WESTERLY — Could this be the year?
Maybe. But it is certainly not the given that some people think it is.
The Westerly High football team has not played in a Super Bowl since the 2002, when the Bulldogs lost to West Warwick, 9-7.
The loss ended a run of three straight Super Bowl appearances by the Bulldogs that included back-to-back championships.
Now, with the return of first-team All-State senior running back Tristan Turano, some believe the Bulldogs, who reached the D-II semifinals last season, might just have a chance to make that long-awaited title game appearance.
Coach Duane Maranda has heard the talk as he enters his third season.
“We’ve heard a lot of people bring that up and talk about it,” Maranda said. “We just want to focus on Chariho, limit the distractions and keep the kids’ heads where they need to be.”
Turano put together one of the most productive seasons in school history last year, his first as a varsity player, when the Bulldogs finished 6-6.
Turano rushed for 2,176 yards, averaged 7.6 yards per carry and scored 26 touchdowns out of Westerly’s single-wing attack.
He put all of that together despite missing a game and leaving the Thanksgiving Day win against Stonington early with an injury.
Turano runs with power and speed. He possesses excellent vision and balance. He often breaks the first tackle and more. He sometimes grabs defenders and tosses them aside as he makes his way down the field. “Beast mode” is taken, but you get the picture.
“He had a great offseason. He is a more explosive athlete,” Maranda said. “He has tremendous core strength and a little bit more speed. But the year he had last year, that is hard to duplicate.”
Senior Jalen Valentin, who rushed for 892 yards as a sophomore, is back after playing at Chariho last season.
Turano, Valentin, senior Peter Fusaro and junior Derek Mason should all get carries. Senior Josh Lacerte moves from the line to the H-back or signal-caller position in the Bulldogs offense.
Senior Jon Brutcher will play the Z-back or wing. Senior Antwone Brown is the wide receiver.
Junior Nick Lauzon will play tight end, while senior Jose Martinez, junior Trent Lamb, senior Isaiah Plourde, sophomore Mike Garafola and sophomore Eric Whewell are the offensive linemen.
Whewell, who started every game as a sophomore, is the only player who saw significant minutes last season.
Westerly ran the ball 93 percent of the time last season, and the development of the inexperienced offensive line could be a big factor for this year. Maranda said the Bulldogs may pass more this season as opposing defenses continue to crowd the line of scrimmage.
“I think the feeling for [the offensive line] is very, very high,” Maranda said. “We keep bringing them along and getting them game reps. They are very coachable and a work in progress.”
Defensively, the Bulldogs will have to replace Division II-A lineman of the year Max Davis and walkup linebacker Junie Rios. They both were second-team All-State last season, and contributed heavily on the offensive side of the ball.
Lamb, Martinez, Whewell, junior Judea Balmonte and senior Antonio Laboy will play on the interior defensive line. Laboy was a starter last season and is a force.
Lacerte, who possesses quickness and a knack for making big plays, returns at defensive end.
“He’s just a great, great player,” Maranda said.
Plourde will step into Rios’ walkup linebacker spot.
Mason returns at inside linebacker. Turano and Fusaro will also play there. Junior Tyler Rodriguez and Valentin will play at outside linebacker.
Brutcher, senior Isaiah Luzzi and junior Rocco Cillino all return at defensive back. Junior Anthony Durante, who Maranda said could have a breakout season, fills out the defensive backfield.
Depth is a concern for the Bulldogs, who list only 38 players on the roster.
“We have to stay healthy, and we have to do a good job of continuing to get more guys on the two-deep [chart] on the offensive and defensive line,” Maranda said.
Defending Super Bowl champion North Kingstown, Moses Brown and Shea all moved up to Division I. But Maranda described the league schedule as a “meat-grinder.”
Westerly opens the season with a nonleague game at Chariho on Friday at 7 p.m.