short of the goal line so the Blue Dragons would be able to put their kick coverage team to work.)

SM: Not too many. He’s a weapon. When you can get a kicker to get the ball to the end zone and have opponents start from the 20, it’s hard for teams to sustain an 80-yard drive without making mistakes. Mike’s field goal range allows you to play with a shorter field. From 40 and in he’s pretty accurate, pretty consistent.

MM: Your teams get flagged for a fair share of penalties. Are some penalties worse than others and how do you teach players to minimize these mistakes?

SM: The two types that really stick out and that frustrate me more than anything are pre-snap ones like off-sides or late hits, personal fouls, something that comes from a lack of discipline. High school football, any (level of) football, you can probably throw a flag on any play. As a coach, if it affects a play, you know a referee will throw the flag.

If a player jumps off-sides in a practice, they just go for a run toward the woods (at Middletown’s Skubel-Rosek Stadium) and come back. Then there’s film. We spend a lot of time on technique, hand placement, to avoid risking penalties. We’re constantly trying to work at it.