The Bristol Central football team has a solid corps of veteran players returning for the 2017 season, but the Rams will open their season Saturday afternoon at Hartford Public with their quarterback and spiritual leader of a year ago on the sidelines.
Isaiah Miller completed 62 of 125 passes for 858 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 566 yards and 11 touchdowns, to lead the Rams to a 6-4 season in 2016. But Miller suffered an injury in the early summer that will keep him sidelined at least for the first few games of the season.
Despite the injury, the Rams may not miss a beat on offense as Dathan Hickey has stepped into the quarterback slot and has had a very solid preseason.
“Dathan has worked really hard during the offseason and into the preseason to learn the position,” coach Jeff Papazian said. “From day one to now he has made really good progress. He is a pretty dynamic athlete and a potential D-I player. We are confident he can make good things happen.”
But the team will miss Miller.
“I think where we’re going to miss Isaiah the most is in his leadership on the field,” Papazian said. “He is the guy they all gravitate to. Even in our scrimmages with Isaiah on the sideline with crutches, he’s the one that all the guys were rallying around and he’s the one that was leading the cheers.”
Miller is one of five captains, along with linemen Mike Guzman, Alex Lape and Gabe Updegraff as well as Hickey.
With Miller out and 1,000-yard rusher Luis Medina graduated, the Rams will have a new backfield look, but much of the rest of the lineup will look as it did a year ago, with an experienced front line that is a year older and stronger and a solid defensive unit with good speed and athleticism.
“I am expecting our offensive line to be a big strength going into the year,” Papazian said. “We have a lot of experience there with three guys who have started since their sophomore year coming back as senior captains. Adam Ewart is a junior who started most of the second half of last season and we have a newcomer in transfer Devon Dawson who was a two year starter at St. Paul.”
Behind the front line, the Rams will have junior Darrell Payton getting his first varsity opportunity at running back alongside Hickey, who can also be expected to do some scrambling from the quarterback slot.
“With Darrell and Dathan running behind those guys up front, we expect there to be a lot of room to run back there,” Papazian said.
The receiving corps is relatively new. Justus Fitzpatrick is the only receiver who saw action a year ago. He will be joined by senior Nigel West, juniors Nate Rosa and Ryan Rodriguez and sophomore Galen Hickey. Fitzpatrick caught 14 passes for 284 yards and a pair of touchdowns a year ago.
“Our receivers are a little untested right now,” Papazian said. “They are coming along but they have to continue to work to get better.”
Defensively the Rams will be anchored by an experienced front line and linebacker crew.
“We have a decent amount of experience,” Papazian said. “I think our D-Line should be a strength and we will be able to rotate a pretty solid group of guys in there. Mike Guzman has been in the middle of our defense since his sophomore year and we have a good mix of veterans and some younger guys who are ready to step up.”
Dawson will bring some added experience to the line and will be joined by Isaac Gonzalez and Josh Carrasquillo up front with veteran Alex Lape, Rodriguez and Frankie Jenkins filling the defensive end slots. Guzman anchors the linebackers from the middle with Deklan Zukowski and freshman Jakob Salinas expected to play big roles. Hickey and Jose Navedo give the Rams plenty of experience and athleticism at cornerback and Galen Hickey, Dom Va and Fitzpatrick will fill in the safety positions.
Central opens the season on Saturday at Hartford Public.
“They have a big, talented running back (Lavarey Banton) coming back and we will have to be aware of where he is at all times,” Papazian said. “They are going to be a big challenge for us in Week 1. We worry about all the things you worry about in Week 1 - turnovers, mental mistakes, first game jitters. Hopefully our experience can overcome that. Most of these guys have been there before.”
Central faces a tough schedule with a very difficult CCC Division II-West lineup along with out of conference games against challenging opponents such as Windsor, Middletown, Capital Prep and the opener at Hartford Public.
“I think our division top to bottom is probably the most balanced and competitive division in the CCC,” Papazian said. “Platt and Maloney both return a lot of guys and will challenge for the title. Wethersfield lost a few players but they are always a very solid and well-coached team. Eastern will be much improved in coach [Anthony] Julius’ second year and Newington is going to be a lot stronger with their new staff.”
The Rams will open their home season on Sept. 15 against perennially strong Windsor, and for the first time in nearly 60 years of BCHS football, the home game will not be at Muzzy Field. There will need to be some adjustments in pregame rituals and coaches, players and fans will need to adapt to playing at a facility without the amenities of Muzzy as they move to the new turf field at Central.
“I think the kids are kind of excited about playing on the new field,” Papazian said. “I hope the student body embraces the new location and comes out and supports us like they did at Muzzy.”