FAIRFIELD - Keith Hellstern has been with the Fairfield Prep football program for almost a decade, including the last three seasons as the Jesuits’ head coach. So, when he says that the skill position talent that he has on his roster heading into the 2018 season is the best he’s ever seen at Prep in those nine years, you’d best believe it.
Senior Doug Harrison, who rushed for 1,018 yards in seven starts as a sophomore and added another 337 in two games as a junior before having ACL surgery, is back for his senior campaign and is close to 100 percent. Right beside him will be Connor Boyle, who had 394 yards rushing last season as Harrison’s replacement.
Out on the wings will be more of that depth that Hellstern was alluding to, including senior receivers Finn Duran, Owen Cirilli, Peter Cavanaugh and tight end Henry Houghton. And if junior quarterback J.P. Iaropoli can get the ball to his receivers and the offensive line and make holes for Harrison and Boyle, the Jesuits are going to run … and pass … and run … and pass … and run … and pass.
“I think we have the most depth that we’ve had in the nine years I’ve been here and that’s something that we need to be able to utilize to our advantage depending on who we play,” Hellstern said. “I think we still want to have a level of balance, especially with things that you’re strong at and that ability to have that skill on the edge will help us.”
Last season, despite losing Harrison in Week 2 and also losing quarterback Will Lucas for several games due to injury, Prep managed to finish 8-2 and make the Class LL playoffs, losing to Greenwich.
“Last year’s team overcame a lot of injuries and made the playoffs, made a solid showing and I couldn’t have been prouder of that,” Hellstern said. “It was a trying year in some ways, but we weathered the storm. Goals are always great, but we need to take care of the process.”
This season, the mantle of leadership falls to Iaropoli, who got his feet wet last season as a sophomore when Lucas went down. He threw for 300 yards in four games, not exactly eye-opening but enough to give him a decent taste of what’s coming this season.
“I’m pretty pumped, pretty pumped for the season, I think we’re going to have a pretty good year.
“We have a ton of weapons,” Iaropoli said. “I’m comfortable with the reads, yes, coach Zach and I, the new offensive coordinator, we’ve been going over that. I’m pretty confident with that. The playbook … we have like, 250 plays in the arsenal right now. We have a lot of plays to run, a lot of plays, a lot of options.”
First and foremost, many of those plays involve getting the ball into Harrison’s hands and letting him do his thing.
“I feel pretty good, I’m not worried,” Harrison said. “I feel this season, with JP at quarterback, we have some real threats on offense. Our whole offensive line is solid, if not, it’s at least going to be better than last year. The receiving core, it looks great.”
“If we execute the way we’re supposed to, we can stretch a lot of defenses and that’s something the kids get excited about,” Hellstern said. “We have the option to be a little bit more open than we have been in the past.”
Twice a week throughout the spring and summer, Iaropoli and his receivers got together and went through many of the passing plays that the Jesuits expect to run this season.
“We had passing league all winter and in the summer we had grip-it-and-rip-it, we’ve been throwing and we’ve gotten in snych pretty well,” Iaropoli said. “I did a lot of work keeping my eyes downfield. A lot of quarterbacks struggle with that. I keep my eyes downfield, so I know what’s happening, so I can pick apart the defense.”
Protecting Iaropoli will be returning offensive linemen Campbell Halloran (6-2, 240), Will Healy (6-3, 230), Peter Scopelliti (5-10, 245) and Dennis Hampton (6-0, 235).
“We’ve got a really nice mix on the offensive line,” Hellstern said. “Everything is still an open competition but when you have guys with some experience at some level, it helps the transition.”
“With our program, its nothing fancy,” Iaropoli said. “Just pound the ball, four yards, four yards, four yards, first down and if they want to come up, we’ll hit them with a pass, explode on them.”
With three home games - Notre Dame-West Haven (Sept. 7), Norwich Free Academy (Sept. 14) and Shelton (Sept. 21) at the start of the season - it’s imperative that Prep gets out of the gates in a positive way and gets the momentum going toward a return to the CIAC playoffs.
“It’s going to be very important for us to take things one step at a time,” Hellstern said. “I know I sound like a broken record but that’s going to be the best measure of how successful we’re going to be. We have a certain standard of excellence that we want to live up to and take to the next level.”