Pulling into the parking lot at Trumbull’s McDougall Stadium, you got the feeling this wasn’t going to be a typical night for Masuk’s football team. The rain, which had started just a few hours before, morphed from mildly annoying to downright disconcerting.
Feels like North Haven football weather, I thought. North Haven football coach Tony Sagnella must be loving this. Now if only he could get some wind, too.
Cue the wind that blew my umbrella inside-out.
Yup. This was North Haven football weather.
“I thought the football gods might have been on our side today,” Sagnella said. “We weren’t going to be bothered by it.”
It was an hour before game time and, already, a 49-8 Masuk pick on this space wasn’t looking even remotely possible.
But, as Masuk gunslinger Casey Cochran had said just the week before, it takes more than one moving part to make a championship football team. Rain, wind, floods, heck even earthquakes were no excuse. Not now. Not in the playoffs.
You either pouted and whined, or you lined up and figured it out.
And, for a while at least, Masuk couldn’t quite figure it out. Cochran’s passes were flying all over creation. They were dropped, tipped, skipped, nearly picked off or just blown away.
North Haven had no such issues. Sagnella has built an entire program — which was making its third state playoff appearance in 5 years — around old-fashioned, methodical, power football. They run the single-wing offense religiously, the same way Pomperaug used to run double wing for most of the last decade.
Sprinkle in some players who grew more emboldened by every Masuk misstep, and you had yourself a football game. A raw, crawl-through-the trenches football game.
Not exactly Masuk’s style.
Masuk was up 14-0 just on sheer talent. But North Haven stuck to what brought it and just pounded away, keeping the ball out of Cochran’s hands for an insane 10:30 of the third quarter, pushing Masuk’s otherwise excellent defense to the brink of exhaustion. Consider that Masuk averages more points than there are minutes in a football game, the formula for the upset was in the making.
But again, it takes many moving parts to make a football team. So, with Cochran’s passes disconnecting, Masuk finally turned to a sure thing: Tailback Colin Markus. “Once the pass wasn’t working, I figured they’d come to me,” he said. Markus put the Panthers on his back, quickly snatched back the lead and asked the defense to make one more stop.
Eventually, Shawn Flynn and the defense did. Masuk scored again to top off a 28-14 victory — its closest victory in two years. A seismic blast was averted.
“I like how our kids handled the adversity,” Masuk coach John Murphy said. “They came out in the second half and punched us in the face, then they got the onside kick and punched us in the face again. To respond from that, for our guys to make, to survive these conditions … I can’t say enough about my guys.”
It wasn’t the best game of the night — those honors went to Wolcott’s overtime win over Ellington/Somers and New Canaan’s spine-tingling 27-26 victory over New London [See below]. But it certainly raised the most eyebrows.
Though two of the four SCC teams were sent packing on this evening — Windsor, the CCC’s best team, outlasted ineffective Notre Dame-West Haven on the other side of the bracket — the league’s denizens were already cooing about the suddenly rosier prospects of one Daniel Hand High School before Masuk’s soaked football players had even boarded the bus.
They smell blood. If Masuk had trouble against s little ol’ SCC Division II team. How ever will it contend against an unbeaten one from the big, bad SCC Division I?
We’re about to find out.
It’s on. Casey Cochran’s Flying Circus comes to West Haven Saturday night for a long-awaited playoff date with Joe DeMichele, Nick Vitale, Henry Foye and the Hand Tigers.
Apollo, you wanna ring the bell?
Elsewhere on this dismally dark, balmy and stormy night, Year 2 of the CIAC’s expanded state playoff slate produced great matchups and great games galore. And it all resulted in some big-time Saturday games.
Saturday’s state semifinal sites have been announced:
Class LL: Xavier (11-0) vs. Norwalk (9-1) at West Haven, 2 p.m.; Staples (10-0) vs. Newtown (9-2) at Bunnell, 2 p.m. | Class L: New Canaan (10-1) vs. Windsor (11-0) at East Haven, 2 p.m. | Masuk (11-0) vs. Hand (11-0) at West Haven 7 p.m. | Class M: Ansonia (12-0) vs. Berlin (10-1) at Sheehan, 2 p.m. | Wolcott (8-3) vs. Ledyard (10-1) at Middletown, 2 p.m. | Class S: Holy Cross (10-2) vs. Valley Regional/Old Lyme (10-0) at Falcon Field, Meriden; Cromwell (9-2) vs. Northwest Catholic (9-2) at Cheshire, 2 p.m.
Here’s how the leagues fared: NVL: 3-0 | FCIAC: 3-1 | SWC: 2-1 | SCC: 2-2 | ECC: 1-2 | CCC: 3-4 | Pequot: 2-4 | CSC: 0-2
Here in Shangri-La, six of our nine playoff teams won and moved onto the semifinals: Staples, Norwalk and Newtown in Class LL. New Canaan and Masuk in Class L. Ansonia in Class M.
Your recap, our thoughts:
STAPLES got on the back of Jon Heil, who ran for an astounding 366 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-21 victory over FCIAC rival Ridgefield. It was astounding because, A) Heil’s a backup behind Joey Zelkowitz, whose shoulder forced him to miss this game. B) No one on Staples ever runs for that many yards; and C) Ridgefield is still a pretty good football team.
That was ridiculous.
