Welcome to the end of the 2011 season.
The best three teams in the state were Xavier, Hand and Ansonia.
Xavier was No. 1.
The 2011 Falcons looked like the 1985 Chicago Bears out there this season, hammering all opponents into submission with a bone-crushing defense and a huge and physical offensive line that opened massive holes up for its tailbacks, specifically Mike Mastroianni, and allowed its backs and receivers to strike for big yardage and/or scores.
The only thing missing was the Class LL Championship Shuffle video. Why did it have to just come from Ledyard?
This Xavier team would have beaten last year’s Xavier team. And it would have beaten it convincingly. It was that good. Last season its offense leaned on defense to produce a 13-0 state champion. This year, all guns were blazing.
Hand was a close second but, overall, didn’t dominate its common SCC opponents the way Xavier did. Hand had it all, however. It was diverse on offense. Smothering and hard-hitting across the board on defense. The mere presence of Peter Gerson and Joe DeMichele on the lines gave playmakers Nick Vitale and Co. room to work its magic.
Ansonia, the first 14-0 team in Connecticut history, was equally as talented. The Chargers were big and smothering on the offensive and defensive lines, backed them with brick walls like Tyler Wood, had playmakers in the secondary and, of course, it featured Arkeel Newson, one of the best tailbacks in Connecticut history, a sophomore who cast aside records like few before him.
But the best of the best was Xavier. No question. And what a ride it has been: Back-to-back 13-0 seasons, back-to-back No. 1 rankings. Just an awesome, awesome team.
Where would it rank among the all-time best teams? It’s obviously one of the best teams over the last 10 years. Maybe it is the best. I’ve wracked my brains and only a few teams were as good. Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant posed the question to me and Ned Griffen of The Day in preparation for his post-championship column.
It was one of the best teams since 1997-98 Bloomfield. Maybe one of those Ansonia of Greenwich teams of the mid 2000s or maybe Shelton in 2000 would have a case.
Regardless of your opinions in that matter, this run has been nothing short of extraordinary.
The SCC showed it is easily the best conference in the state, with two dominant state championship teams in the large divisions. The NVL produced the other two champions. Holy Cross might not get the credit it is due because Ansonia blasted the Crusaders twice. But that only masked how good the team really was.
The Final Elite 8
Locally, outside of Ansonia, it was an exciting, but not a tremendous year for our fair teams in Shangri-La.
After the 14-0 Chargers, Staples, Masuk and New Canaan were the region’s best. But those three were all shown the door by Xavier and Hand.
MASUK — Despite losing several major components that produced its dominant 2010 team (which remains my pick for No. 1 a season ago), Masuk 2011 had an outstanding second act in 2011.
Masuk ripped through the SWC and won the league title, outscoring teams by an average score 54-9 (as close as you can get to a weekly suspension under the CIAC’s Score Management policy). Despite an off night, they hammered runner-up and eventual Class LL semifinalist Newtown on Thanskgiving.
But in the quarterfinals, North Haven strength exposed some weaknesses on Masuk’s frontlines. And, in the semifinals, Hand took advantage. After a pretty even first half, the eventual Class L champions’ brute strength eventually won out.
This team will have a drastically different look in 2012. You might not even recognize it. Casey Cochran, the state’s all-time leading passer, is off to UConn in a few weeks. Colin Markus, Shawn Flynn and the rest of the gang will be gone. It’ll be interesting to see just where this program goes from here.
STAPLES – Everyone figured Staples would be tough this season. Few could have expected an FCIAC title and less could have predicted a run to the state championship.
The Wreckers had some returning stars, sure. It was still a very young team. But they rallied around their seniors, overcame a few setbacks and grew up a season early. They grew stronger in the playoffs with a surprisingly overwhelming win over Ridgefield and the comeback vs. Newtown. Staples played as best as it could in the Class LL championship game, but Xavier was that much better.
Now 90 percent of this year’s team returns, including Nick Kelly, Joey Zelkowitz, Jack Massie, James Frusciante, Kevin Kearney, Lance Longergan, Pieter Hoets, et. al.
We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves but…
Well, you figure it out.
NEW CANAAN — Other than some cosmetic trophies missing from the display case, New Canaan fans couldn’t ask for much more from this outstanding team. They overcame all kinds of obstacles on their way to a 11-1 season. They leaned on QB Matt Milano early, roaring back to beat Warde and McMahon. Though Milano’s wasn’t around to help the Rams attempt a comeback vs. Stamford, New Canaan merely tuned up its defense and run game to and won four straight — including arch-rival Darien to reach the playoffs and then New London and Windsor.
Alas, like Masuk, New Canaan just wasn’t on par with the eventual Class L champion. Though New Canaan was beat up in the final for the second straight year, it was still an outstanding team.
And, like Masuk, it will have a drastically different look in 2012. Milano, the program’s all-time leading passer, Kevin McDonough, Bobby Distler, Thomas Rochlin and Co. are out the door. But New Canaan’s fall is never too far.
GREENWICH — You really had to feel for Greenwich. The Cardinals were bit by some disabling injuries early in the year. Losing QB Liam O’Neil to a concussion greatly contributed to the Cardinals’ 51-33 loss to New London in Week 3. But behind senior leaders Kyle Camacho and Shane Nastahowski, they regained their dominant form and played for the FCIAC championship vs. Staples.
