Staying healthy will be the name of the game for a Spaulding football team that has just over 20 players.
First-year head coach Gabriel Aguilar knows an eight-game schedule is going to be tough, but he expects a core of top-class men to carry a heavy load. And if the Crimson Tide can avoid injury, another deep playoff run could easily be in the cards.
The Tide went 5-4 last year, recording a winning record for the first time since 2008. Spaulding also won a post-season game for the first time in 13 years, upsetting U-32 with a victory from 16-6. Rising senior Zack Wilson kicked three field goals to fuel the comeback effort from behind and he will be a vital part of the program again this fall.
Wilson returns to his all-around role as a punter, kicker, tight end, wide receiver and defensive tackle. Relying on two-way players will be a necessity due to the shortage of subs, but Aguilar is confident in the physical and mental durability of his athletes. Senior Tyler Whitcomb is likely to be a go-to player at wide receiver and cornerback, while schoolmate Ben Hiscock is set to see plenty of minutes as a running back and linebacker. Damian Griffin senior will be a starting tackle and linebacker for the Division II Tide.
Transfer student Jaquan Johnson is a junior lineman who will be a key cog in the team’s offensive and defensive success. Junior Gabe Hoar will also take on important duties as a starting quarterback.
The team’s home opener on Sept. 3 against North Country will speak volumes about the limited staff’s ability to put together four quarterbacks of quality football. After the school’s homecoming game on Sept. 17 against Rice, Spaulding will host Lyndon on Sept. 23 and Brattleboro on Oct. 14. The Tide travel to play Mount Anthony on September 9 before visiting Colchester on September 30, defending champion Bellows Chutes on October 8 and U-32 on October 21.
Aguilar was previously an assistant coach for four years with the program and will also serve as defensive coordinator this season. Former U-32 soccer player and assistant coach Andrew Cremins joins the 2022 Tide as an offensive co-coordinator with Adam Chase. Quarterback coach Brad Forlow will also work with receivers, while Barre Youth Sports Association coach Mike Debring is expected to be a game-day analyst for the varsity team.
Spaulding has won six playoff games in program history, including four during Aguilar’s tenure with the team. The talented running back and center linebacker did a bit of everything in his freshman year after rising through the JV ranks as an underclass. The 10-1 Tide went all the way in 2007, thanks to a 17-13 semi-final win over U-32 and a 34-7 win over Mount Mansfield in the final. Spaulding again went 10-1 and won another title in 2008 with a 34-14 semi-final win over U-32 and a 42-20 win over Mount Mansfield.
Aguilar was voted Tide’s MVP in 2008 and was also Times Argus Player of the Year after recording 11 rushing touchdowns and a team-high 90 tackles. The 5-foot-5, 175-pound defensive specialist distinguished himself for four years in the NCAA at Castleton, recording 75 career tackles as an outside linebacker while adjusting alongside Cremins.
Here are 10 questions for Aguilar, who lives in Northfield with his girlfriend and their 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son:
TA: What was the overall attendance for the pre-season?
Aguilar: “The numbers aren’t good this year — they’re about the same as last year. It’s been difficult to get the kids to come and play, but we certainly have some really good players. It’s very strange for me, especially with all the success we had last year. I’m definitely planning on trying to do a survey in school and figure out what variables play into it. Do kids not want to play football these days, or what could be the underlying cause? And I’m sure it’s a mix of different things.
TA: You started playing at BYSA when you were in CM1. What’s your take on the progress of the youth pipeline right now?
Aguilar: “The hardest thing was over the past few years that a lot of the kids we had were playing at BYSA – because it’s one of the few (leagues) that still do tackling, and few schools of the region do – so we had a lot of the kids planning to go to U-32 start in our BYSA program. But this year, one of our assistants is one of the coaches of BYSA and many children come from Barre. I guess it’s because they saw the success our high school team had last year and a lot of kids wanted to come out and eventually play for the high school team. … I think BYSA had about 93 kids enrolled from third grade up to this year. BYSA is how I got there and it’s how we won championships: we had kids playing together from fourth grade through senior year of high school. »
TA: You were All-State and team MVP and Player of the Year, but it wasn’t until junior that you became a regular starter. What would you say to some of the freshmen and sophomores who are stepping up and trying to fight for minutes right now?
