MERIDEN – Playoffs?! … Playoffs!?
The refrain generally is what Maloney faithful want explained on the eve of the 60th annual Stoddard Bowl with the once-beaten Spartans poised to secure a spot among the state’s top eight in Class L. But the meaning of the game has consequences beyond the concept of a state title run.
It’s Platt versus Maloney, the battle for Silver City supremacy at Falcon Field at 10:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving in front of the year’s biggest crowd, savoring its football rivalry as much as turkey, dressing and apple pie. That’s how fans see it, but the view is much different from the coach’s chair.
Maloney coach Kevin Frederick is much more interested in the strategy it will take to avenge last year’s 38-22 shellacking on the part of the playoff-bound Panthers than he is in the intricate mathematical formula and myriad possibilities that on Thursday afternoon will position the state’s most worthy teams for postseason competition.
The Spartans (8-1, 6th in Class L) are in if they win, but what if the Panthers (4-5, no postseason aspirations) should spring an upset?
“I have no idea,” Frederick said. “I try not to think about that. All I know is we have to beat Platt.
“We’re just thinking about getting win number nine for the program. It’s all about our next opponent. Ask us who we’re playing in the playoffs? Nobody thinks about it. We’re just focused on Platt.”
The Stoddard Bowl had its beginning in 1958. Each team has won 29 times; the 1995 game ended in a tie.
The Spartans, who haven’t lost since the 28-0 opener at Windsor, can also clinch the CCC Division II West title. They have a one-game lead over Bristol Central, which they defeated 34-7 in Week 4. Platt, Maloney and Central shared the top spot last season. Platt, once 3-0, has lost five of its last six starts.
Platt coach Jason Bruenn sees the game as an opportunity for an optimistic end to 2017 and tidings of better days ahead.
“We could avoid a losing season,” he said. “You can talk about us being spoilers, but I tell the kids not to worry about an upset, do it because it’s what’s good for us. It will make a very tumultuous season better than it was.”
Both teams have quality senior quarterbacks.
Platt’s A.J. Marinelli won the 2016 Bernard Sprafke Award emblematic of Stoddard MVP when he threw four touchdown passes. Marinelli has completed 108 of 189 passes (57.1 percent) for 1,425 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this year.
Larue Graham is 104-for-201 (51.7 percent) with 1,465 yards, 18 touchdowns and six picks.
Graham, Maloney’s second-leading rusher with 267 yards, is more likely to keep the ball than Marinelli, who scampered just 11 times.
Both teams have quality running backs.
The Spartans’ Aden Valentin, who transferred across town when Wilcox Tech chose to abandon varsity football this season, has rushed 206 times for 1,087 yards and 11 touchdowns. Platt junior E.J. Dudley, reportedly ready to go after missing the last game, has 209 carries for 1,329 yards and nine scores.
Both teams have capable receivers.
Victor Marquez is Graham’s favorite target (49 catches, 596 yards, 9 TDs). Chris Infante (30-537-4) has emerged as the primary downfield threat. Maurice Brackett, Valentin and Preston Studley are secondary targets. Cruz Leinhart often joins the corps as a tight end in red-zone situations.
Elijah Felton (43-532-7) leads Platt receivers. Jake Baker (23-390-3), slot man Devon Gardner (16-199-2) and Tremayne Carter (15-242-5) can all disrupt defenses.
Bruenn sees a difference in Maloney from a year ago.
“You can tell they’re playing well as a team. I think they enjoy playing the game with each other. You don’t see heads hung when someone drops the ball. They go on to next play with a belief in each other that moves them forward,” he said. “Kevin’s done a great job developing that mentality.”
With production at the skill positions close, the difference between the teams lies in the trenches and on defense. A major factor has been health. Maloney has absorbed its bumps and bruises to emerge at full strength. Platt has been hounded by nagging injuries and hindered by three of its biggest linemen choosing to leave the team.
The Maloney defense features two classic leaders and achievers in 6-foot-3, 210-pound defensive end O’Neal Ward and linebacker Mitch McEwen.
McEwen leads the team in tackles (80). He also has 16 tackles for losses, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Ward leads in sacks (12), has 18 tackles behind the line and 54 total. Defensive tackle Desmond King has been equally proficient with a team high 19 tackles for losses, 8.5 sacks and 55 tackles.
