SHELTON — Named Shelton High’s football coach late in the winter, Mike DeFelice soon knew that the run-of-the-mill challenges faced by all new head coaches was going to be more difficult with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After I interviewed, sitting down making plans, then the world as we know it stopped,” said DeFelice, a long-time assistant in the Gaels program having worked as the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and head freshman coach.

“I can’t be with the kids because we are not in school. We can’t lift weights, all those (plans) I and my assistants made had to be put on the back burner,” he said. “It quickly went from grandiose plans to the bare minimum we can do to keep them involved. The kids did a great job during those months when we couldn’t meet, working on their own.

“I joked with Jeff Roy and said: ‘You knew this was going to happen, so that is why you retired.’”

Roy stepped away after 16 years. DeFelice, a 1996 graduate of Shelton, played football for 4 years for coach Joe Benanto, including on the 1995 CIAC Class LL State championship team.

Roy said: “Mike is the perfect choice. He was my right-hand man and knows the program and system well. He is respected by the players and their parents. I am excited for him.”

John Niski, Director of Athletics, said: “We are confident that Coach DeFelice will bring the needed experience and enthusiasm to continue the winning traditions established here in Shelton. He and his staff will provide a steady continuity for our student-athletes during these uncertain times.”

Player response

“The kids are taking it better than I would have expected,” DeFelice said. “We dropped a little bit in numbers. Sophomore to senior at conditioning, we had about 50 which in years past we had mid-60s. The freshmen were decent numbers in mid 20s. We had a Zoom meeting with our 16 seniors in the middle of April to check in with everyone and see how everyone was doing. They had about 1,000 questions and I had about 1 answer for them: We will try to do the best for kids; best for the program.

“The first time that the CIAC cancelled everything was on Sept. 4,” DeFelice noted. “We had practice/conditioning planned that day. The captains (Andrew Misraleades, Carson McKinnon and Ken Santos) texted me and asked what we are going to do. “I text back: It’s your team, what do you want to do? They said they wanted to practice, that it might be their last one.

“We had our practice. We had everyone, but maybe two kids. I was floored. Sophomores to seniors showed up. Something was getting ripped away from them, and they came together to run for an hour. They weren’t even getting to have a football on the field.”

Options out there

“We are still in limbo for the moment with the CIAC fall season over,” DeFelice said. “The parent organization (Shelton Quarterback Club) is exploring independent leagues that are popping up. There are a lot of unanswered questions there, like cost and stuff. It seems like the FCIAC maybe has a chance of going, with rumors of teams committed to play and a couple outside as well.”

When asked if independent ball interested him, DeFelice said: “Possibly. When I met with my parent group the other day, they want to look for something to give to the kids. Obviously, spring isn’t guaranteed by the CIAC. They are on a fact-finding mission. There are a lot of I’s to dot and T’s to cross when it comes to field time on a city field. Would the Board of Ed allow us to use the equipment? I don’t see our kids being able to afford $350 to buy a helmet and shoulder pad and then pay another $350 or more to join another league.”

DeFelice wants his kids to play.

“Because they are not guaranteed anything for the spring, that is why they are looking to join one of these independent leagues,” DeFelice said. “Especially for the seniors, they don’t want to be sitting on their hands at home. They have been playing with their brothers for 8 or 9 years (youth football). They want their senior year to have something.”

Porter McKinnon is president of the QB Club.

“The Board of Education is meeting and we are going to go from there,” McKinnon said of freeing up equipment and finding fields. “I’ve spoken with the Mayor and he said he will look to get us city fields to play on and the Superintendent is also with us on this. Getting equipment is the first thing we need. Independent football I think is the way to go, because the idea of club teams seems to be falling off.”

McKinnon isn’t holding out hope for a spring season.

“I’ve heard from some people that think maybe the CIAC will look again at a spring league,” he said. “I know the CIAC said at one time that spring football was out, that it wasn’t going to be an option. I can’t see them changing that. All the starts and stops have hurt. Maybe we could have put things together (independent) if they didn’t keep holding out on a final decision for playing in the fall.”

Game preparedness?

“I don’t know how long we would have to prepare,” DeFelice said. “Some teams, they were following the CIAC guidelines with helmets and shoulder pads, using footballs at practice. We didn’t have any of that. The Shelton Board of Ed was following the Department of Health rules until the CIAC and Health Board came together with a plan. That never happened. We were conditioning an hour a day. I didn’t even issue a helmet to a kid.

“7 on 7 is possible,” he added. “I’m not going to throw anything out right now. The way I look at it, if the independent league doesn’t work out, 7 on 7 is better than nothing. It might not be the greatest thing for the linemen unfortunately, but it would give us some sort of season. That would allow to keep program going and developing our kids, especially if some teams are playing in independent leagues. It would be very difficult to use a whole year of development. If it came down to 7 on 7 or nothing, I would probably let our guys do 7 on 7.”

Shelton is already operating at a loss.

“Some teams work in spring or take the option of practicing one week earlier in the fall,” DeFelice said. “Missing out on spring practice hurt. That was a bummer because that is our chance to evaluate our kids. Say we lost our quarterback or a running back, who is going to step in? Over the years, spring football has served us well. When Zack Tuskowski became our quarterback (2015), he came in that spring and won the job. He was lights out and we knew he was our QB. We didn’t have to waste time in the fall. We get to know who the starters are. Not having spring ball this year was a setback.”

Gael notes

SHS Interim Superintendent, Dr. Beth Smith said: “Mike has been involved with the Shelton Gael football program for a long time. Having worked with the current coaching staff. Mike understands the expectations of the administration and knows how passionate the community is for Gael football. I wish him the best in this new position. I look forward to standing on the sidelines with him when the time is right to play again.”

SHS Interim Principal, Kathy Riddle, said: “Coach DeFelice knows Shelton football well and also the expectations that come from our school and community. I’m excited for him and the enthusiasm he brings to our program.”

william.bloxsom@hearstmediact.com Twitter: @blox354