“We had a bunch of other plays including some passes ready to go,” Staples coach Marce Petroccio said. “But they couldn’t tackle Heil. So we just said `Keep giving him the ball until they stop him.’ ”
Ridgefield finishes a fine season 8-3 and its first state playoff berth in six years. It’s still a very young team. Its time is coming. “We’re still trying to get to that level,” coach Kevin Callahan said.
Across the bracket, NEWTOWN got behind (who else?) Lou Fenaroli and Dan Hebert and eventually overwhelmed Ian Dugger and Hall, 36-22 to win the program’s first state playoff game since 1992.
Perhaps showing a little malaise from its 46-7 loss to Masuk in the SWC title game, the Nighthawks fell behind early but turned on the jets in the second half.
“What the kids did in the offseason is they set their sights on (this win) and they were able to obtain their first goal,” coach Steve George said. “I’m happy to be a part of it, as they are.”
Like Newtown, NORWALK reached a milestone of its own: The school’s first football playoff victory, 21-15 over Conard in West Hartford. The Bears, who, like first-year coach Sean Ireland said, weren’t supposed to do anything this year, used their usual formula. Big plays by QB Delshawn Wilson and Derek Edwards. Then bone-crushing defense, particularly from senior Johnny Anzalone (two interceptions).
“We’re the first,” Wilson said. “They’re going to be talking about us for a couple of years down the line.”
We’ll go out on a limb and say more than a couple, Delshawn.
A huge goal already in its back pocket, Norwalk is now playing with house money as it heads to West Haven at 2 p.m. to face top ranked and unbeaten and reigning No. 1 Xavier, which put the hurt on Glastonbury 35-6.
“Are they a great team? Yes,” Ireland said. “Are they the best team in the state? Yes. But we’re going to go play as hard as we can and see what happens.”
What can anyone say about NEW CANAAN’s 27-26 road playoff victory over New London? Pick your superlative, the game was that good. New London pulled to within one point with seconds left and pulled a Lou Marinelli: going for the victory with a two point conversion. As anyone on Greenwich can attest, with Kyle McKinnon on New London’s side, it was a sure thing.
But Dylan Leeming came up with the play of the year: He bolted into McKinnon and stopped the electric back inches short of the goal line.
“I saw him cut back and I didn’t think I would be able to get there,” Leeming said. “We collided, I snapped back and I guess he did too. I fell backwards and didn’t even know what happened.”
That pretty much was the story of the night for New Canaan, which had a few of them to tell. McKinnon ran for 227 yards, and he wasn’t even the game’s leading rusher. That honor went to New Canaan (New Canaan?!?). Kevin McDonough: 230.
Throw in a tidbit about QB Matt Milano throwing for under a 100 yards (what?), yet somehow tossing a TD strike to Peter Kraus and then scoring the go-ahead TD on a 31-yard run.
“NC’s a great team and well coached and QB is a hell of a baller,” New London QB Rob Key wrote to me on Twitter just hours afterward.
You could pretty much say that about the previous five New Canaan teams, too. This one’s got it.
They’re one win over Windsor away from reaching yet another state championship game.
As for WINDSOR’s impressive 14-7 victory over NOTRE DAME in the Class L bracket, I suspect I fell for the same deductive reasoning that most people fall for when they speak of the top SWC or NVL teams. They put up great numbers, but who have they played?
I wrote them down as a winner before being influenced to change my mind in favor of the big-time SCC team.
Wrong. Though the CCC’s Hall, Glastonbury and Conard were all bounced from the Class LL draw, Windsor struck a blow for the league with great defense and big plays in its 14-7 victory over the Green Knights. Notre Dame, which was expected to make a major dent in the Class L playoffs, moved the ball but couldn’t score in crunch time.
Windsor is 11-0. It’s a great team. Aaron Berardino is one of the best in the state. He has talent surrounding him. Windsor-New Canaan will be a show.
ANSONIA took the first step in securing its first state championship since 2007 with a thorough 35-6 victory over Bethel in the rain and slop at Jarvis Stadium.
And, while lineman Dylan Vano described playing on the muddied turf as “walking on ice skates,” you’d never know it by looking at Arkeel Newsome‘s stat line.
He had another outstanding game, rushing for 303 yards and three touchdowns. His numbers are fast approaching Alex Thomas and Montrell Dobbs territory. For the year, Newsome has run for 3,079 yards and has scored a state-record 53 touchdowns.
The Chargers play Berlin, a 28-14 winner over Cheney Tech in the semifinals at Sheehan, 2 p.m.. Ledyard defeated Waterford handily and faces Wolcott, which rallied from two touchdowns down to beat Ellington/Somers 36-26, in the other semifinal.
As for Bethel, the Wildcats knew they were in for a tough one. Unlike two years ago, when Bethel stunned New London, even a perfect performance probably wouldn’t have been enough. But seniors like Brandon Schmidt and Brian Birdsell walk out the door proud with the knowledge they helped put together one of the best football runs in school history and Bethel on the map.
We won’t delve into too many specifics here on the Class S tournament. It is blessed (and we mean blessed) with no teams from Shangri-La. But both Catholic schools, Northwest Catholic and Holy Cross won. They sit on separate sides of the bracket. Only Valley Regional and Cromwell stand in their way of a playoff holy war.
By the way, huge props to the CSC teams. Both Capital Prep and Cheney Tech didn’t win their games. But they were far from mince meat like other CSC playoff teams before them. They represented Tech school football well. It bodes well for them and their opponents.