Given the coronavirus pandemic that shut down high school sports for months and affected preparations for the 2020 football season, area teams were already facing a tough challenge to be ready for the upcoming season, if it indeed happens.
But for the Newington football team, there is another added obstacle, and a major one.
Last month, shortly before the CIAC and the state of Connecticut allowed high school teams to begin summer workouts in small groups, Newington’s All-State quarterback Nick Pestrichello informed the team he would be transferring to Cushing Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, and reclassifying as a junior.
Pestrichello, whose dynamic junior season helped Newington reach its first state tournament berth since 2008, leaves behind 1,605 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 111.7 in 2019.
“It is what it is,” Newington head coach Jason Pace said. “We found out about a month ago and from that point on we were preparing for football without our returning quarterback. We’re still optimistic, but the timing really wasn’t the best.”
Pace and Newington’s last game was without Pestrichello, who was nursing an injured shoulder during the team’s loss to Daniel Hand in the Class L quarterfinals last December, but the team has now been forced to prepare for a full season without its star playmaker, in a time where practicing as a full offensive unit is hampered by the necessary restrictions put forth by the CIAC.
“We’ve had our challenges and we’re doing what we can to overcome it,” Pace said. “We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves. We’re a family that needs to adjust and handle adversity. This offseason has hit us harder than most, but the coaches and players are resilient and they’re going to be ready to go in August.”
For Newington, Pestrichello’s departure certainly affects the team’s quest for a second straight winning season after going 7-4 last year, its first winning campaign since 2012, but optimism still remains at team workouts, given the initial fear that there wouldn’t be a season at all. After spring sports were canceled in Connecticut, football lingered as an unknown, being one of the more high-risk sports for spreading covid-19 due to team sizes and close contact on the field. But with the CIAC still planning on beginning the season on time, not even the loss of a star quarterback can take away from the excitement that the chance remains Newington will take the field this fall.
“It definitely creates some optimism that we’ll be able to have a season,” Pace said of team workouts resuming. “It was difficult over the past few months not being around the team and players not being around each other. That’s been hard, you feel that disconnect from being a part of their daily lives.”
Pace kept the team together virtually through the shutdown, holding regular meetings via Zoom calls before the team was allowed to begin outdoor workouts and can now start to see in person the evolution of Pestrichello’s potential replacements, including Austyn Howe, who was under center in last year’s state tournament game after Pestrichello was injured in the regular season finale against Wethersfield.
“It’s great to be back together,” Pace said. “It’s not quite the same as it was in the past, but it’s certainly better than doing things remotely.”
Nothing likely will be the same this year for Newington, and the state as a whole. Unknowns remain when it comes to the regulations that will be put in place should the football season start on time, meaning the 2020 season will look a lot different from its predecessor.
“If it’s going to allow us to have a season, I’m all in,” Pace said of potential regulations and changes that could be implemented prior to the start of the season. “Even if it’s an inconvenience, if parents and players are on board, I’m willing to do whatever we need to have a season. If we have to drive separate to away games, or any other adjustments, so be it.”
Every team would have to adjust to such changes, but for Newington, it has had to adjust more than most given changes to its personnel on the field. Pestrichello represents a big loss, especially as the team prepares for its first season in Class LL, but it still returns playmakers like senior running back John Amaning, and if the season proceeds as scheduled, it will be ready to chase another postseason berth with no excuses.
“We had a successful season last year and really saw us turn a corner in our approach and our habits,” Pace said. “You saw the growth from our underclassmen and the senior class helped lead us to one of the more successful seasons the program has had in a while. They set the standard and the kids understand how to practice and what it means to be a team player.
“Our philosophy through all of this is that we’ll be ready no matter what happens.”