BERLIN - All eyes will be on Sage Park come Thursday night, when the Berlin football team opens the high school season in Connecticut with a home contest against Tolland at 6:30 p.m.
Football-starved fans will pack Scalise Field to watch the Redcoats usher in the new season, and Berlin head coach Joe Aresimowicz is just as curious to see how opening night plays out as those in the stands.
With a large group of first-time starters set to make their debut, Aresimowicz will be paying close attention to how his inexperienced Redcoats handle their first taste of the bright lights.
“We only have a handful of kids on both sides of the ball that have seen any significant playing time,” Aresimowicz said. “I think the first few weeks for us are going to be about who can play for us on Friday nights and what positions they should be playing. The talent level is there and the work ethic is there, it's just about finding out what Thursday night will look like.”
As is the case for many teams in Week 1, Berlin will use its matchup with the Eagles as a trial run for its new-look group that will look to make a second straight state tournament run, only this time in Class L.
Aresimowicz will try a number of different looks on both sides of the ball to see just where his young players fit best. Each snap can bring a dramatically different look, which Aresimowicz hopes will help bring the big picture of the season into focus.
“We have about 25-30 kids that could be on the field at any given time,” Aresimowicz said. “We lost some ultra-talented guys, and the rest of the guys have filled in. This team really has a blue collar mentality. A lot of kids will get playing time and there isn't much drop-off. You're going to see the kids on the field switching around and playing different positions, and if they can do their job I feel good about the results.”
Perhaps Thursday is the perfect way to open a season and figure out where players belong on the field, given that Tolland was beat down by the Redcoats 45-11 last season. Any coach will take a softer opponent early in the season to allow a chance of self-discovery without consequences in the win-loss column. But Aresimowicz doesn’t see Thursday as that kind of pressure-free trial run, because Berlin isn’t the only team that looks much different than its predecessor.
“I'm always nervous,” Aresimowicz said of a Tolland team that returns three all-conference talents, including running back and linebacker Ryan Carlson. “They have some talented players. They have two really good offensive linemen and a good running back. I know their coaching staff has been working really hard and I think it's going to be a tough game. We're hoping for the best. Tolland is a tough team. A couple of our guys went and saw them scrimmage the other night and said they're a talented group.”
Last year, the Redcoats scored five of their six touchdowns with plays of 35 yards of more. This year brings a new starting quarterback in Justin Skates and a new run-pass option scheme, but if the big plays are there for the taking like they were last year, Aresimowicz wants his signal caller to take them. After all, what better way to see what kind of poise Skates has?
“With the RPO, we're going to take what we're given,” Aresimowicz said. “If you're going to stop the run and the short gains and leave the middle of the field open, we're going to exploit that. If you're going to pack the middle and leave the edges open, we have a quarterback and wide receivers that can exploit that. It could be one of those games where we're looking to pick up four or five yards every play, or where we're using the run to set up the big pass. It really depends on what they try to take away from us.”
Aresimowicz has his game plan and is excited to see how an offseason of plugging holes and teaching a new system will play out in game action. The preparations have been made, but the head coach knows there is only so much he can do to prepare his young group for the atmosphere that will surround Sage Park on Thursday night. Once the lights come on and the opening kick sails through the night, Aresimowicz will have a better idea of what kind of team he has for the 2019 season.
“It really comes down to us,” Aresimowicz said. “They look great in practice, and in the couple of scrimmages we've had they've looked great. But playing under the lights on (Thursday) night is a totally different game. I'm hopeful, but we really won't know until we get under those lights and see how the kids react. If they're comfortable and execute, I think we'll be OK. If they get nervous and make little mistakes, it can be a long night for us.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org