MERIDEN — It’s been 12 years since the Maloney football team last appeared in a state final. Naturally, there aren’t any active players who have had the experience of playing in a state title game.
But the 2018 Spartans won’t have to look far for championship advice before suiting up in Saturday’s Class L final with Daniel Hand at New Britain’s Veteran’s Field. Five members of the Maloney coaching staff — Mike Falis, Victor Marquez Sr., Kevin Ruiz, Carlos Pina and Jamel Riddle — have played or coached in the title game.
Falis has been a line coach with the Maloney staff, on and off, since 1983 and he was aboard for both of their two previous appearances. He was there for the 1989 Class M final against St. Joseph and for the 2006 Class MM final against New Canaan.
Both were Maloney losses, but they are experiences for Falis and the Spartans to draw upon.
Falis said the 2018 Maloney squad compares most to the 1989 team, which fell 14-7 to St. Joseph.
“We were a good team and that was our first state championship game against a very good St. Joe’s team,” Falis said. “It was pretty electric. We played at West Haven High School. There was an ice storm going on.
“It came down to the final play of the game and they beat us. (Head coach) Rob Szymaszek and I always thought the fullback left early on the last play and it never got called. But that’s sour grapes. They beat us. It was a great experience for us.
“That was the first time we played on a artificial surface,” Falis added. “Many community members donated turf cleats because everything was grass at that time.”
In 2006, Bob Zito was the head coach, with Falis and Szymaszek on his staff. Those Spartans fell 53-21 to New Canaan at Central Connecticut State University.
“It was a cold and raw Saturday night,” Falis recalled. “It didn’t start out well. We went 3-and-out and New Canaan was offensively far superior. Back then, they were making calls and checks from the sidelines.
“Steve Hoag did a great job with our defense. We would line up and we thought, with that particular defense, we were sound. Then they would change things and they would snap the ball and all of a sudden we were out of position. We competed, but we couldn’t get it done.”
Ruiz, a 2008 Maloney grad, played on that 2006 team. He’s now head coach for the JV squad and coaches the Spartans’ defensive backs.
“We had high hopes for that one, but New Canaan was a powerhouse,” Ruiz said. “It felt good to play in that game. That’s what you dream about in high school.
“In terms of speed and size, there were a lot of similarities between the 2006 team and this year’s team. I’ve been telling the guys, ‘It’s an experience you will never forget and a different type of rush,’ especially for the seniors,” added Ruiz, who won a state title in 2008 with the Maloney basketball team, the last Maloney squad to claim state championship glory.
As the wins began to pile up this season for the football Spartans, Falis started thinking big — to possibly an undefeated season. Falis started telling his offensive linemen about the storied 1959 Maloney squad. That was the only unbeaten football team in school history.
The ’59 Spartans, playing in the days before CIAC championship, finished 9-0. The 2018 Spartans go into Saturday’s Class L final at 10-2.
“I just tried to point out to them what opportunity they had,” Falis said. “Before the (Bristol) Central game, I thought we could be undefeated. But then Central and Platt came our way, two good football teams that beat us. I mentioned the 1959 team and how long it’s been, and that they could repeat that. I emphasized what was in front of them.”
Marquez and Riddle were teammates on the 1997 Platt football team that was topped by Weaver 28-16 in the Class M bracket.
Marquez, a 1998 Platt grad, was a free safety. He now coaches the Maloney running backs and defensive backs. His son and his namesake is the Spartans’ top reciever. His nephew Jaylon Nixon is a standout slot receiver and linebacker.
“Victor is my son and Jaylon is my nephew, so I talk to them about the state championship game a little more,” Marquez Sr. said. “We talk about being focused and working on the task at hand. When we went to the state championship, they were favored. I just talk to the guys about staying focused and battle. It’s just one play at a time.”
The elder Marquez said he just attended his 20-year reunion at Platt. He and his former teammates were recalling plays from the championship game.
“It’s just something that you remember for the rest of your life,” Marquez said. “I tell these guys that all of the time. I’m starting to get up there in age, but I remember it just like it was yesterday. These guys are going to be your brothers for the rest of your life and this is something that you can share with them.”
Riddle, who graduated from Platt in 1999, was a junior receiver and cornerback for the Panthers in their ’97 run. He is now Maloney’s offensive coordinator.
Recalling the final against Weaver, Riddle said his Panthers had an early lead, but couldn’t finish.
“We were up by 10 and we got complacent,” Riddle said. “That’s something we can’t do on Saturday. We can’t be complacent. I thought that game, a lot of guys started pointing fingers at each other. At Maloney, we have to deal with pressure and deal with the other team and keep rallying each other up.”
Riddle, who went on to play at Syracuse, said he sees similar determination and talent between his Platt squad and this current Maloney group.
“They prepare like they want to win,” Riddle said. “I can see it. We were like that with the 1997 team.
“This is something you set a goal for every year. In the summer, you set the goal. To get there, it takes a lot of hard work during all of these months. The state championship game is the icing on the cake, but we just don’t want to get there. We want to win. This is something they will never forget and, if you win a state championship in Meriden, it would be huge.”
Huge and unprecedented: Meriden has yet to win a state crown in football.