TRUMBULL — The trip is longer now, but Marce Petroccio has learned all the shortcuts and side roads from his residence in Ridgefield to Trumbull High School.
In a sense, Petroccio’s commute takes him from his current home to his new-old home. And judging by his unwavering upbeat mood during the Eagles’ practice yesterday, Petroccio’s first days of summer practice as coach at his alma mater has proved rejuvenating.
“Every day I drive in and I say to myself I love my job,” Petroccio said. “I get to walk the halls that I walked years ago, I pull in and it’s McDougall Stadium, and that’s a reminder of Coach McDougall, which is fantastic. I pull up every day with a smile on my face and I’m ready to go to work.”
Of the seven football coaching changes in the FCIAC this offseason, none caused greater ripples than Petroccio’s departure from Staples to Trumbull, where he graduated in 1978. Petroccio was part of the school’s first state championship team under his mentor, Hall of Fame coach Jerry McDougall.
The timing could not have been more perfect for a reboot on both sides. Petroccio, who arrived at Staples 25 years ago, rebuilt a program that had floundered. He left with 210 wins, five FCIAC and three straight state titles.
“I emptied my tank for 25 years and I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to come here,” said Petroccio, who was not actively looking to leave. “I would have gladly stayed there if this opportunity hadn’t opened up. It did and I took it and it sort of rejuvenated me a little bit.”
Trumbull is in much better shape than Staples was when Petroccio arrived, but went 3-7 a year ago. An opening 70-16 loss to Greenwich set the tone. Bob Maffei, the Eagles’ veteran coach, opted to step down after the season.
“It was pretty hard,” said Colton Nicholas, the Eagles’ quarterback. “A couple of games we lost by big margins. This year we hope not to have that happen.”
Both sides welcome the changes and energy was the word heard most often yesterday.
“I like what I see,” Petroccio said. “These kids have done a tremendous job soaking in a new offense, a new defense, an entire new routine, all the different coaches we have. We keep getting better every single day and that’s what I am excited about. What’s happened in the past is the past. We’re trying to open up a new chapter here and what I like is we have a tremendous senior group. They are all leaders. I think they’re really getting it.”
One of them, linebacker Adam Tolk, said though the players knew of Petroccio just by reputation, they sense he has been invigorated since his arrival last winter.
“It was pretty much rough in every aspect it could have been, so I think the guys are fired up to have a fresh start, a restart and take the hard work we put in and try to make something out of it,” Tolk said of the mindset coming off last year. “It has been an awesome experience. I love Coach Maffei and all those guys, they were awesome people, but it’s good to have a new face and just keep the energy high.”
There were few highlights last year, but Petroccio likes the composition of his team.
“We’re to the point now we are almost two platoon on both sides of the ball,” Petroccio said. “We have a lot of depth at the skill positions, a lot of depth on defense, the offensive line has done a great job at jelling and coming together. It has been nothing but positive.”
The Wreckers were known under Petroccio for running an option offense. Petroccio will coach to his personnel, and in Nicholas he has a gifted quarterback who can get the ball downfield.
“We’ll be a little bit different,” Petroccio said. “When you have a quarterback who is 6-3, 235, that can squat and bench the house there’s certain things you can and cannot due and I think we are going to take advantage of all the things that make him have success. He’s a great kid, he wants to learn and the people that surround him are awesome. We’ll still have some facets of option.”
Nicholas said he has welcomed the changes to the offense.
“It’s great,” he said. “He has a really good staff around him. It’s a lot of fun.”
Nicholas said when he was introduced to the players for the first time, Petroccio was greeted with an ovation. Petroccio has spent time in the weight room regaling them with stories about his own playing days.
This is Petroccio’s subtle part of the process to restore storied traditions.
“He brings it every day so we have to bring it right back,” Tolk said.
It would be surprising if the Eagles did not show marked improvement, but they also have the league’s toughest schedule. They play the four schools that figure to again finish atop the conference standings: Darien and St. Joseph, which won state titles, Greenwich, which got to the state final, and New Canaan, a semifinalist and possible preseason No. 1 team in the state.
That is a future concern. Petroccio is living in the moment, and the moment is good. He had an awkward transition period where he spent the final months of the school year teaching at Staples but coaching at Trumbull.
“It was very difficult for everybody involved,” Petroccio said. “It is nice that we have some closure.”
Petroccio paused and glanced to watch his offense run a play.
Petroccio turned back and grinned.
“Change is good sometimes,” he added.