But the program just couldn’t take that last step-forward. Staples rallied to beat Greenwich, knocking it out of the playoffs. In any other season, Greenwich would have qualified easily in Class LL. But having all three of the FCIAC’s winless teams on its schedule denied Greenwich crucial playoff points and the Cards went home, perhaps a bit too early.
Though some players return, Greenwich will miss Camacho and Nastahowski tremendously. Hard to foresee where the Cardinals go from here. Their state playoff drought is now up to four years.
[Aside: We kill the SWC, but the FCIAC's scheduling policies are, perhaps, the most confounding thing on the planet. Though the league took a proactive step by grouping its teams into three size-based divisions, it remains tremendously unbalanced and forces the top programs to miss each other throughout the year. Yes, I know the 19-team setup hurts, but something's got to be done to figure this out.]
NORWALK — As devastated as Greenwich felt, Norwalk was sky-high this year. The Bears literally came out of nowhere to produce the best season in school history. They brought in a vibrant new coach in Sean Ireland, took one of their best athletes, Delshawn Wilson, and put him a quarterback, then built a big and strong defense around Kwazee Rice and Gil Arujo, and went to town.
Norwalk reminded us of Trumbull last year. A big and aggressive defense and athletes who ran around and made big plays on offense. Their only regular-season loss was to New Canaan and, though they missed top FCIAC clubs like Greenwich, Staples and Darien (ugh), the Bears still proved their mettle in the playoffs, reaching the state semifinals before getting run down by eventual champion Xavier.
Like most clubs, Norwalk has some serious rebuilding to do. A large senior class including Wilson, Arujo, Rice, Derek Edwards, Bobby Stringfellow, Johnny Anzalone and Patrick Whalen are gone. While there is plenty of emerging talent remaining like DL Cory Barrett, we wouldn’t be shocked to see the Bears take a step back.
Then again, after what they accomplished this season, we wouldn’t be shocked to see them do it all over again.
NEWTOWN – After a 16-9 loss to Pomperaug around midseason, 2011 Newtown was looking a lot like its predecessors. But the Hawks made some adjustment and rallied behind seniors FB Lou Fenaroli, Hunter Bassett, Mike Lord, James Horosko, Mac Morlock and Cory Fisher and talented underclassmen like Dan Hebert, Drew Tarantino, Chris Devaney and freshman Juilian Dunn to script one of the program’s best seasons in the last 20 years. Newtown won its next five games convincingly, including an insane overtime win over Bunnell that put them in the playoffs. Though Masuk wiped Newtown out in the Thanksgiving SWC title game, the Hawks rallied again in the state playoffs, beating Hall in the quarterfinals and taking a 14-0 lead over Staples before falling.
Though the Hawks will take a severe hit next year — who will carry the ball like Fenaroli? — many SWC observers say this is a program quickly on the rise. They’ll be a favorite to compete for a long-awaited SWC championship and further playoff success.
NOTRE DAME-WH — Led by a three-headed rushing attack and a staunch defense, Green Knights played, perhaps, the toughest schedule in the state and was in every game except its opening loss to eventual Class LL champion Xavier. They were everyone’s favorite to make a run in the Class L playoffs. But ultimately, Notre Dame couldn’t rally past its offensive shortcomings in a loss to Windsor. Still, losing all three games to a pair of state champions and a state semifinalist is nothing to sneeze at.
The Green Knights of 2011 were as good as, maybe better, than most teams. It graduates a significant portion of its team, including Amihr Bess, Malik Tinney, Anthony Masucci, Eamon DeToro, Javon Grey and many of its linemen. ND might take a step backward, but it’s always a team to fear.
Ridgefield graduates a good senior class, but it will return many of the players who helped script an 8-3 playoffs season, particularly Sam Gravitte and Connor Rowe on offense. The Tigers might be better in 2012. …Darien, which once again suffered some late-season shenanigans by some of its players, will return a pretty good group led by HB Peter Gesualdi and QB Henry Baldwin. …Stamford, which once again finished strong to script one of its best seasons in 15 years, graduates a large and talented senior class. The Black Knights have some serious work to do. …Bunnell loses stars in Jawad Chisholm, David Camille, J.J. Bivona, Jared Vasquez. But outstanding QB Matt Castelot returns. …Pomperaug loses a good senior class, particularly LB Tyler Valenti and WR/K Matt Paola and some linemen. The Panthers might take a hit next year, but shouldn’t fall far. …Shelton loses quite a few seniors, but showed late in the season that its underclassmen are going to be pretty good. … Weston is a team to watch in the SWC with returning talent like RB Danny Rogers.
You can watch replays of ALL the CIAC State championship games this week on the new CPTV. Class L and LL games will also be on MSGVarsity.
We are quickly compiling our 2011 Hearst CT All-Star Team, comprising 50 teams from Fairfield County and New Haven County. Coaches, expect to see a ballot sheet in your email boxes ASAP and, for some, a phone call. The team will be released around Christmas.
And that about wraps it up from here at CT HS Football Central.
It’s back to real life for me. Thanks for following along all season. It was our pleasure to entertain you. And, for the hard-working football players out there, thank you for providing great theater and allowing us to chronicle a big part of your young lives.
Thanks for all the kind comments of the last last few months. It’s been a labor of love, as always.
But now I need a break.
If anyone needs me or has a request (for videos or what-not), I’ll be on the ski slopes. Email me at email@example.com.