ON THE BORDERLINE — Lunch had just ended at the annual Apple Classic Chamber of Commerce get-together at Manor Inn, yet the appetites of captains in attendance from the Southington and Cheshire football teams were unappeased.
“We’re just hungry,” said Sammy Thomson, cornerback for the Southington Blue Knights. “It’s do or die.”
From the other side of the table, even greater rumblings.
“We like to say we’re starving as a team,” said Michael Jeffery, Cheshire free safety and wide receiver.
This had nothing to do with the Manor Inn buffet. It was an All-Star line. It held up through all four quarters of the lunch (plus overtime, if you count the ice cream).
The Blue Knights and Rams? They were counting days to the feast that would fill them in the football sense: the Apple Classic, which kicks off Thanksgiving morning in Cheshire at 10 a.m.
The Classic, now in its 22nd year, has always been a fine dine. In 14 of its 21 servings so far, either the Blue Knights or the Rams have gone on to the postseason.
The Classic, though, is also feast or famine. The Blue Knights and Rams have never savored the playoffs in the same year. On a few occasions, one team has barred the other from the table.
That will be the case in 2017. Southington, at 7-2, and Cheshire, at 6-3, are both playing for their postseason lives. Thursday’s winner has a very good shot of going on to the Class LL tournament. The loser will most definitely go home.
Hence the hunger pangs. As Jeffery said in completing his earlier statement: “We’re starving to get back in the playoffs.”
The Rams haven’t been there since 2009. That was the year they won the most recent of their seven state championships.
The Blue Knights have gone to the postseason five years in a row, a run that corresponds with their current five-year winning streak in the Apple Classic. This year’s team, though, is the first Southington gridiron group to lose a regular season game since 2013 and, unlike its immediate predecessors, the first not to go into Thanksgiving with a playoff seat already secured.
When the table starts getting cleared under your nose, you grab fork and knife with new-found urgency.
“Last time we didn’t make the playoffs was, what, 4-5 years ago?” said Thomson. “We want to give it everything we’ve got.”
Legacy lies heavily on both teams. Southington players like Thomson and quarterback Will Barmore had older brothers on the state championship teams of 2013 and 2014.
Cheshire players grow up in the lore of the seven state titles and the 1990s dynasty. Some, like senior captain Eric Angelone, were at the 2009 championship game, when the Rams defeated Staples on a blustery Sunday afternoon in West Haven.
“At 10 years old, I was thinking it was so far away, but now, as a senior, it’s here,” Angelone said of the last shot at playoff glory for he and his Cheshire classmates. “We’ve got to come out Thanksgiving and really give it to them to so we can get back there.”
A quick snapshot on where the Class LL playoff picture stands for the eighth and final spot:
The Apple Classic winner wil eliminate the Apple Classic loser. It is not a given, though, that the Apple Classic winner will qualify. Fairfield Prep (7-2) will muddy the picture if it wins its Turkey Day matchup with No. 5 West Haven (8-1).
Cheshire needs Prep to lose, plain and simple. Thanks to bonus points, Cheshire will not be able to catch Prep if both win Thursday.
Southington might be able to squeak past Prep on bonus points if both win. Might. A Prep loss makes the math cut and dry. The Blue Knights go to the Class LL playoffs for a sixth straight year if they beat Cheshire and Prep loses.
Add it up and the game is once again a classic matchup and a toss-up. Southington leads the series 12-9, has won the last five, yet has lost two of its last three games thanks to fourth-quarter comebacks turned by East Hartford (26-20) in Week 7 and South Windsor (30-27 OT) in Week 9.
You have to go back to 2011, head coach Mike Drury’s first season, for the last time Southington lost two out of three games. You have to go back to 2009 for the last time Southington went into Thanksgiving stinging from a loss.
Cheshire, meanwhile, was on a promising track until falling 20-12 to Daniel Hand at the Surf Club in Week 8. The Rams did rebound with a 27-18 victory in Bridgeport over Harding to remain in playoff contention. Cheshire’s other losses were to West Haven (27-0) and North Haven (17-14).
