On its unlined home field, with the players’ tattered and nameless practice pinnies draped over their shoulder pads, the Hartford High School football team runs through a defensive drill under a hot sun in the second week of preseason.
Without using a football, the drill aims to make the first-team defense think assignments and field responsibilities rather than ball-watching. For about 20 minutes, the last exercise of this late afternoon session, the team repeats the play with longtime head coach Mike Stone intently watching, barking out his displeasure when necessary.
No style with the Hurricanes. Just substance.
* Five titles in six years, the best Division I run since 1970, cementing their status as the state’s premier football program.
* Three straight crowns, the first D-I three-peat.
* A 26-game winning streak and back-to-back undefeated seasons.
When asked about contenders in D-I this year, Champlain Valley coach Jim Provost put it bluntly:
“Anybody who doesn’t start that answer with Hartford hasn’t been paying attention,” Provost said.
But how can Hartford, a school with enrollment numbers less than half of CVU’s, not only sustain a program but be the class of the state since 2007?
Building a winner
Hartford’s youth programs, one of which is run by Stone’s wife, began paying off for the high school team in 2007, the year of the school’s first D-I title after hauling in six D-II crowns. Youth coaches implement and teach a similar system run at the high school, getting players prepared with the basics.
“They know the system and we just give them more detail,” said linebackers and running backs coach Matt Potter, whose son, Taylor, graduated last year. “It’s an opportunity to work with something instead of starting from scratch.”
And by competing in a league that includes New Hampshire teams, Hartford’s youth — dubbed the “Mini ‘Canes” — gain valuable experience against tough competition. Stone’s sons — Matt, Sean and Tucker — were fixtures on the youth and high school levels.
“When they get here, they have a pretty good understanding of what is expected,” said Stone, entering his 27th year at his alma mater.
Pete Lynch, a line coach for the last nine years, grins ear-to-ear when discussion turns to the feeder program.
“If you think about it, they do all the hard work. They are developing the kids, teaching them our system and they are molding the raw materials,” Lynch said. “I get the best of what they have brought along.”
From multi-threat Troy Bell and stout lineman Michael Dulac, the Burlington Free Press’ football players of the year in 2011 and 2012, respectively, the Hurricanes have been blessed with talent, too.
But that doesn’t define a program built on a team-first attitude.
No ‘I’ in Hartford
In its Wing-T offense, touches out of the backfield are a shared venture at Hartford. Involving tailbacks and fullbacks in the ground attack, one that gained 4,056 yards in 11 contests last season, is part of the game plan and philosophy of the coaching staff.
“We can’t win if we have one guy and that’s all we got. It’s not our style,” Stone said. “It’s hard for kids and we tell the kids often: ‘You’re not going to set any records here. Go somewhere else for that.'”
One example that showcased Hartford’s deliberate balance came in the 2011 title game. An injury to another back gave Miles Latham an opportunity for more carries. He was prepared, rushing for 102 yards and two touchdowns in the 42-6 win over Middlebury.
“(Miles) might have been a surprise to some, but not to us. That’s the way we’ve been doing this,” Stone said. “It takes an unselfish individual to be able to live with that here. That’s part of it — it’s a four-back offense whether you like or not.”
That attitude is shared by the coaching staff and the players.
“You can’t play for Mike Stone and think you’ll be the big man on the Totem Pole,” Potter said. “It doesn’t work; it’s team-first definitely.”
Added second-year quarterback Greg Shinn: “We’ve had the production on the ground where we don’t need to go to the air. If we don’t have to throw, it means we are winning the game.”
Shinn prefers a punishing, by-committee rushing attack to airing it out.
“For me, it’s just making sure everybody is doing the right thing. I’d love to throw more, but that’s just more weight on my shoulders actually,” the senior said.
Generally, lineman isn’t considered a skill position. At Hartford, it is.
“We call the linemen ‘Hoggies.’ They are a special group for us. We want to them to feel they are an elite group,” Lynch said. “We are trying to develop that feeling that the linemen are our skilled guys.
“Without great linemen, you can have all the great backs in the world, you can’t go anywhere.”
Patrick McGrath, Willy Todt and Josh Avery are veterans to a unit that lost Dulac and Nolan Frechette to graduation. Bailey Nott, one of 33 freshmen who trotted out in the first week of camp, might earn varsity playing time.
“Coach always said it’s like a Civil War cavalry. You’ve got your front line, front line goes down and it’s next man up,” Shinn said. “And you perform the same way they do. That’s how we like it to be.”
That mentality will extend to the backfield, where a rotation of backs, including Nick Terino, Patrick Libuda and Tyler Searles, will see more touches after the graduation of Josh Claflin, Taylor Potter and others.
“Some graduated, but we have a lot of guys stepping up this year filling shoes that have been emptied,” said Terino, who has battled hand injuries the past two seasons. “Everybody on this team is going to be doing what they can to make the team the best it can be.”
Stone says each year is unique, an opportunity for the next crop to prove to the coaching staff and themselves they can succeed on the field.
“Some of the kids on this team are used to winning. But there’s always a pocket of them that aren’t quite sure they belong with those guys,” Stone said. “When they find out that they are and they can do it, that’s cool, that’s good stuff.”
Pressure to win?
The Hurricanes’ last loss was in 2010 to BFA-St. Albans, a team they beat in the state final later that fall and again in last year’s championship thriller.
In the past two seasons, Hartford racked up 915 points in 22 games. Its margin of victory checked in at 32 points per game.
While past success doesn’t dictate this season, Shinn said expectations remain high.
“After coming off three in a row, there’s always pressure,” Shinn said. “It’s out there, but we try not to think about it. Last year was last year.”
Stone, as he shakes his head, has no clue his team’s winning streak stands at 26 games. A new season brings new challenges — none of which are tied to past titles or undefeated records.
“Pressure is always relative anyway. What is striking to me is if they are seniors, if they are lucky, they get 11 opportunities,” Stone said. “If they are not lucky, they get nine. That’s it.
“All this work for nine opportunities and for the chance at the next two. That’s a pretty interesting way to look at it.”