Cromwell/Portland’s magic numbers this fall are 12 and 9. Twelve is synonymous with senior Bryce Karstetter, who is 18-3 as the Panthers’ starting quarterback and the catalyst for their spread offense.
Nine, based on past seasons, is the number of games the Panthers might have to win to get back to the Class S playoffs. They are 26-6 over the last three seasons, with only one playoff appearance (2016) to show for it. Their 8-2 records in 2015 and 2017 didn’t make the cut.
Second-year coach Randell Bennett likes their chances this season. His optimism starts with Karstetter and the experienced offensive cast around him, plus the addition of former UConn player Andre Dixon as his running backs coach and a host of young players hungry for playing time.
“We’re fired up and so excited for this season to get here,” said Bennett, a former player who joined the program as an unpaid assistant in 2013 and now works at the Cromwell High. “This group is so tight and fights for each other.
“I haven’t seen (camaraderie) like this here for a long time. It makes every practice exciting.”
The Panthers’ spread offense will rely on the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Karstetter’s arm and production from senior Bryan Lockwood, who will be more of an H-back this year, and junior Justin Stergos in the backfield, and senior Kevin Hinkle and sophomore Cam Latronica at receiver.
“The key to everything is Karstetter,” Bennett said, “and I should also mention Andre has made tremendous strides with our running backs. You give them a couple of weeks with Andre, and I’m starting to see spin moves and juking. I couldn’t teach them that. I was a lineman.”
Brent Robbins and Dianta Highsmith, who were among the 10 players C/P lost to graduation, combined to score 27 touchdowns last season, so “replacing that production is something we’re focused on, but we have the guys to get that done,” Bennett said.
While the team’s growth along the offensive and defensive lines continues, the Panthers do have the experience of returning two-way lineman Ismar Kandic and defensive backs Hinkle, Zac Cyr and Devon Kilham. Hinkle is an All-Pequot Conference player, Cyr is a four-year starter and Bennett considers Kandic to be the “best lineman in the league.”
There also is Chase Lopes, a 300-pound senior who came over from Vinal Tech, who will fill the middle for the Panthers and also play defensive tackle. Owen Brunc, a freshman linebacker, is part of a young crop of Panthers that has impressed the staff in preseason camp.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back, and we’ve also got a lot of young players fighting for time that will get time,” Bennett said. “We’ve got so many young kids that are bright spots, they are really battling for time with the older guys.”
Bennett is expecting Valley Regional and Rocky Hill to once again be the Panthers’ toughest challenges. C/P started 6-0 last year before losing to Valley in overtime, then entered its season finale vs. Rocky Hill at 8-1 and with a playoff berth at stake. Rocky Hill rolled 35-7, knocking the Panthers out of the picture.
“We kind of established the mindset that Valley is going to be there and Rocky Hill is going to be there, but it’s not as if we’re patting ourselves on the back with the other eight games,” Bennett said.
“Our seniors have lost six games their entire career. They might be sitting there thinking ’we’re pretty good. They don’t understand that it’s the small details that are going to get us (wins). We can’t ignore the details.”