MERIDEN —A full season of hard knocks has initiated the transformation of Windsor and Maloney from groups of football players into extended families.
The CCC Division II squads will lock horns for the second time this year Tuesday night, a short 81 days but a long season since the Warriors (9-1, 3-1 D2 East) and Spartans (9-1, 4-0 D2 West) squared off on opening night.
Kickoff in the Class L quarterfinal is slated for 6:30 p.m. at Jack O’Brien Stadium, scene of Windsor’s 28-0 win on September 8. Windsor is seeded third in Class L and Maloney sixth. The winner will advance to a Sunday semifinal against the winner of the quarterfinal between No. 2 Daniel Hand and seventh seed North Haven.
“Looking at that first game of the season, we’re a far different team from Week 1 to Week 11,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said. “Windsor’s a tough team, well-coached and has some great athletes, tough up front. We’ve just got to prepare like we do and see how it goes.”
Maloney has ridden a defense brimming with big-play performers to its fourth postseason berth since the CIAC instituted the playoffs in 1976. The outcome of the game rests heavily on the continued excellence of linebackers Mitch McEwen, Cruz Lenhart and Jaylon Nixon, linemen O’Neal Ward, Desmond King and sophomore Sirtorious White, and the secondary headed by Victor Marquez and Jayden Malave.
King, with a squat but powerful build that befits an interior lineman like his Giants hero Damon “Snacks” Harrison, leads the Spartans with 21 tackles behind the line and ranks second with 10.5 sacks.
The transfer from a non-CIAC school who worked hard to qualify for the team is also apt to get some time along the offensive front. Platt coach Jason Bruenn said after the Stoddard Bowl that King deserved the MVP for his ability to stop the run.
“We have to match the intensity that the ‘D’ comes out with. We bend, but don’t break. Our coaches push that. It’s our team motto,” King said. “Our offense has to pick it up. We’re counting on that to win this game.
“I think about revenge,” King added. “I felt we played good enough to win [in September] and this time we have to come through.”
McEwen, the consummate defensive coach on the field, has a team-high 90 stops, 17 for losses, to go with three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
“Mitchell’s the guy who calls a lot of the stuff,” Frederick said. “These four years will pay off for the rest of his life.”
Defensive end O’Neal Ward leads the sack brigade with 13. Lenhart shares the team lead with four picks.
White, King’s young protégé in the trenches, has eight tackles for losses. Malave has four picks, one that he returned for a TD.
But offensive production must support defensive prowess. In the first game between the teams, Maloney quarterback Larue Graham threw the ball 30 times. Nine were caught for 72 yards. The Spartans’ ground game, spearheaded by Aden Valentin, produced 44 yards in 27 tries. They’ll have to do better than that.
“Unfortunately, it’s taken the offense a little bit to get going all season long,” Frederick said. “My big thing is we just didn’t execute well [against Platt]. We weren’t blocking the right guys.”
Valentin has been a workhorse in the running game (232 carries, 1,190 yards, 13 TD), accounting for 80 percent of Maloney’s rushing yardage.
“Aden’s a tremendous athlete,” Frederick said. “He can catch the ball in the flat. He’s a good pass protector. We’re lucky to have him.”
Graham has completed 127 of 253 attempts (50.2 percent) for 1,666 yards and 20 TDs. Marquez (55 catches, 650 yards, 9 TDs) is his primary target.
Chris Infante (31 catches, 18 yards per catch, 5 TDs) can stretch a defense with his explosive capability. Maurice Brackett, Valentin and Preston Studley are the top secondary receivers.
Turnovers and penalties (more than 5 per game at an average loss of nearly 57 yards) must be kept to a minimum. Dead-ball attitude adjustments must be eliminated. Maloney turned it over four times in the opener against Windsor.
“We’ve kicked ourselves in the foot with stupid penalties a bunch of times,” Frederick said. “We’ve got to stay away from that stuff.”
Windsor, which lost its Division II East title confrontation to Middletown 24-7 at home on Thanksgiving Eve, relied heavily on the defensive work of 5-foot-10, 210-pound linebacker Omega Cobb to thwart the Spartans.
“He’s really an inside linebacker, but we were short on big men and thin up front so he did what he had to do to best help the team,” Windsor coach Rob Fleeting said. “He’s an offensive tackle and defensive tackle. He’s the key to everything we do.”
Linebacker Joseph Russell leads the Warriors in tackles (89) and tackles for losses (9). Outside linebacker Shayne Manson sets the pace in sacks (10) followed by Cobb (6). Linebacker Kobe Foster (65 tackles) is key to stopping the ground game.
Two-way players Jerry Woodard (7 picks, 16 passes defensed) and L.J. Walcott possess the fleet feet in the secondary and in the passing game. Walcott leads the receiving corps with 42 catches, 11 TDs and averages over 24 yards per catch. Woodard has 28 grabs for 424 yards and six scores.
First-year QB Julian Jackson does little running, but has completed over 60 percent of his passes for 1,960 yards and 19 TDs. Tomasz Johnson emerged as the top rusher (179 carries, 1,307 yds., 17 TDs).
Fleeting has worked hard in a short time to erase any lingering trauma from the Middletown loss.
“The community’s midget team and high school teams win a lot. Sometimes you have to experience [losing]. I’ve lost and I’ve never liked the feeling, but it’s helped me want to get better,” Fleeting said. “We’ve spent hours watching films and pushing the kids. Nobody wanted to lose that division championship game. It’s OK to make mistakes, but you’ve got to continue to fight. Will they drive that extra step to be better than what we’ve been? If so, more positives that negatives come out of this as a program.”
The history of the Windsor-Maloney series dating back to 2008 is completely one-sided. Windsor has won all six games and outscored the Spartans 247-33, the last two by shutout.
The Spartans’ last postseason appearance was in 2006, losing to New Canaan (53-21) in the Class MM final after delivering a 40-14 semifinal ouster to Berlin. Maloney lost to St. Joseph-Trumbull (1989), and Fitch (1998) in its other playoff experiences.