STAMFORD, Conn. – Trinity Catholic’s 48-28 loss to North Branford on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Class S football tournament ended the Crusaders' best season since they won the state championship in 1993.
The Crusaders finished 8-3, had their first winning year since 2008, and beat New Canaan for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president during his first term.
But here's a question for coach Pete Stokes and his staff: Is this a beginning, or an end? The strides the Crusaders made this year will be forgotten if they slip back to the team that went 3-7 each of the past two years.
“This state thing - I don’t think it will ever get old,’’ Stokes said. “I want to keep getting back here.”
For the Crusaders to do that, they need to retool in a hurry. Running backs Shaquan Howsie and Sean Brown combined for more than 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Quarterback Dan O’Leary is a senior, and so are most of the team’s defensive leaders, including leading tackler Cody Zaro. He missed Wednesday’s game with a knee injury, and his absence hurt the Crusaders.
Stokes was justifiably proud of his seniors - his first class when he took over in 2009. “They picked up the Trinity and Stamford football torch,’’ Stokes said, “and brought the program back.”
But for how long? Trinity’s program will never have the depth of a Staples or Greenwich, but there are promising signs. Neno Merritt, Randy Polonia and Connor Amann are underclassmen who played significant roles this year, and will be the leaders in 2013.
The freshman team had a good year this fall for the Crusaders, and the middle school teams have gone 11-4 over the past two years.
Trinity is also the only Stamford team to participate in the state tournament since the turn of the century. That’s a huge chip for Stokes as he scouts players in the city. Trinity has won the city title two of the past three years, and has won seven of the past eight games against Stamford High and Westhill.
“We’re going to hit the weight room hard,’’ Stokes said. “We’ve got to get some linemen. We don’t have that vintage fullback; I don’t know if he’s in the program yet. We’ll take a little time and then we’ll take a peek and see what we have coming back. I see a lot of good stuff.”
What Stokes really wanted was to continue this season’s ride. The Crusaders trailed 34-28 in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game, the ball inside the North Branford 40-yard line, and just over six minutes remaining. They had momentum, the ball and a chance. A turnover and two late North Branford touchdowns finished off the Crusaders.
Even after falling behind by two scores in the third quarter, the Crusaders fought back and had a chance midway through the fourth quarter to knock off the unbeaten Thunderbirds.
“These kids don’t quit,’’ Stokes said. “It was a tremendous honor to be here. It’s humbling. I really wanted to win this one. I wanted us to get to Rentschler Field and play for the championship. I really did.”