MERIDEN — Cruz Lenhart was just a sophomore when Maloney coach Kevin Frederick noticed a spark in his spirit.
The spark became a raging blaze at just the right time.
The senior outside linebacker made two interceptions, recovered a fumble, scored a touchdown and backed up the play of a rugged defensive line Thursday as Maloney entered the Class L tournament on a high step in turning back resilient Platt 27-21 in the 60th annual Stoddard Bowl at Falcon Field.
The victory, a battle to the finish, was the ninth straight of the season for Maloney (9-1). The Spartans had a playoff spot secured after Wednesday night’s action and now know that, as the sixth seed, they will venture to Windsor on Tuesday night to play the No. 3 Warriors. All rankings and seedings are unofficial until the CIAC football committee meets Friday morning.
Maloney also locked up the CCC Division II West title outright after sharing it with Platt (4-6) last year. The Panthers went on to the playoffs last year after their Stoddard Bowl win eliminated Maloney. Maloney now leads the Silver City classic 30-29-1 and hasn’t trailed in the series since Platt emerged victorious in the first game in 1958.
“This is the game you look at at the end of the season. You want to get that win against your rival,” coach Kevin Frederick said when asked about his priorities on the verge of Maloney’s first playoff game since 2006.
Platt held a 6-0 lead and had the ball back with under three minutes remaining in the second quarter when Leinhart first struck.
Panthers quarterback A.J. Marinelli (11-for-19, 122 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INT) found Tremayne Carter in the flat at his own 27, but when the sophomore receiver turned it upfield, Jayden Malave dislodged the ball. Leinhart returned it to the 20.
“I saw it on the floor and I tried to return it [for a touchdown], but it didn’t go that way, so I got what I could,” said Lenhart, his Bernard J. Sprafke Award clutched firmly in hand. “I was completely surprised [about winning MVP laurels]. I wasn’t thinking about trophies. I was just thinking about getting this win.”
Two plays later, Maloney quarterback Larue Graham (14-for-30, 136 yds., 2 TDs) fired toward the back of the end zone. Platt cornerback Chase Bessler tipped it, but Chris Infante snared it and, after Mitch McEwen’s conversion, Maloney had a 7-6 lead.
“Turnovers happen for the great teams,” Frederick said. “Making them count is when you really know you have a good team.”
The tipped ball led Platt coach Jason Bruenn to consider the thin line between victory and defeat.
“If the ball tips in the other direction, [Infante] doesn’t catch it,” said Bruenn, now 8-3 on Thanksgiving since taking the reins from Tom Ryan. “It’s those small, finite situations that change games.”
Lenhart’s first pick on the third play of the second half presented Graham and company the ball at the Platt 35.
“Cruz is a hard worker, a four-year guy,” Frederick said. “I remember him as a sophomore when he was a practice player for us. You saw the energy on the [scout] squad in practice and you knew he was going to have a bright future.”
Graham’s 11-yard aerial to Victor Marquez (7 catches, 55 yds.) enabled the Spartans to enter the red zone. Two snaps later, workhorse Aden Valentin (25 carries, 95 yds, 2 TDs) skirted a left end that Elijah Stevenson sealed with a big block.
The Spartans held a 20-14 edge at the start of the fourth quarter when a roughing-the-kicker infraction gave the Panthers a new life. Lenhart snuffed it out with his second pick, courtesy of a hit by Desmond King. Valentin capped the drive from five yards out. Maloney burned 3:47 off the clock and had a two-possession lead.
Platt was unable to generate a ground game (18 carries, 5 yds.), for which Bruenn credited King.
“He should be the MVP of that game. He probably single-handedly stopped us from running the ball,” Bruenn said. “Their defensive line is real good, but [King] gave us a lot more stuff than other guys.”
Platt scored the game’s first points just over four minutes before halftime. A 21-yard pass from Marinelli to Jake Baker put the Panthers in position. An 18-yard strike to Elijah Felton (team-high 5 catches for 36 yards) followed two plays later. The extra-point try was botched.
Maloney led 14-6 midway through the third quarter when, on third-and-8 from the Maloney 22, E.J. Dudley swept right and threw to a wide-open Baker (4 catches, team-best 62 receiving yards) at the goal line. Felton grabbed the two-point conversion toss from Marinelli to tie the game with 5:06 left in the quarter.
Lenhart gave Maloney the lead for good with 10 seconds left in the quarter on a nine-yard delivery from Graham.
The Panthers showed they still had a lot of scrap left. A 38-yard pass from Marinelli to Carter was the key play that enabled the pair to hook up for a four-yard TD strike with 3 minutes to go.
Maloney went three and out. Punter Adam Williams made a circus catch of a bad snap and pinned Platt at its 20. Sirtorious White, another defensive lineman responsible for grounding Platt’s rushing attack, stuffed a run on first down. Lenhart broke up a pass on third down. Kamron Moreno made a fourth-down interception to bring down the curtain.
Moreno earned the Underclassman Award. McEwen, directing defensive traffic and making play after play along the line of scrimmage, won the Anthony S. Pantera Award for the most valuable defensive player.
“Our defense stepped up,” McEwen said. “Cruz Leinhart, I love that kid. Without him I don’t think we would have gotten this ‘W.’ He just stood out.”