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Tigers set to roar on the football pitch this fall

Hand’s football team will begin their quest for another strong season when the Tigers hit the gridiron to take on East Lyme in their opener this week. Pictured are Hand’s senior captains: Ryan Milliard, Alex Cushing and Sam Sisk. Photo courtesy of Erik Becker

Erik Becker is looking forward to starting his second campaign as head coach of the Hand football team this fall. The Tigers went 7-4 and made the playoffs in Becker’s first season at the helm last year. Photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Source

Since the inception of the Daniel Hand football program in 1970, the Tigers have won 408 games, 27 division titles and 13 state titles. As his team enters the upcoming season, head coach Erik Becker said championship expectations remain the same for Hand and that the identity of the Tigers will play the biggest factor in their success.

Hand finished with a 7-4 overall record in Becker’s first season as head coach last year. The Tigers advanced to the L State Class playoffs and suffered a 21-20 overtime loss to St. Joseph in the quarterfinals. Hand opens the 2022 campaign with a home game against East Lyme at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 9.

Coach Becker says Hand has looked impressive throughout pre-season. As well as their training sessions, the Tigers also took part in a scrum with Norwich Free Academy and then faced Greenwich and Hamden in another scrum. As he prepared for the first whistle of the season, Becker was looking for the athletes on this year’s team to come together and enjoy the process of building towards success.

“It’s been great so far. We’ve had a great working summer. It’s about getting better every day. It’s a cliché for some, but it’s true,” the coach said Becker: “It’s about trusting the process, loving yourself and loving the work. When we pile on the good days, it leads to something special.”

Still, Coach Becker said the Tigers are still figuring out who they are this season. Every team is different for Becker, and he believes it’s up to the athletes to decide what kind of team they want to be. Of course, there are always constants with a program as successful as handball, and Becker wants his athletes to adhere to those characteristics as they go on to have a successful season.

“We are a tough and physical football team. We always pride ourselves on being fundamentally healthy. We are aggressive,” Becker said. “That’s what we’ve been for 50 years, and that’s what we’ll be this year.”

Hand graduated four senior captains who earned All-SCC Tier 1 honors from last year’s team. The Tigers captains for the 2021 season were Patch Flanagan, who went to all conferences as a quarterback, along with Ethan O’Brien (offensive), Seth Sweitzer (wide receiver) and Brendan Walsh (offensive line).

This season, Daniel Hand will be led by a trio of senior captains in Sam Sisk, Ryan Milliard and Alex Cushing. Sisk, who has signed up to play lacrosse at Babson College next year, serves as a wide receiver and safety for the Tigers. Coach Becker said Milliard, a running back/safety, sets the tone with his physical play on the pitch. He added that Cushing, a wide receiver/outside linebacker, “runs like a deer” in his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame. Overall, Becker feels all three captains are great leaders who exemplify what it means to be a Tiger every day.

“These are our guys. They are exceptional young men,” Becker said. “They bring it in every day and lead by example. They perfectly embody our culture.

Senior Will Kleine will be Hand’s quarterback this season. Kleine is a left-handed QB who played defensive back last year and signed up to play lacrosse at Mount Saint Mary’s in Maryland. Becker said Kleine is a strong athlete who grew physically and mentally on the court. He believes that Kleine is moving in a positive direction and improving every day. Sophomore Paul Calandrelli will serve as Hand’s backup quarterback.

The Tigers will have Milliard and junior Gavin Wagner in the backfield at running back this year. In the passing game, Kleine will throw to a cast of receivers that includes Sisk, Cushing, senior Nick Lombardi and junior Owen Preskar. Coach Becker said Lombardi had some of the best hands he had seen and added that Preskar had quickly become an impressive road runner.

In the trenches, Hand’s offensive line includes seniors Cole Daignault, Wesley Selmani and Jack Drought, as well as junior Bryce Malary and second Nick Pompilli. Junior Aidan Dolan will also be tasked with leading the way as a tackle while starting as a guard for the Tigers.

Coach Becker is looking for Hand’s offense to spread the ball on the court this season. Becker wants to use the full length of the pitch to ensure the Tigers deliver the ball to their playmakers in space.

Mike Davis, a former hand footballer, is the defensive coordinator for the Tigers. Becker calls Davis the best defensive coordinator in the state. Hand will lead a 3-4 defense this year while showcasing a unit filled with talented players on multiple levels.

It all starts up front with sophomore nose tackle Trevor Cash. With money at 6 foot 1 and

240 pounds, Becker said he needed to be stationary in the middle. Dolan and freshman Tom O’Malley will flank Cash as defensive ends. Becker described Dolan as a phenomenal athlete, and of O’Malley he said, “You can count the number of freshmen who started for Hand on one hand and still snap their fingers.” Becker believes O’Malley is a deep talent and should play a huge role for the Tigers as a rookie.

Coach Becker called this year’s linebacking corps among the best he had ever seen at Daniel Hand High School. Selmani and senior John Hayden will serve as inside linebackers, while Cushing, junior Will Patla and second Owen Donahey will play outside linebacker.

Sisk and Milliard are Hand’s starting safety suit and will be supported by second student Ken Carter. At cornerback, the Tigers will launch Wagner and second Tyler Narracci at cornerback, both of whom Becker calls “super athletic” players.

Hand plays a schedule that includes a tough Tier 1 SCC slate to go along with several formidable non-conference opponents, such as Newtown. Coach Becker said the Tigers are ready for that challenge and have the talent to win every game they play.

“Tigers are apex predators. We hope to win every game. We’re really proud of our resume. That’s who we are,” Becker said. “Our schedule is very tough, but we accept it. There are no easy weeks, and that’s something we hang our hats on. We are looking to compete every week and we love this journey.

The Hand football team is still one of Connecticut’s top football programs, but Coach Becker believes there’s something special about each specific team. Each year, a new team identity is born. Becker is excited to see what this year’s identity will be and how far the Tigers can go in 2022.

“Every team is different. Every team has its own personality and character. This team’s identity will be unique to all of Hand’s other teams,” Becker said. “It’s their team. These seniors have been preparing for this moment all their lives. Now it’s their turn. I’m so excited to continue to see who this team will become. I think we have the potential to be a great football team.

Calendar 2022 Hand Soccer

Friday, September 9: vs. East Lyme at 7 p.m.

Friday, September 16: at Shelton at 7 p.m.

Friday, September 23: vs. Newtown at 7 p.m.

Friday, September 30: at Cheshire at 7 p.m.

Friday, October 14: c. Notre Dame-West Haven at 7 p.m.

Friday, October 21: vs. Fairfield Prep at 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 28: at Xavier’s at 7 p.m.

Friday, November 4: in North Haven at 7 p.m.

Friday, November 11: against Sheehan at 7 p.m.

Wednesday, Nov. 23: at Guilford at 7 p.m.

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