“Ward is tenacious. He likes contact. He’s a tough run-stopper and can get after the quarterback,” Frederick said. “He watches film, not only the opponents but our practices. When a kid’s doing that, it definitely makes [defensive coach Mike Falis’] job easier. He’s realized how football can change his life.”
Senior DE Adam Ortiz returns from an injury sustained in Week 7. Linebackers Leinhart and Jaylon Nixon round out the starting crew. Elijah Stevenson also rotates in.
Cornerback Jayden Malave leads the team with four interceptions. Valentin and Brackett are also corners. Marquez and Kamron Moreno are the safeties.
“The defense has played good but there’s always room to play better,” Frederick said. “Watching the last game (12-10 win over Conard), there were some spots we could have played better in and that’s our battle cry. [Marinelli’s] played really well in last year’s game and we’re definitely looking forward to competing against him.”
Command of the line of scrimmage for Platt rests largely on the work of 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior leader Andre Barnes.
He’s been the anchor of the offensive line at left tackle, but only recently began playing both ways, something Bruenn said he should have done earlier. Barnes will be flanked by 5-foot-7, 175-pound hybrid LB/DE Zavion Arroyo, tackle Jelani Calloway (7 sacks) and end Jaylen John. Arroyo, an accomplished wrestler, leads the team with seven tackles for losses.
“We’ve gotten a lot out of Arroyo,” Bruenn said. “He wasn’t a starter last year. He’s very physical and we had to find him a position, one where he could use a lot of his wrestling skills. He’s been a terror off the edge who thrives on contact. We had him at linebacker, standing up on the inside, and he said he couldn’t see anything because he’s short. The year before, we lined him up on the nose. He’s done a lot and he’s very versatile.”
Middle linebacker Pierce Matias (77 tackles, 6 for losses) has also been key to stopping the run. Baker, a hybrid like Arroyo, and Felton are also in the mix.
Junior free safety Lorenzo Sanson led the team in tackles (80). Dudley and Carter man the corners. Sanson is also Platt’s punter.
Stellar senior safety Javon James, injured since the fourth game of the season, is questionable for Thursday.
“I’m not sure about James,” Bruenn said. “He came out to practice and he can do some tings. He wants to play, and I said we’d get him in based on what he could do, but it makes no sense to worsen his injury (partially torn MCL).”
Platt’s offensive line has become patchwork in progress with the loss of what Bruenn termed “900 pounds of beef” due to premature departures. Barnes and Jaylen John are joined by underclassman Nehemiah Vargas (C), Cristian Calero (RG) and Ryan Greene (RT).
Maloney will have 6-foot-3, 310-pound center Ryan Martel back after a Week 7 injury. Frederick said the moves he had to make with Martel and RG Toby Canales out were hard to overcome against Conard. D.J. Posey and Darlin Lopez have spent time at right tackle. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore Trevor Santiago is at left tackle flanked by junior Max Ganter.
“[Ganter’s] a tough kid who understands technique,” Frederick said. “He has a work ethic second to none and he’a good leader.”
When it comes to special teams, the punting of senior Adam Williams is a field-flipping factor that has played a significant role in Maloney’s success. The placekicking needs some work after two failures against Conard. Frederick said the absence of short-snapper Martel was the cause and expects better production Thursday. McEwen is 13-for-18 on the season.
Joey Salafia (18-for-23) handles the placekicking for Platt.
Should Platt win, the Spartans’ playoff prospects would remain solid. Seventh-ranked North Haven and current No. 8 and defending Class L champion New Canaan could pass them, but No. 9 Bunnell would need a miracle to qualify. Losses for any one of the three would clinch a spot for Maloney.
Provided they beat Platt, the Spartans would have to hope that both undefeated Fitch (vs. Ledyard) and Middletown (vs. 9-0 Windsor) falter in order to gain a home game in the quarterfinals. If the rankings hold, Maloney would be booking passage to Madison to play No. 3 Daniel Hand in next Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
With Platt and Maloney playing their 60th season of football, both reached the 300-win plateau this season. Platt (302-292-10) broke the barrier in Week 2 and Maloney (300-274-20) in Week 9.