STRATFORD—The first time Tristan Pena touched the ball as a varsity football player, he scored a touchdown.
It wasn’t a bad debut for the 5-foot-5, 140-pound freshman, who took Stratford’s first kick-off return of the season back 85 yards for a touchdown in September’s season-opener against Notre Dame-Fairfield.
It was also a statement of sorts as the young Red Devils knew it was going to be relying on a host of young players this season.
Two of those players are freshmen; brand-spanking new to the ranks of varsity football.
Pena and classmate James Duhancik made their presence felt the most out of a big ninth-grade class as both worked their way into the starting lineup for the Red Devils.
In a rugged league like the SWC, that’s not an easy accomplishment, but both players have grown up over the course of Stratford’s difficult 0-9 campaign.
Neither, however, is looking at the past.
The future lies in front of them and that begins with Thursday’s Thanksgiving game showdown against Bunnell.
Kick-off at Penders Field is slated for 10 a.m.
“You know, I bet for them it was kind of shocking,” Stratford coach Jack Petion said. “You’re 14 years old and you’re expected to start against kids that are 17, 18 years old. It’s not easy but they’ve done a tremendous job for us. They’re definitely two of our key players.”
Both players grew up in Stratford’s Pop Warner youth football program, but the jump to the varsity level sees major increases in both the speed of the game and the strength of the players who play it.
“Playing Pop Warner, I’ve always been accustomed to playing football but that first week I realized how fast varsity football is,” Pena said. “It was a big wake-up call for us. By week three, I felt a bit more accustomed to the game and I was ready to help the team in any way, shape or form needed.”
In open space, Pena is one of Stratford’s more dangerous weapons.
“His best games have come over the past few weeks,” Petion said. “He’s learning the speed of the game and reading what blocks are happening in front of him. You can see he has flashes out there”
Pena is second on the team in All-Purpose yards and third on the team in rushing while also being a key player on defense.
When asked what his role was on defense, Pena replied, “I play wherever the coach needs me to play.”
Duhancik, meanwhile, is in the trenches as a two-lineman, also undergoing on-the-job training against opponents taller, bigger and more experienced.
“He’s just someone with tenacity and a lot of fire,” Petion said. “He likes getting after people.”
At 6-feet tall and 175 pounds, Duhancik knows he’s not going to be able to overpower a lot of people.
At least not yet.
Technique-wise, though, the left guard/defensive tackle is playing like an upperclassman.
“I’ve been playing up (a level) all my life,” Duhancik said. “Honestly, it has nothing to do with size. It’s all about technique. You can’t give up and just have to keep pushing yourself.”
Despite going winless through their first nine games, nobody on the Stratford sideline has given up.
There are 28 freshmen in the Stratford program and, along with nine sophomores, are the future of Red Devils football.
“I think a lot of it happened fast, but I’m hoping it’s a valuable experience that over time will benefit them,” Petion said. “Every week they’ve done what we’ve asked them to do and with maturity comes more leadership.”
Both players are looking forward to their first Stratford-Bunnell game, which for Pena means following in his brother’s footsteps.
Alex Pena once played for Stratford and Tristan was at each and every game, including Stratford’s last win in 2015.
“I’ve been watching this game for years,” Tristan Pina said. “I know we have a good core. We just need to execute and come out and battle.”
Stratford’s two freshmen starters definitely know how to do that.
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