CIAC FOOTBALL: Platt comes full circle back to Middletown, but in a far different light

CIAC FOOTBALL: Platt comes full circle back to Middletown, but in a far different light


MERIDEN — Here’s something to remember about the Platt-Middletown football game that opened the 2016 season on Sept. 9: Middletown won 49-24.

Here’s another thing to remember about that game: Platt has come a long way since.

No doubt, so has Middletown. All the same, the fifth-seeded Platt team the No. 4 Blue Dragons host at Skubel-Rosek Stadium tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the Class L quarterfinals is, in many respects, an entirely different squad than the Sept. 9 edition.

Sophomore E.J. Dudley had yet to emerge as 1,000-yard rusher. (He’s at 999). Senior Jonathan Cahill had yet to emerge as a go-to receiver. (He was 5-162 with three TDs in the Stoddard Bowl.)

Senior Tylon Papallo, Platt’s top playmaker, was still a singular star to whom passes were thown, not the multi-dimensional threat (and decoy) he’s been recast as.

The defense was still getting used to its new 3-4 look and had yet to benefit from the services of outside linebacker Jamel Holder, who was accruing the requisite practice time after moving back to Meriden from Florida.

There were other personnel moves and position shifts on D. It’s produced a unit that’s gone from yielding 49 points on opening night to allowing, on average, less than 17 on the seven-game winning streak Platt rides into the postseason.

A different beast entirely.

“Obviously, they’re matured and gotten better,” Platt coach Jason Bruenn said of Middletown. “But I think the growth we’ve made may be greater than theirs. Not that we’re necessarily better than them. What I’m saying is, we’ve grown.

“We’ve matured to a level where the kids are at a good listening stage. We’re playing at a very high level. We’ve just got to find a way to continue that.”

Tonight is a classic 4-5 matchup. Both teams are 8-2. As CCC Division II clubs — Platt in the West; Middletown in the East — they’ve played and vanquished many of the same opponents. Only 20 points separated them in the Class L rankings.

The Blue Dragons and Panthers go into the playoffs from different angles. Platt opened 1-2. Since a 30-26 loss to Bristol Central in a Week 3 game that was settled by conversions and in which two starting receivers were benched by Bruenn, Platt has not lost.

Middletown opened 6-0 before getting upset 27-24 by Newington, a team Platt beat 20-14. The Blue Dragons rebounded with wins over E.O. Smith and Bristol Eastern, then lost on Thanksgiving Eve 21-17 to undefeated Windsor, the No. 1 seed in Class L.

Unlike Middletown, Platt had a happy Thanksgiving, 38-22 over Maloney. This may or may not be a good thing. The curse of intra-town rivalries is the degree of emotional intensity invested in Thanksgiving can be so great not much is left for Round 1 of the playoffs five days later.

It’s hard to argue this wasn’t a factor in Platt’s playoffs duds against Branford (2004), New London (2010) and North Haven (2013). Platt also lost to No.1 seed and eventual champ Daniel Hand in 2012.

In fact, the football Panthers haven’t won in the postseason since beating Plainville 18-11 in the 1997 Class M semifinals.

“Our coaches tell us it’s been 20 years since we’ve won a playoff game,” said senior Nick Martone, a nose guard and fullback. “We’re looking to change history around here and do something special for Platt.”

Is there a risk the post-Stoddard Bowl letdown will haunt Platt again?

“I’m going to say no because the Stoddard Bowl is in the past,” Martone replied. “Yeah, great, we won the [CCC Division II West] championship and we won the Stoddard Bowl back, but now we’re looking on to playoffs and bringing home a state title.”

That would be a first for Platt football, which is 0-2 in state finals. Middletown is 3-2, but hasn’t won a state final or even played in one since 1992.

To get off square one tonight, the teams will look to continue what’s worked so far. Middletown, with its 6-foot-4, 200-pound quarterback Tyshaun James, is going to run the ball. The Blue Dragons average 390 yards a game. Two-thirds of that comes on the ground, mostly on the legs of James (168-1,337). The senior has also completed 70 of 144 passes for 1,204 yards.

Platt’s offense is directed by junior A.J. Marinelli, who is 99-for-197 for 1,463 yards on the season. He was MVP of the Stoddard Bowl with his best game to date (10-17, 282, 4 TDs).

Dudley, after rushing seven times for eight yards in the season opener, has been a rookie revelation with six 100-yard games.

Papallo (33-345) is Marinelli’s leading receiver, though sophomore Jake Baker (26-383) and Cahill (21-413) have steadily emerged in the face of the double- and triple-teams Papallo has faced.

To further counter those gadget defenses, Platt has deployed Papallo on the ground — out of the slot, at running back and as a Wildcat QB. Papallo’s at 34-328 rushing. Also a dangerous return man and two-point specialist, he’s scored 17 touchdowns and 130 points.

“We found a groove where we can still try to get the ball to Papallo enough, but other guys have stepped up realizing, ‘Hey, here’s my opportunity,’” Bruenn said. “As coaches, too, we’ve kind of found ways to work around these speciality defenses.”

The Panthers have indeed been creative on offense. On defense, from Martone at the nose to Javon James at free safety, they’ve been relentless and hard-hitting. They’ll need more of the same tonight against a team averaging 35 points a game.

“We’re going to play our style of defense. We’re going to be physical. We’re going to try to hit gaps when we can hit them. When we see an opportunity to blitz, we’ll blitz,” said Bruenn. “But, really, it’s going to be a battle in the trenches. You throw in the rain, it’s going to be even more.”

Yes, it’s going to be wet tonight. One team is not going to notice.

“They beat us in the beginning, but we’re a different team,” Martone said. “We have a lot of better things going on now. We’re looking to beat them and get our revenge.”


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