As it prepares for the start of preseason conditioning in nine days, few football teams will enter training camp with more storylines than Trinity Catholic.
Can the Crusaders improve on last year’s 7-4 mark; three of the losses were to teams that played in a state final?
How will coach Donny Panapada work with his mentor, Rich Albonizio, who has come over after a forced resignation from Greenwich in the offseason’s second biggest coaching move?
Will the influx of transfers offset a strong senior class that has moved on in a mini game of musical chairs?
Can the many underclassmen who got on-the-job training a year ago make the next step with their added maturity?
If you listen to Panapada, the answers are, in order: yes, seamlessly, yes and yes.
One would not expect any different responses from Panapada, or any coach for that matter in August, when optimism abounds. But Panapada is not basing his hopes blindly. There is sound reasoning, if all breaks right, for high expectations on Newfield Avenue.
Lets save the first question for last and get right to the biggest change: the return of Albonizio to the team he led to consistently strong finishes before heading to Greenwich. Panapada admitted the case of role reversal with his former coach and the person who provided him with his first job, as an offensive line coach, was initially unusual but positive. Also on the Trinity staff is former Greenwich assistant Carl Cairo to oversee both the offensive and defensive lines.
“It was a little awkward at first in our first few meetings we had, and Rich said it was awkward for him,” Panapada said. “But this adds two people to our staff with a wealth of knowledge fitting in with my assistant coaches. Picking each other’s brains.”
Albonizio, as would be expected, has been like the smartest kid in class, raising his hand first and wanting to answer every question. But, also as expected, he has been deferential to Panapada, now often telling him that “since he is making the most money he gets to make the decisions.”
“I’m lucky to have Coach Al,” Panapada said. “He gave me a lot of responsibility with the offensive line and he trusted me with them. Now I’m doing the same with him.”
Having Cairo will allow Panapada the freedom to work with more players.
As for personnel, there is no doubt the Crusaders have been hit heavily by the loss of players like Thomas Costigan, who was a monstrous presence both with his skill and leadership, Randy Polonia, a long-ball threat and superb athlete who was the team leader in total yardage, and running back Courtly Victim, who was second but moved to North Carolina.
Though the losses are sizable both in pure numbers and quality, Panapada has the personnel to prevent this from being a rebuilding project, led by returning quarterback Anthony Lombardi, one of the league’s top passers. What looked like a depletion of weapons was boosted by two transfers: Izaiah Sanders from Norwalk and Jonmichael Bivona from Stamford. They are the playmakers Lombardi needs and will also help lead the secondary.
What may ultimately decide which way the pendulum swings is the development of 10 sophomores and one freshman that started a year ago. In particular, will the offensive line give Lombardi the time he needs? Linebacker Nick Granata made an impact at linebacker. And then there is the perennial issue at Trinity that Panapada acknowledged: depth.
“This group has the potential,” Panapada said. “Last year’s senior group was very close and that’s so valuable.”
At this point, the schedule looks very favorable. Gone are New Canaan, Darien and St. Joseph, which accounted for 75 percent of last year’s losses. There is the opener at Greenwich as Albonizio returns right away and his replacement, John Marinelli, makes his debut. Stamford is the only other opponent that had a winning record a year ago.
But that was last season. There is always change. And few teams have seen as much as the Crusaders, in so many areas. They will be a compelling follow.
“We had a good offseason,” Panapada said. “We just have to come together.”
Graphic by Cooper Boardman