Like countless seasons in the past, the Cheshire High School football team made their familiar march from the locker rooms down to the David B. Maclary Athletic Complex this fall. However, while taking the turf under the lights, the Rams were not preparing for a specific opponent.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference decided to not sponsor 11-on-11 football in 2020, leaving the stands at facilities like Alumni Field empty on Friday nights.
While unable to play sanctioned games through CIAC this year, teams like Cheshire were given the opportunity to hold full-team practices through Nov. 21. Squads could use equipment as long there was no person-to-person contact.
“We are not the only ones working through it,” said CHS Head Coach Don Drust, of adjusting to the pandemic. “We couldn’t play games this year, but the kids showed up every day wanting to be there.”
For the Rams staff, this year’s focus was on the players getting better every day, building bonds, and putting their energy toward something positive.
“The last thing you want to do is make a mockery of the game. We wanted to go out there and have the kids learn about the game of football,” explained Drust. “We also wanted to give these guys the opportunity to be around each other. We spend so much more time on the practice field than playing on Friday nights during the season.”
As part of their original fall sports plan in August, the CIAC said that football teams could play up to six regular-season games and then wait to see about a tournament experience, but citing the classification that the sport is high-risk, the Connecticut Department of Public Health recommended that football be canceled this year or moved to 2021.
In August and September, the CIAC had multiple conversations with sports medicine professionals, state officials, the National Federation of High Schools, and DPH about mitigating strategies to be able to play games safely, but when they were unable to get the classification of football moved from the high-risk category, the CIAC Board of Control announced on Sept. 16 that they wouldn’t sponsor the sport this fall.
As an alternative, the CIAC created a plan to play football in 2021. Teams would start conditioning on Feb. 22 and then get to play five games from March 19 to April 17.
“A lot of things are out of our control. We will wait to see what happens,” said Drust. “I’m hopeful and trying to be optimistic.”
While disappointed to not play games this year, Drust and the Rams staff turned attention to how they could still provide an experience for Cheshire football players.
“We learn a lot about character and people when things are hard,” said Drust. “For us, the practices were about having the guys show up, put their heads down, go to work, and have fun together.”
As an alternative to 11-on-11 football, leagues like the Southern Connecticut Conference came up with 7 vs. 7 games and linemen challenges this fall, but Cheshire didn’t want to split up their team and chose not to participate in those events.
“We had the opportunity to practice as one unit and that is what the kids wanted to do,” stated Drust. “It speaks to the relationships they have as people.”
To end their fall program, the Rams held Senior Night on Nov. 5. At Alumni Field, Nick DiDomizio, Chisom Okoro, Daniel Arvin, Dan Bourdeau, Jotham Casey, John Casner, Andrew Daigle, Cole Feinauer, Brad Krutz, Chris Leddy, Paul LaMadeleine, Jack Lovelace, Brandon Mai, Ryan Mancl, Khalid Minihan, Jacob Niebling, Kevin O’Connell, Jeff Shampang, Nick Valente, and manager Evan Chymbor were introduced with their families.
“I think we have a really good senior class,” said DiDomizio, a tight end/defensive lineman. “If we get the opportunity to play next year, we’ll be ready to go.”
Drust feels that DiDomizio and Okoro are exceptional people, as well as being team co-captains.
“They represent the program the right way,” said Drust. “They care genuinely about the team and the people they work with every day.”
DiDomizio’s family has been involved with the Rams for many years. His uncle Tommy passed away from injuries sustained in a car accident in 1992, but the Rams keep his memory alive by selecting a player every year to receive the Tommy DiDomizio Memorial Award. Honoree names are added to a rock near the turf field.
“That family has given so much to this program,” said Drust. “Nick puts his family first in everything he does. I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
A two-way lineman, Okoro received Defensive Player of the Year, as well as All-Class LL and All-SCC Tier II Defense last year. He plans to play in college.
“Chisom is one of the guys who everybody looks up to,” stated Drust. “You want to watch the first play of the game to the last to see if a player’s effort stays the same. Chisom plays hard from start to finish and he practices the same way.”
For college, Lovelace has chosen to play lacrosse with DiDomizio at the University of Hartford. On the football field this fall, he practiced as the starting quarterback.
“Jack has a ton of passion for lacrosse and football,” said Drust. “I think it is awesome that he will be on the field with Nick next year.”
As a freshman, Lovelace thought about giving up football to focus on lacrosse, but said that the bond between players was too strong.
“I’m definitely going to miss the coaches and the guys,” said Lovelace. “Everybody is so friendly and there is a sense of unity here.”
As a safety/running back, Mancl has started games since his sophomore year.
“Ryan is a quiet guy who doesn’t say much at practice, but he is super athletic,” explained Drust. “He pays with a lot of passion and enjoys being there with the guys.”
Krutz, Bourdeau, LaMadeleine, and Valente have all had older brothers graduate before them. Bourdeau has chosen to play lacrosse at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.
“We have had a lot of great families come through the program,” reflected Drust.
Casey and Feinauer both joined the team later than most of their teammates, but have both earned offers to play on the next level. As a sophomore, Casey moved over from playing soccer and has been the starting kicker and punter ever since.
“He is a kicker, but he is more than that. Jotham is a special athlete and football player,” explained Drust. “He is also a tremendous person and student.”
A tight end and lineman, Feinauer made a big impact as a newcomer last year. He has earned scholarship opportunities from schools like Wagner College (New York) and Merrimack College (Massachusetts), but hasn’t made a decision yet.
“It speaks to his work ethic and his maturity as a person,” stated Drust. “He has worked so hard in his weight room. He has created opportunities for himself.”
Beyond the game, Drust has the most respect for what his players have done in school and the community.
“These guys put so much time on the field and to still be able to excel in the classroom is amazing,” stated Drust. “They are awesome people.”