The other factor to consider is Alumni Field. The Rams, even when they’re longshots, tend to play Southington real tough on their home turf. They nearly took down an unbeaten Southington team in 2005, succeeded in doing so in 2007 and were within two minutes of doing it again in 2015.
Now, for the first time since 2014, the Rams aren’t merely playing for pride and to pull an upset. They’ve got post-Thanksgiving football within their reach.
“We’re not under a stone here. There’s no hiding it. Everybody understands what it is,” said Cheshire coach Donny Drust. “I don’t know if this game needs anything added to it. Both towns, both schools, both programs understand how important it is.”
Drust has been encouraging his players to embrace the moment and embrace the opportunity — “embrace every part of it and go out and just do what you’ve done since you were in fourth grade, which is play the game of football with passion,” as he tells them.
In Southington, Drury has found his players not discouraged, but doubling down in the wake of defeat.
“With our team, I like our focus. The kids are hyper-focused now with everything we do — every meeting, every practice, every lift — because they know how important it is,” he said.
Southington possesses the better stats. Cheshire, as an SCC Tier 1 team, can argue the tougher schedule.
Both teams play good defense. The Blue Knights have yielded 12.3 points a game, Cheshire 19.7.
The lanky Thomson, with his 15 pass breakups and four interceptions, leads the Southington secondary. The linebacking corps is the three-headed monster of Ian Hall (79 tackles), Joe Koczera (71) and Ryan Montalvo (42). Sean Scanlon (48) leads the front line.
It’s an opportunistic defense across the board. Southington has come up with 19 turnovers and blocked three punts.
The Rams are led by linebacker Nick Nelson, who is among area leaders with 96 tackles. Fellow linebacker Jay Como has 64. Dan Calbo (48), Connor Whelan (45) and Dan Covel (41) are the rocks up front.
Heavy hitters and ball hawks are in the backfield. The Rams have picked off 10 passes, led by Nick Quint’s four. Jeffery (56) and Angelone (55) are among team tackling leaders.
Flip it around and Jeffery (36-491) and Angelone (22-336) are principal targets for quarterback Jack Raba (58-for-109, 670), who became Cheshire’s all-time passing leader earlier this year.
Raba did miss a few games to injury. While he was out, fellow senior Will Graikoski again proved his mettle. Graikoski, who engineered the near-upset in the 2015 Apple Classic, is a threat to both run (9-108) and throw (33-62, 441).
“Cheshire, they bring several things to the table,” Drury noted. “They play very good defense. They’re tough inside the box. There’s a couple of very good secondary players who make plays on the ball.
“Offensively, they have two quarterbacks,” the Southington coach added. “They have a threat to run the ball at the quarterback position and push the ball downfield. Their ability to throw the ball forces you to make sure that you’ve got guys in the secondary. You’ve got to be able to balance what you want to stop: the pass or the run?”
Both teams have options when it comes to the ground game, but do employ a principal back. For Cheshire, it’s sophomore rookie Jake McAlinden (101-679). For Southington, it’s the veteran Montalvo (56-395). The Rams will also get yards from Ellijah Allston (64-307) and the Blue Knights from Tanner LaRosa (94-356).
“They’re a good football team,” said Drust. “They run to the football on defense; they play very hard. They have a quarterback who can spread the football around. They have multiple running backs; Montalvo is a good, strong, tough kid.”
Barmore is the area’s leading passer at 154-for-246, 2,036 yards. Tim O’Shea (45-569) has been his main man. Another key receiver, Will Downes (19-253), just returned from injury.
Speaking of which, injuries have plagued both teams this year. Two linemen/captains, Covel for Cheshire and Jake Monson of Southington, have been banged up. Both are expected to play Thursday. Along with Downes, Southington’s skill set took a major hit when running back Brandon Kohl went down in Week 1.
Both squads battled through the bad breaks to the point that, once again, the Apple Classic is a must-see game. It’s a must-win, too.
“It’s Thanksgiving Day. You never know how those are going to be,” said Drury. “I love playing at our place, but I also love playing there. The atmosphere of both places is dynamic. It’s electric and the kids love being a part of it … This is a playoff game.”
It sure is. Hungry yet?