The sun had just started to set and the shadows on the field had grown longer as New Milford High School's new football coach, John Murphy, brought the afternoon's practice to an end with the sharp screech of his whistle.

Almost in unison, Murphy's players -- more than 80 of them -- circled around their new coach, unbuckled their chin straps and took a knee.

With 80 sweaty, exhausted faces looking eagerly up at him and listening intently, Murphy began to speak.

He spoke about playing in the state playoffs, which is something he accomplished in 12 of his 16 years as Masuk High School's head coach, and something no New Milford team has accomplished since the postseason tournament was inaugurated.

He spoke about winning a state championship, which he did three times at Masuk before leaving the school after 16 triumphant seasons -- with a record of 158-33-12 and six South-West Conference titles -- and taking the job at New Milford High in February.

He spoke of those things in the present tense, making it clear, even in the fading sunlight of a steamy, late-summer evening, that playoff football -- pressure-packed football played in December's bitter chill with the whole state watching -- is not only a possibility, but an expectation for this group of players this season.

"The first thing I said to them when I got here was that I'm not going to be satisfied until we do that," said Murphy as he gazed across the vacant field after all his players and coaches had left. "The whole rebuilding thing, I don't think that's fair to a high school kid. How can I tell these seniors they're part of a rebuilding process? What does that mean to them? They don't want to be a part of that. They want to be a part of something special.

"That was my goal the first day I walked into the building at Masuk, and it was my goal the first day I walked into the building here. I really believe that, if you do all the right things, you give yourselves a chance to do those types of things."

Those are pretty bold words, especially given the setting.

New Milford High is one of the biggest schools in the South-West Conference, but the Green Wave has enjoyed only four winning seasons since the SWC's birth in the fall of 1995.

The program enjoyed even less success during nearly three decades of football competition in the old Western Connecticut Conference, posting only a handful of winning campaigns.

"One of the things I've said to the kids is that the past here is the past," Murphy said. "There's nothing that we're going to do that's going to change it. What we're worried about is what we're doing now and what we're going to do from here on in."

Most importantly, the New Milford players seem to be picking up what Murphy is laying down, particularly the seniors, for whom this season is the last chance they'll have to chase the dream of winning a state football title.

"He's not the coach who's going to say we're going to rebuild from the bottom," said senior Ryan Grenier. "He's going from what we have and moving forward with that. He wants to do it now."

Part of the task of building a winning program is changing people's perceptions. After all, just because the NMHS team has been mired in mediocrity for generations doesn't mean it has to continue to be mediocre.

"It's a completely different culture," said senior Nick Capriglione. "He's changed basically everything."

The question on everyone's mind now is whether Murphy can work the same magic at New Milford as he did at Masuk -- where he won a state title in his second year on the job.

Some of his SWC counterparts certainly seem to think he can.

"John Murphy will find success at New Milford because he will still hold his players to a high standard," Pomperaug coach Dave Roach said in an email. "His teaching style has not changed, only his classroom has changed -- from Monroe to New Milford.

"Patience will need to be a character trait John exhibits. But based on all that I have seen from him this off-season, his program has been busy. Good for him and good for the kids."

Not so good, perhaps, for the rest of the SWC.

Shock waves

When word got out back in February Murphy had taken the New Milford High job, the same question undoubtedly popped up over and over again all around the state: Why?

Why would he leave a program he had helped build into such a powerhouse and, then, with roughly two dozen Connecticut high schools needing a head football coach, take over a program that had struggled so mightily for so long?

It just didn't seem like the next logical step in the career path of the 45-year-old, whose Panthers had captured their most recent state title in 2010.

"When I decided that Masuk wasn't really the right place for me anymore, I wasn't sure what I was going to do," Murphy said. "I had a lot of things going through my mind, whether I was going to take some time off or look for another position.

"This kind of came on the radar. Once I looked at the situation, I felt like it had all the parts that we could do something special with. Once I did some research and talked to people, I really felt good about the situation."

The move certainly sent shockwaves across the state.

"I was surprised at first," longtime Barlow coach Rob Tynan had said at the time. "I've known John for a long time. I think it's a great move for the league. New Milford has struggled, and John is a fantastic football coach. Do I think it's going to be instantaneous? I hope not. But John's a heck of a football coach. I live in Monroe and I've seen what John has done with the youth programs and the time he's put in. John knows how to build a program really from the bottom up."

Murphy works as a para-professional at New Milford High and coaches the Green Wave girls' lacrosse team in the spring.

This spring, he guided the Wave girls to a 10-6 regular-season record, a win in the SWC Division I quarterfinals and a berth in the state Class L tournament.

"Like I told these guys and I told my girls' lacrosse players," Murphy said. "I live in Stratford. I have an hour drive. If I didn't believe we could be successful, I wouldn't put myself through that every single day."

Grand opening

Murphy admits there may have been some hard feelings churned up in the wake of his departure from Masuk. That immediately made New Milford's opening game at home this week -- Thursday, Sept. 12, against Masuk, now coached by former Ridgefield defensive coordinator Dave Brennan -- all the more intriguing.

"Things that have transpired between myself and some people back in Monroe are not what I expected," Murphy said. "The feelings have turned much more sour than I ever anticipated. I didn't expect that.

"Going into the game, my focus is on the team that I'm coaching. I certainly have a lot of respect for the coaching staff over there and the players that I coached before. There are a lot of great kids, a lot of great young men and I wish them nothing but good things.

"But my focus is going to be on my sideline. I'm not going to look at it any different than any other game. It's just as important as week two, it's just as important as week three."

The game plan

When it comes to Xs and Os, Murphy plans to stick with what worked at Masuk.

Last year, his team outscored opponents, 502-190, in posting a 10-2 record.

"We're in the spread on offense," he said. "We're going to be as high-tempo as we can possibly be. We'll try to spread the ball around and be consistent running it.

"And then the same style of defense we played when I was at Masuk. It's a 3-3 stack, very aggressive, a lot of blitzing. We like to disguise our coverages and then just let the kids fly around and attack the football."

And what about the personnel he has to work with? Murphy has liked what he has seen so far.

"We have a ton to work with here," he said. "I'm really excited about this group. We have 45 guys playing defense, 40 playing offense, nobody playing both ways, which is a tremendous tool for any high school program.

"The parts are here, the attitude is here. Now, we just need to continue to do it every day on the practice field and get ourselves ready and get our guys believing that they can do it and believing that something bad isn't always waiting for you in the game."

Murphy could awaken the New Milford High football team from its decades-long slumber and guide it to success, or the Green Wave culd continue to struggle.

Either way, there is quite a sense of excitement and anticipation swirling around the Green Wave football team this season in the SWC's northernmost outpost.

For more photos, visit www.newmilfordspectrum.com.