WILTON — For seven years, almost all of the 28 seniors on the Wilton football team have grown and developed together, starting with their first introduction to the sport.
They were a unit when discovering the fundamentals, playing in youth leagues, going to camps and working their way up the varsity ladder. Most are playing the same positions where they began. The personalties have remained a constant, as has the tight bond.
“Fourth grade, football was new to us, recalled Kyle Phillips, the Warriors’ quarterback. “We’re just a tight-knit group. We’re all best friends. We just wanted to learn the game. We had great youth coaches. A bunch of guys’ dads were helping out. They helped out as much as they could. We had 15 coaches out there every year. I think that camaraderie is going to help us now with 28 guys. You never really see that in Wilton. The last few years there have never been 25 seniors.”
Now, that group is getting ready for one last fall before going their separate ways. Their experience forms an interesting juxtaposition to EJ DiNunzio, the Warriors’ first-year coach, who was out of the sport for 20 years before joining the team a year ago as a freshman assistant.
“My three captains are fantastic,” DiNunzio said. “The whole senior class, they are helping the freshmen, helping the sophomores and juniors acclimate to what they have to do up here. Having a senior group that big and that strong and that excited about the season, it helps me tremendously.”
Phillips, who suffered a shoulder injury in the spring but expects to be ready for the season opener against Brien McMahon, is one of the captains, along with running back Drew Herlyn and lineman Dean DiNanno, whose brother Jack was in the same role a year ago.
“We’ve always been a tight-knit group,” Herlyn said. “What makes us different is that we all play for each other. No one is selfish on the field. We are just playing for wins.”
The Warriors hope to have a lot of them, at least duplicating the 6-4 record from a year ago, when they won three of their final four games.
Those turned out to be the final ones at Wilton for its veteran coach, Bruce Cunningham, who resigned during the winter and is now an assistant at Greenwich.
DiNunzio’s lack of recent experience was offset by the huge impression he made on Chris McDougal, the school’s athletic director, and judging by yesterday’s practice it is easy to see why. DiNunzio bounced around the field like a pinball, offering equal measures of encouragement and advice. On several occasions he simulated playing a defensive back during a passing drill.
“He’s sweating just as much as any of us,” Phillips said with a smile. “He’s covering the receivers and running all day. A towel around his neck. He’s moving. I think there is a lot of energy out here right now.”
It remains to be seen how that vigor, plus inexperience on the offensive line, will translate in the standings. DiNunzio is one of the league’s most intriguing stories. If the Warriors do well this season and in the years ahead, he will be hailed. If they struggle, a tough fan base will point to his years away from coaching.
Right now DiNunzio is having too much fun to worry about his personal status. His positivity has proved infectious.
‘It’s awesome,” Herlyn said. “Everyone is super excited. Pumped for the season, buying into the team goal. Coming together and forming a bond.”
For nearly half the roster, those ties have been there for a long time. The seniors plan on using that to their advantage.
“Football-wise it helps with the tendencies, but if somebody makes a big play we’re jumping all over our best friend celebrating,” Phillips said. “For the opposing teams, when you see that much energy from the opposing team, I think that’s intimidating. I think that’s going to help us a lot this year.”
DiNunzio said while he is still learning his personnel, the closeness of his most seasoned players was apparent almost immediately.
“The bond that they have I think is very special,” DiNunzio said. “They all pull for each other. Guys that know they are second or third string, they are rooting for that No. 1 guy out there. They want them to succeed because they’re friends. That’s the bottom line, they are best friends. I think it’s great that they have been together since fourth grade, and it shows. They love one another and it has just been a pleasure to coach them and see them work since that very first week.”
The Warriors put in a lot of offseason work, readying themselves for the final three months sharing a sideline.
“I think everyone is aware this is our last opportunity to play together and we are not taking it for granted,” Herlyn said.