CHESHIRE — Thanksgiving morning, as always, was a fierce day at the office for Southington and Cheshire football.
If not more so: The winner of the 2017 Apple Valley Classic was a good bet to go to the playoffs. The loser would go home.
Yet while the business of winning was in their hands, there were market forces at play that stood to blow up the balance sheet.
You control what you can control, and for a sixth straight year the Blue Knights kept control of the Apple Valley Classic trophy with a 30-22 victory over the Rams at Alumni Field.
There would, however, be no ultimate blue chip for the Blue Knights. Thanks to Fairfield Prep’s 21-14 upset of West Haven, Southington fell short of the Class LL state playoffs for the first time since 2011.
It made for an unusual post-game in this rivalry. For only the eighth time in Southington and Cheshire’s 22-year Thanksgiving series, neither team was going on to the postseason.
Pride had to be taken in a game well played, a season well spent and, for seniors, a high school career well worth the while.
“It doesn’t take anything away from it; we did all we could do,” said Southington’s Ryan Montalvo, this year’s overall game MVP with 186 yards rushing on 25 carries and a solid game at linebacker. “I couldn’t be any more proud of my team. They performed to the best of their ability and I love these guys more than anything.”
On the other side of the field, another veteran and senior captain, his face streaked with tears and sweat, was thinking along the same lines.
“Just a lot of great memories with this team, the guys I’ve played with, the seniors: We made one hell of a run,” said Michael Jeffery, Cheshire’s offensive MVP with 10 receptions for 157 yards. “We gave it our all today. It’s all I can ask for as a teammate.”
The Prep game went final late in the third quarter of the Apple Valley Classic. I-phone clutching spectators knew. Both sidelines were in the dark.
“We did not know,” Jeffery said. “We were playing thinking we had playoff chances still. It didn’t matter. Just the pride of winning: We want to beat these guys as bad as they want to beat us.”
Southington, which led start to finish thanks to three first-quarter field goals by offensive MVP Evan Johanns, extended its Apple Valley Classic series lead to 13-9. The Blue Knights finished the year at 8-2. The Rams came away at 6-4.
The defensive MVPs sprang from the secondaries: Matt Thompson for Southington and Nick Quint for Cheshire. Thompson’s 25-yard pick-six late in the third quarter, which gave the Blue Knights a 30-14 lead at the time, proved to be the ultimate difference.
Anthony Vecchio and Shaun Wagner also had interceptions for the Blue Knights. Jason Shumilla and Owen Reach recovered fumbles for Cheshire.
Both of those fumbles came inside the Southington 20 and led to Cheshire touchdowns, including an 18-yard pass from Jack Raba to Jeffery that pulled the Rams to within 30-22 with 57 seconds left to play.
It came down to the ensuring onside kick and Josh Vitti recovered it for Southington.
“These guys have battled a ton of adversity all year — injuries and guys stepping up and responding to tough losses,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “We had two extremely tough losses and these guys responded. There was no packing it in. These guys practiced extremely hard the past week and a half, bouncing back from one of the toughest losses in program history. I’m proud of them.
“If this is the end,” Drury added, “then I’m glad we were able to battle today and get one of our big goals done.”
Southington had a big territorial advantage in the first half that was hardly reflected in the 16-7 lead showing on the scoreboard at halftime.
Three straight first-quarter forays into the red zone stalled. Johanns salvaged each with his right foot, connecting from 20, 35 and 30 yards for a 9-0 Southington lead..
A 32-yard return of the opening kickoff by Jimmy Ringrose put the Blue Knights at midfield to start the game. Passes from Will Barmore to Tim O’Shea and Will Downes, coupled with some runs by Montalvo, took Big Blue to the goalline. A false start there forced SHS to settle for 3.
Vecchio’s inteception on a deep ball by Raba on Cheshire’s first possession again put the Blue Knights at midfield. Completions to O’Shea put them back in the red zone. A subsequent pass thrown behind O’Shea on a slant proved costly and, again, Johanns spared Southington a squander.
Johanns executed a perfect pooch on the ensuing kickoff that 6-foot-3 Sam Thomson got under for the recovery at the Cheshire 32. The Blue Knights advanced to the 8. Cheshire again held the red zone line, containing Barmore on a scramble and Southington again had to settle for a field goal and a 9-0 lead.
