Pictured: The Valley Regional/Old Lyme football team during a break in Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve got a nice mix of returning players and young kids just coming into the program and all of them seem to be thrilled just to get back out there after 20 or so months of no football,” coach Hill Gbunblee said. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

By Marc Silvestrini
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

DEEP RIVER — If there’s anything harder than replacing a legendary football coach, it’s replacing two successive legendary football coaches.

But that’s exactly what Hill Gbunblee, the new coach at Valley Regional/Old Lyme, is being asked to do as he takes over a Warriors program that has experienced a great deal of success over the past 40 years.

That success started in the early 1980s under Steve Woods, the first of Gbunblee’s two fabled predecessors. All Woods did was turn a perennially losing program into consistent winners, not to mention annual conference title and state playoff contenders.

Woods was followed by Tim King, who announced his retirement last spring after heading the program for 23 years. Over that span, King continued Valley’s winning ways, piling up 154 wins, six state playoff appearances and a Class S-Large Division championship in 2014.

That level of historical success must put a lot of pressure on you as the new sheriff in town, right?

“I don’t feel any pressure at all, I really don’t,” said Gbunblee, 36, an assistant coach with the program since 2015.

“The only pressure I feel is internal, the pressure I put on myself,” he said this week. “I really want to be there for these kids. I want to be the best coach I can be and help them all to become better and more successful, both as football players and as people.”

What We Learned

With 40 players in the program, nearly half from co-op partner Old Lyme, and a solid core of 10 seniors, the cupboard at Valley Regional is not exactly bare.

First-year Warriors coach Hill Gbunblee (right, foreground) with his staff, from left: Jake Bocian, Brenden Woodcock and offensive coordinator Phil Cohen. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

“We’re pretty excited around here,” Gbunblee said. “We’ve got a nice mix of returning players and young kids just coming into the program and all of them seem to be thrilled just to get back out there after 20 or so months of no football.”

Gbunblee and his staff are currently undecided as to who will quarterback the team’s spread offense, with two seniors, left-hander James Marsden and James Beckman, vying for the job. Both, according to Gbunblee, are “smart” kids “who can handle the pressures of playing the position” well.

Whoever wins the quarterback battle will have a strong contingent of receivers to throw to, including Di’Angelo Jean-Pierre, who garnered All-Pequot Conference honors in 2019 as a freshman, and senior Sam Mullaney.

Marsden, a true three-sport athlete who might well take home all-conference honors in both basketball and baseball this year, will also become one of the team’s top receiving threats if he doesn’t win the quarterback job.

Juniors Jake Rand and Nick Cox are expected to man the running back position, while senior Ian Mackenzie and juniors Sam Bourez and Adam Metz will help anchor the lines on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

James Beckman is competing with James Marsden to be the Warriors’ starting QB. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

“We’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm here this year, a lot of kids who are glad to be back in pads,” Gbunblee said. “A lot of that excitement is due to the fact that when they took away football last year, they took away something that really mattered to these kids.”

Given his ability to connect with his players and the excitement and electricity he and his staff have been able to generate among the troops, the next head coach at Valley Regional – the one who replaces Gbunblee somewhere in the distant future — might very well face the daunting task of succeeding three straight legendary coaches.

Preseason Prep

**Sept. 3: Valley will visit Waterford for a scrimmage at 6 p.m.

Running back James Rand, left, also will be the team’s punter.

Running back James Rand, left, also will be the team’s punter.

Regular-Season Schedule

Home games at Richard B. Blythe Field, Deep River

Sept. 10: NORTH BRANFORD, 6:30

Sept. 18: At Coginchaug/Hale-Ray/East Hampton, 1

Sept. 24: Bye

Oct. 1: At Morgan, 6:30

Oct. 8: CROMWELL/PORTLAND, 6:30

Oct. 15: Bye

Oct. 23: At CREC Co-Op, 10:30 a.m.

Oct. 29: STAFFORD/EAST WINDSOR/SOMERS, 6:30

Nov. 5: GRANBY/CANTON, 6:30

Nov. 13: At Old Saybrook/Westbrook, 11

Nov. 18: At Rockville, 6:30

Nov. 23: HADDAM-KILLINGWORTH, 6:30

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