The Fairfield Prep football team showed some improvement last season under first-year coach Tom Shea. Still, there were the expected growing pains since he was the team's third coach in as many years.
Shea, a 1973 Prep alumnus who played for the legendary Earl Lavery, took over after Bill Pinto was dismissed following a disastrous 0-10 season in 2009. Richie Magdon retired in 2008 after 16 seasons at the helm.
What Fairfield Prep, which was 3-7 last season, desperately needs is stability. It helps, of course, that the Jesuits have a returning coach as the veteran players are now familiar with his system.
"Our execution was really ragged all year," said Shea, who coached on the junior varsity and freshman level at Fairfield Prep before taking over the varsity job. "We threw a lot of interceptions. We didn't really execute well, so for us to be a good team this year, we really have to improve our execution. We made some good steps. We clearly have a long way to go."
The Jesuits graduated 10 starters on offense, including leading rusher Kyle Vignone (525 yards and four touchdowns) and top receiver Vinny McAvey (26 catches for 344 yards), but Shea thinks he has some good playmakers.
The one returning starter on offense is Joe McBride, the Jesuits' second-leading rusher last year as a sophomore.
Senior Tom Brewster is taking over for C.J. Donohue at quarterback while junior running back Dillon Ryan should complement McBride in the backfield.
"We've got some playmakers," Shea said. "Joe McBride and Dillon Ryan, two junior backs, have the potential to be terrific backs. Our quarterback is a terrific athlete. He's a tough kid and he's a gamer. He makes plays when you need him to, so I hope this year we throw more touchdowns to us and fewer balls to them."
Brewster's top targets could be Mike Niche and Colin Morris, a pair of seniors. Xavier Frey, who played defensive end last year, has been moved to tight end and has good hands, according to Shea.
One reason for some optimism is the success of the junior varsity (6-4) and freshmen (8-2) teams last season. Shea indicated that some members of last year's freshman squad will see time with the varsity this fall. One of those is sophomore inside linebacker Nick Crowle.
"We have high expectations for them," Shea said. "They may not be in starting roles, but they're going to get quality reps and we expect them to make plays for us."
Senior tackles Justin Haley and Serge Jean Baptiste will help anchor the line. Jean Baptiste has been nursing a shoulder injury, but the Jesuits are hoping he can be ready for the start of the season.
Another senior is fullback-linebacker Shane Dempsey. In addition, senior Mike Sealy, whom Shea describes as a fast, aggressive and disruptive player, could be a force at defensive end.
The Jesuits graduated Dean Duffy and Colin Cinder, the team's two leading tacklers last season who combined for nearly 200 stops.
"I think (the defense) is going to be a little more aggressive than last year," Shea added. "We've got some kids who can really run. We should be able to get after it and make plays. We're a little small up front and I'm concerned about that, but hopefully we're going to have four to six guys who can rotate in there and be fresh and just go hard and play well."
Shea and his staff continue in their efforts to instill confidence and create a winning environment after the Jesuits hit rock bottom two years ago.
"We made a lot more demands on kids this year than we ever have in the past," he said. "Not everyone is buying it, but some are, and we're starting to really get some traction to get our kids, stronger, faster, more flexible to avoid injury.
"We have some great athletes in this school, so I hope we continue to develop this mindset. (If) more kids buy into what we're doing to just build ourselves up to be the best we can be, our play is going to improve."
While it's never easy in the rugged Southern Connecticut Conference - arguably the top league in the state - the obvious goal is a winning season. Two or three more wins would represent significant progress in year two of the new regime.
"Clearly, there's a lot of pressure on this year, we've got to make some steps forward," Shea said. "At the end of the day, they're measured in wins and so I think these guys know what they have to do."
The Jesuits have a tough opener at Hand on Sept. 16. After a non-league game at Griswold the following week, Fairfield Prep has five straight home games. Six of Fairfield Prep's 10 games this season are at Alumni Field.