Pictured: Quarterback Aaron Faiella throws to Blue Devils teammate A.J. DeFilio last weekend in their 7-on-7 game against Old Saybrook/Westbrook.
By Marc Silvestrini
DURHAM — What if they played a varsity football game between two rival high schools and nobody tackled?
What if none of the players wore pads?
What if there was plenty of passing, receiving and pass coverage, not to mention three referees, a chain gang and even cheerleaders, but no tackling, blocking, running game and a very limited approach to special teams.
Welcome to high school football in Connecticut in the fall of 2020, the year of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This was the scene last weekend in Durham, where the Coginchaug/Hale-Ray/East Hampton varsity cooperative program, a deep and talented bunch with a full boat of quality skill-position players, hosted a young Old Saybrook/Westbrook squad consisting of only 12 players in a Shoreline 7-on-7 Passing League game.
As might be expected, given that the Blue Devils were the best Pequot Conference team in Middlesex County and the Shoreline last year and are returning a ton of talent, Coginchaug rolled to a 54-7 win.
“Their skill players are just better than ours at this point,” Rams coach Mike Marone said after the final whistle. “We’ve got a great bunch of kids that work very hard and are an absolute delight to coach, but right now, we’re simply not as good as they are in terms of skill-position players.
“Coginchaug’s got some real talent.”
The passing league, which is helping these high school players to pass the time, also includes Morgan. The other four Pequot programs in the area – Cromwell/Portland, Haddam-Killingworth, North Branford and Valley Regional/Old Lyme – declined to participate for a variety of reasons, said Coginchaug’s Mike Eagle, who was making his debut with the Blue Devils after being hired last winter.
The experience was first proposed about a month or so ago by Morgan coach Peter Nye, Eagle said. The three participating schools will continue to play each other for another two or so weeks, he said.
Seven-on-seven passing league football is exactly what the name implies. Offenses, including a center, quarterback and five receivers, attempt to advance the ball downfield through the air while defenses try to get off the field by either holding their opponents on downs or intercepting a pass.
In this league, offenses have four downs to gain 10 yards, thereby earning a fresh set of downs, just as in full-contact football. If a pass is completed, defenses can stop the receiver’s forward progress with a simple one-handed tag.
To simulate a collapsing pocket and ensure that quarterbacks don’t take all day to throw in the absence of a true pass rush, defenses place two cones about five to six yards apart at the line of scrimmage and deploy a defensive lineman who lines up midway between the cones. At the snap, the lineman races to either of the two cones and tags it, races to the opposite cone and tags it, and then completes the circuit by racing back to and tagging the original cone, a process that usually takes about four or five seconds. Upon completing the circuit, the lineman raises his hand and an official then can whistle the play dead and rule that the quarterback has been sacked.
“It’s not a perfect situation, but it’s about as close to real football as we can get at this time,” standout Coginchaug quarterback Aaron Faiella said when asked about the game’s 2020 incarnation. “But it’s still not real football – not even close.”
“I really feel bad for the linemen,” Faiella continued. “At least the quarterbacks and receivers get to throw the ball around a little, but the big guys really don’t get much out of something like this.”
Faiella, who may well be one of the state’s best pure passers, tossed six touchdown passes Saturday, including three to tight end Tyler Garretson, whom Marone called an “absolute stud.”
Faiella’s three other scoring passes went to three different receivers: twin brother Evan, Terrence Murphy and A.J. DeFilio. Evan Faiella and Jackson Moore accounted for the other two Coginchaug touchdowns with interception returns.
Cam Neely hit Vin Naccarato with a four-yard touchdown pass to account for Old Saybrook/Westbrook’s lone score.
“We’re very proud of our kids. They’ve had an unbelievably great attitude all the way through what has been a very difficult time for them,” Eagle said. “These kids have taken an adverse situation and turned it into something positive through their hard work and dedication.”
When asked to assess his first few weeks running the Coginchaug program, he added: “I’m very, very happy to be here, coaching this group of kids.”