MERIDEN — On the surface, the Maloney football team has accomplished just about everything it set out to do in the preseason.
With the Stoddard Bowl looming Thanksgiving morning, the Spartans have won eight consecutive games.
Wilcox Tech transfer Aden Valentin literally hit the ground running. He’s gained 1,087 yards, scored 11 rushing touchdowns and, with 206 attempts (almost 23 per game), he’s been a workhorse. Quarterback Larue Graham has thrown for 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns to a balanced group of receivers led by Victor Marquez.
The Spartans are 8-1, their only loss coming to undefeated Windsor on the road opening night. They rank sixth in the CIAC Class L standings, and several teams above them face very stern tests before the race has been run. The first eight finishers will advance to the quarterfinals in a loaded class, which presently includes four undefeated teams: Windsor, Middletown, Fitch and Masuk.
Despite representative offensive statistics, the strong suit for Maloney has been its defense. Linebacker Mitch McEwen and defensive end O’Neal Ward are the accomplished leaders of a unit that has allowed less than 11 points per game since the 28-0 loss to the Warriors.
In the bitterly fought, bitterly cold 12-10 win over Conard at Falcon Field Friday, McEwen made 12 tackles, three in the backfield, and was credited for a sack. He leads the team in tackles with 80.
In the fourth quarter, after Maloney erased a 10-6 deficit, the Chieftains had a first-and-10 at the Maloney 48 with about seven minutes remaining. Conard running back Max Main had just pounded into the secondary for 13 yards.
With a strong placekicker in David Regan sensing a chance to restore Conard’s lead, Ward took over. On successive snaps, he sacked quarterback Jack Moore for nine yards, got in his face on an incomplete second-down pass and nailed Moore as he desperately scrambled back to the line of scrimmage.
Conard had one more possession that McEwen and Jaylon Nixon snuffed with a sack.
Ward made seven tackles, three for lost yardage, and got credit for 2.5 sacks. On the season, he has 54 tackles, 18 for losses, and a team-best 12 sacks.
“He’s an All-State player, hands down,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said. “I don’t know if there’s a better defensive player in the state. He’s up there, no doubt about it. He’s a good kid on top of it. He’s so much fun to coach. He made the honor roll for the first time last semester. We’re just proud of him. He works hard in practice and we hope he continues.”
Ward wasn’t about to let the game slip away. Conard is the only team to defeat South Windsor thus far and came within a touchdown of once-beaten East Hartford, making the victory essential in Maloney’s drive for the postseason.
“I had to pick up the defense. I had to pick up the offense, actually, because they were slacking a little bit,” Ward said. “I have to rush the quarterback and get as many sacks as I can. That’s my job.”
He gave credit to McEwen and Nixon for their role in slowing the Conard offense.
“Jaylon is pretty quick off the ball,” Ward said. “He was back there with me. We had a couple of head collisions. Mitch is just quick. He gets to the holes and does what he has to do.”
Down linemen Sirtorious White and Desmond King were part of the wall that separated Conard from consummating a comeback.
The offense, despite its accomplishments, looks much the same as it did when it failed to get in a winning rhythm against Windsor.
“We’ve struggled the last couple of games offensively,” Frederick said, “but give credit to Conard. They gave us a different defensive look that we didn’t practice against all week. We didn’t adjust well. We’ve got to keep getting better.”
Graham completed nine of 23 passes for 66 yards and two were intercepted. Marquez reeled in five aerials for 52 yards, Christopher Infante grabbed three and Maurice Brackett had one. Graham carried the ball more frequently than usual (18 for 77 yards). Valentin broke the century mark (25 carries, 131 yards).
Frederick refused to blame the weather for the choppy performance.
“I didn’t think the cold was that much of a factor,” he said. “I think the kids did a good job of handling the cold. We’ve got a tough group of kids.”
Ward believes, too.
“We need more practice. We’ll get better,” he said.