BRISTOL - Weekends in the fall for the Bristol Eastern football team have been a familiar theme over the past three years.
The Lancers players have spent just three of them coming off a win over that time period and with the season-opening home loss to E.O. Smith, it was more of the same.
“We try to have like a 12-hour or 24-hour type rule where you think about the game you just played and you focus on it, but then after that time’s up you have to move on,” Bristol Eastern head coach Anthony Julius said.
Now with a 0-1 record entering the second week of the season, the Lancers play host to perennial-playoff contender and the No. 1 seed in last year’s Class L state tournament in No. 17 Middletown, who went undefeated in the regular season last year, beating its opponents by a combined 279 points.
With a team the caliber of the Blue Dragons coming to Bristol Eastern, there’s already be plenty of doubt outside the Lancers’ locker room.
“I think we should surprise some people, especially some of the people in our own school that don’t really believe,” senior wide receiver Jaden Laprise said.
But Middletown lost a lot of its key parts from last year.
The Blue Dragons had an all-conference quarterback in Stone Belzo and a pair of all-conference receivers in DeAaron Lawrence and Nico Cavaliere. All three graduated.
Outside of those players, Middletown graduated five other all-conference players from last season’s team.
Bristol Eastern returned more all-conference players than Middletown (one). Trinidad Gonzalez, Jaden Laprise and Zach Giblin were all-conference and are back.
“If there’s a year to get them, it’s this year,” Julius said. “But we’re going to have to be much better than we were last week. It’s going to be a heck of a challenge [tonight].”
The Blue Dragons also graduated all-state kicker Michael Aresco, who pinned Bristol Eastern deep in its own end on every drive in the game between the two last year.
Replacing him is his younger brother sophomore Matthew Aresco. He kicked all five PAT’s successfully and had a 25-yard field goal against the Lancers. The younger Aresco is expected to be solid but as a sophomore, won’t present as strong of a leg that his brother challenged Bristol Eastern with last year.
Middletown does bring talent to the field without question, though, and it’s all going to start on the ground with seniors Xzavier Reyes and Tyreece Lumpkin forming an explosive 1-2 punch in the backfield. The pair combined for 255 yards and four scores on the ground in Middletown’s 38-20 season-opening win against Wethersfield.
Another option for the Blue Dragons on the ground is at quarterback with senior first-year starter Jontae Dempsey. He won the job in a camp battle against junior Chris Danas. Dempsey had 40 rushing yards on six carries.
Stopping the run was something Bristol Eastern struggled with against E.O. Smith with 256 yards allowed. In order to pull off the upset, that needs to change.
“We need to stop the run game and get off the field,” Gonzalez said. “We need to force three and outs instead of having them march down the field and get them [off the field] at the 20 and make our offense have to go 80 yards to score.”
On the offensive side of the football, scoring seven points likely won’t be enough against a Middletown team that has scored seven points or fewer just once over the past three seasons.
In order to generate offense, the focus once again is going to be on the Lancers offensive line coming off a performance in which it allowed five sacks. But Bristol Eastern’s front five believes the mistakes are fixable.
“Our line is there physically,” Lancers senior center Giblin said. “We just need to know who to block and when to block at the right time because we’re picking up the wrong guys and it messes up our offense.”
If the offensive line is improved, expect the Lancers offensive potential to show if both Jaden Laprise and Elijah Gagliardo are back, something that is uncertain going into the game as both are dealing with injuries.
When the Lancers take the field, looking to see if Laprise and Gagliardo are in street clothes could be an indicator of whether or not the passing game is going to produce.