“We needed to step it up on offense a little bit on that end, but I’m glad I got those three field goals for us,” said Johanns.
Cheshire’s offense, dormant throughout the first quarter, sprang to life on the final play, with Raba going deep to Jeffery for 44 yards to the Southington 29. Southington’s D held, thanks in part to an inside stuff on Elijah Allston by lineman John Miller.
The Rams punted and it was a good move. Ethan Bronson pinned SHS at the 3. Tanner LaRosa got the Blue Knights off the goal line with a 10-yard run only to fumble.
Shumilla recovered at the 13. A 9-yard pass to Eric Angelone and a 3-yard run by Allston set up Cole Escoto’s 1-yard TD run with 9:29 to go before half.
Southington, its lead down to 9-7, responded with its first touchdown drive, covering 76 yards in less than two minutes.
A 31-yard run by Montalvo and a 30-yard swing pass to Ringrose were the big hits. The pass to Ringrose put the Blue Knights inside the 10.
Facing third down at the 7, SHS avoided the need to call upon Johanns for the fourth time. Jamie Lamson made the inside move off trips-left and hauled in a TD pass from Barmore to put the Blue Knights up 16-7 with 7:45 until the break.
Cheshire, it’s offense still mostly scuffling, got another long-distance connection before halftime from Raba to Jeffery, this time for 50 yards. A sweep by Allston took the Rams 10 yards further into Southington territory to the 21.
Miller dropped Allston for a four-yard loss on the next snap and the drive fizzled. A 35-yard field goal attempt by Bronson had plenty of leg, but was just wide right.
Cheshire had better fortune coming out of halftime, driving 63 yards off the opening kick to close to within 16-14.
The key play came on a third-and-14 at the Southington 39. Raba scrambled deftly and completed a 28-yard pass to Angelone. Escoto swept 10 yards to the goal line. Raba took it over center from there.
The ensuing kickoff saw perhaps the biggest play of the day. Bronson’s boot was bobbled. Cheshire coverage men were in position to recover. Instead, Southington’s Joe Koczera, one of his team’s leading players at linebacker, made the recovery.
“I kind of jumped on it and they were hitting me from the side,” said Koczera, who as long-snapper was also the assist man on the three field goals by Johanns.
The recovery by Koczera not only saved the Blue Knights from a major turnover that would have likely put Cheshire ahead, it sprang an 86-yard drive that refortified the Southington lead to 23-14.
Starting at their own 14, the Blue Knights got a 12-yard run from Montalvo. Barmore hit Downes for passes of 12, 11 and 11 yards. On the 10th and final play of the drive, at the Cheshire 28, Montalvo burrowed through a hole at the line, gained the second level and, by the time he was brought down, was in the end zone.
Just over three minutes remained in the third quarter. Right about then, Prep’s game went final in Fairfield. Cheshire’s playoff chances were officially dead.
Cheshire hopes of beating Southington also seemed to flat-line when, a mere three snaps after Montalvo’s touchdown, Thompson stepped in front of a short pass over the middle and brought it back 25 yards for a 30-14 Southington lead.
The Rams did show spunk with a double-reverse pass from Jeffery to Angelone that, despite Jeffery taking a wicked wallop upon release, went for a 44-yard touchdown. Angelone, however, was called for pass interference and the third quarter closed with Southington’s 30-14 advantage intact.
Defense dominated the fourth quarter. Southington was doing a better job defending the deep pass and Cheshire was keeping the Blue Knights from working the clock.
The game got sloppy. Penalties piled up. Southington was called for two personal fouls on a 12-yard Raba pass to Tim Hoynes, and that put the Rams in the red zone with 2:44 to go. Cheshire hurt itself with a false start before Wagner picked off a fourth-down pass in the end zone.
The death knell had not sounded, though. Reach kept the Rams within reach with his fumble recovery at the Southington 14. Raba hit Jeffery with the touchdown pass, and then Angelone with the conversion to make it a one-score game.
It wasn’t until Vitti secured the onside kick that the curtain could come down on the 22nd Apple Classic and, as it turned out, the 2017 season.
“This game, historically, over the years, comes down to weird plays, turnovers. When you have opportunities to make plays, you’ve got to make them,” said Cheshire coach Don Drust. “But at the end of the day, I’m really proud of this group. I’m proud of them sticking together, playing all the way to the end of the game and their genuine care for each other and for what they do.”