By Dave Ruden
Bruce Cunningham knew as preseason practices neared he was going to have a talented roster.
What took Wilton High School’s football coach by surprise was the number of players that turned out for practice. He was expecting about 45 for the varsity. Several, however, transferred to prep schools. Others chose not to return, for reasons Cunningham said would be speculation.
Then, once workouts began, came some long-term injuries.
“I don’t get frustrated by it,” Cunningham said. “This is what you have. You make the best of it. You get guys to give you your best effort.”
The Warriors have done that. They are 3-1 heading into Friday night’s home game against St. Joseph.
With 35 players, including six who start on both sides of the ball, there is little depth. But the starters are comprised of quality players.
“This team is one of my favorite teams I’ve ever coached,” said Cunningham, who has been with the program since 2001, the last five as head coach. “They fight hard. They are receptive to coaching. They give you great effort.”
The Warriors have non-league wins over Guilford and Branford. Last week they defeated Bassick. Their one loss, a 14-7 decision to Staples, easily could have been a victory. Wilton controlled the ball but could not finish drives, then had a late interception in the end zone.
“I hope we learned and grew from that,” Cunningham said. “I looked at the game on film and saw all the mistakes.”
Brett Phillips is one of the FCIAC’s most underrated players, a dual threat at quarterback both throwing and running. He also is a defensive leader in the secondary, and has been used to return kickoffs and punts.
Phillips, who has completed 59 percent of his passes, leads the team in rushing with 354 yards, followed by Patrick Ryan at 293. John D’Elisa has carried for a team-high 7 touchdowns.
Dan Baird is the deep-ball threat, averaging 21 yards a reception.
Defensively, T.J. Savvaides has been sensational at inside linebacker with 34 tackles. Dan Holland leads the defensive line.
Wilton’s offensive philosophy would seem well-suited to negate St. Joseph’s multi-faceted offensive attack.
“I think we have to control the ball, kind of like we did in the second half against Staples,” Cunningham said. “Not just control the clock, we also have to score. We are going to have to slow it down and the defense is going to have to come up big.”
On the other hand, the numbers game would appear to make the Cadets, with their huge lines, the Warriors’ greatest nightmare.
“You look at them and they have a lot of depth,” Cunningham said. “Of the teams we’ve played they are probably the most complete I’ve had to go against since 2007 against Greenwich, when I was the defensive coordinator. They are big, strong and active.”
The Warriors’ schedule is not forgiving. They still have to play New Canaan and Darien, as well as Trumbull and Ridgefield.
Assuming, for argument’s sake, Wilton loses the three games where it is a definite underdog, it is probably looking at 5 to 7 wins. A lot will depend on how worn down the players get during the second half of the season.
Two things are certain: Cunningham is squeezing everything he has out of his personnel, and the Warriors are not a team opponents look forward to facing.
“We have quality starters who give everything they’ve got,” Cunningham said. “I haven’t seen them back down from a challenge. We will keep approaching things the same way, go out and compete, and see what happens.