Aguilar: “I would say, ‘Don’t be discouraged if you make mistakes and struggle to get from eighth grade to high school — and even JV.’ We have freshmen who are going to contribute this year, and last year we had freshmen who contributed and it’s difficult because they don’t have the advantage of playing against other freshmen and sophomores, so they compete against seniors who have four years of high school experience.
TA: Thinking back to your playing days, are there any memories that really stand out?
Aguilar: “Yeah, definitely: beat the U-32. When I was entering the BYSA program – and even my freshman year – we were pretty well beaten by U-32. So beating them, especially in the playoffs, was pretty exciting. It was a very good football team. And honestly, looking back on it now, especially my junior year which should have been the state championship game.
TA: You hear a lot about being a big fish in a small pond with athletes from Vermont. How would you describe going to Castleton and not just being part of the team, but being a four-year-old for them?
Aguilar: “It was exciting. Being told you were undersized your whole footballing career was a hard thing to swallow, but I just kept working. I spent my freshman year in a D-II college – I walked. And the experience I had there: I was playing guys who played in high schools that were three times the size of Spaulding, and they were taller. So you just have to keep working. Even if you don’t get play time right away, it’s just about spending that time in the weight room and learning the system.
TA: What’s it like to be a player all your life, then become an assistant coach and now get to the top job here?
Aguilar: “I love football in general. Football is the reason I ended up going to college. I think football pretty much saved me from going down a different path – having that structure and those coaches. Not that I was a bad boy or anything, but school never interested me. So the only reason I did enough to succeed was to play football. And then the same in college. It was, ‘Hey, go to college to play football. Well, here I am, might as well get a degree. And it turned into, “Well, I’m not as bad at school as I thought I was.” And especially when I study a subject that I love and I pay for it.
TA: Without going into the lack of numbers, how would you rate the first two weeks of pre-season with the crew you have?
Aguilar: “We have a very talented team and I’m very excited to see how far we can go with this team. They have been working hard for the past two weeks. And we had to change practices, just make sure the guys look good and have reps and don’t waste time.
TA: Have the players or coaches discussed short-term goals or long-term goals for the year?
Aguilar: “Not yet. We just talked about taking one game at a time and not trying to jump anyone. Our first game is North Country, so that’s our priority. We try to keep it pretty light and say, “Hey, we’re taking it one step at a time and moving on to the next practice.” But I spoke to the players about the coaches’ goals for at least the seniors this year. And for the underclass, for them to pursue football at a higher level after that if they wish – or whatever they seek to do. We encouraged the kids to go to trade school or anything that will advance their careers. »
TA: With 22 or 23 players, I’m sure a lot of kids will play both defense and attack. How about guys like Zack Wilson playing different positions for you?
Aguilar: “We had a scrum against St. Johnsbury and they just showed how versatile they all are. They worked hard and we can’t stop talking about Ironman football. You will not be able to have the possibility of obtaining a submarine for certain parts of the game, especially if we face an equally talented team. Mentally, you just have to persevere. And we really emphasized conditioning and high intensity in all the workouts. We simply cannot afford to make mistakes because we are tired.
TA: With the schedule, are there any matches that are really circled in red or other teams that you think will give you the biggest challenge?
Aguilar: “I don’t want to put chips there. This is Vermont football and anything can happen. No one expected us to finish where we did last year. And I think that says a lot about the coaches we have. In general, you never know who will win. For example, my sophomore year, we finished 1-8 in college. And then the next year we went 10-1 and won the state championship. Every game we have this year will just be another step for us to show how good we are and how talented the group of guys we have are.