Heavy favorites stand on guard

MERIDEN —It’s a rivalry that dates back to the Cold War and it pits West against East, though relations are nowhere as hostile as they used to be.

In fact, the occasional transfer and leaker of secrets aside, relations are downright cordial.

As geopolitics go, so goes Platt-Maloney.

The 56th edition of the Stoddard Bowl approaches Thursday against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination’s 50th anniversary, so please allow some old terminology:

*Maloney still holds the overall series lead 28-26-1, but the balance of power has decidedly tilted to the West Side. Platt has won five straight and 10 of the last 12, including 44-0 last year in the second-most lopsided game in Stoddard history.

*Platt enjoys the more proven and deeper weaponry, but Maloney arguably holds the edge in the next generation of armaments.

Current intrigue is minimal. Playoff-bound Platt is a spotless 10-0, going up against a 1-8 Maloney team that hasn’t won since its season opener. There’s little reason to believe the pendulum will start swinging back the other way come Thursday morning at Falcon Field.

Unless, of course, the Spartans pull off one of the greatest upsets in series history.

Which is not beyond the realm of possibility. After all, this is the Stoddard Bowl, this is football.

“Any given day, you know?” said Maloney head man Pierce Brennan, who will be coaching in his first Stoddard Bowl. “You still have to go out there and play.”

Unfortunately for the Spartans, that is very much the mindset of the Panthers, who are intent on avoiding the age-old pratfall of the heavy favorite and looking past an opponent that, at least on paper, is over-matched. Platt has a Class L playoff berth secured, but wants to nail down a home game for the quarterfinals. That will be guaranteed with a victory over Maloney.

“For us, every game is a playoff game,” said Platt head coach Jason Bruenn. “We want home field; we’ve got to earn it. Maloney’s not just going to give it to us. We’re going to have to go out there and earn it on Thanksgiving, and that’s the goal.”

“It’s a big game for us,” remarked Andrew McBride, Platt’s senior quarterback. “Thanksgiving, everybody’s there. We’ve got to show the whole town what we can do and that we’re ready to play in the playoffs.”

McBride leads an offense that has scored 436 points, which is tops in the CCC and fourth best in the state. The Panthers have all the ingredients:

*An experienced run-throw threat at QB (McBride has thrown for 1,198 yards, run for 163);

*An explosive running game (junior Tyzhan Leatherwood has 1,753 yards and 26 TDs on 176 carries);

*Dual vertical threats in senior Creme Watford (36-661, 16 TDs receiving) and junior Olajuwon McLeod (25-419, 6 TDs);

*A dominant offensive line that ties it all together.

The defense is no less potent. Led by their senior captains/linebackers, Jason Nelson and Scott Dargan, the Panthers have allowed just 135 points, some of which came in the second half of blowouts against the second string.

And therein lies the knock on Platt from some out-of-town parties: The Panthers play in the lowest of the CCC’s three divisions, against the conference’s smallest schools. Who have they beaten?

Well, Rocky Hill and Bloomfield, who are likely to be playing in the Class S playoffs (Rocky Hill is in, Bloomfield on the verge). Platt has also beaten (and beaten handily) perennial contenders Berlin and Northwest Catholic.

Still, the Panthers, who were Class M when they were relegated to CCC Division III in 2010, know they’re unlikely to change opinions on this topic anywhere but on the field. This is another reason they are so driven to take care of business, both on Thanksgiving and beyond.

“Just knowing that we’re going to go into the Stoddard Bowl 10-0 and then, we beat them, we’re in the playoffs, that’s all we need, knowing that we get to go up against teams everybody thinks are way better than us,” said Leatherwood. “Everyone thinks we’re overrated. Just knowing that fuels us up.”

The flip-side of this theme is the Spartans may be 1-8, but they’ve gone up against some of the best teams in Class L. Maloney has played (and lost handily to) Middletown (9-1), Farmington (8-2) and Bristol Eastern (8-2), all of whom are on course to make the playoffs. Maloney also faced last year’s Class L runner-up, Windsor (6-3).

Just watching those teams march onto the field, Brennan noted, can be intimidating to a young team like his Spartans. Platt is an equally imposing a team, but in this case familiarity breeds a degree of comfort. Many Panthers and Spartans grew up as teammates in the Meriden Raiders program.

“You go up against Farmington and Middletown and Bristol Eastern, Windsor, we see these guys get off the bus and it’s a different animal,” Brennan said. “Our kids are seeing those kids for the first time, they’re more physically imposing; but they’ve known these guys (Platt players) forever. That intimidation factor getting off the bus isn’t there. They know what they’re going against.

“It works to Platt’s advantage as much as it does ours, but there’s not that shock and awe of, ‘oh, my God, look at these dudes.’ ”

The Spartans have some pretty good dudes in their ranks, too, many of the up-and-coming variety:

*Jaron Cogdell, with 1,120 yards on 201 carries, is only the third sophomore in Maloney’s checkered running history to rush for over 1,000 yards.

*Chris Dingwell, also a sophomore, took over quarterbacking duties midway through the season and is in position to run Maloney’s no-huddle system through 2015.

*Jakai Whittingham, a 6-foot-3 receiver, defensive back, punter and return man, is emerging as a key player in all three phases of the game.

*The majority of the line is underclass, including junior RT/DE Twyman Miller, the team’s second-leading tackler with 46, including three sacks.

The leading Maloney tackler with 72, and the most senior of the Spartan seniors, is TE/LB Caleb Jean, who first made a name for himself as a sophomore, particularly with a standout performance in the 2011 Stoddard Bowl. He’s got a brassy nickname (“Haitian Sensation”), but is better known for his hard-hitting and cerebral play, as well as a quiet leadership style that’s well-respected by his teammates.

Thursday will be Jean’s last go-around. He goes in as an underdog, but hardly without hope.

“I believe we have a shot to beat any team. It depends how we practice, how we prepare for them,” Jean said. “We have to work together as a team and shut down what they do best, which is probably running the ball.”

Statistically, that is true. The Panthers rush for 247 yards a game while throwing for 131. Leatherwood is one reason for that. So is the lopsided nature of many Platt games.

The efficiency of McBride is another. He’s completed nearly 60 percent of his passes (68-for-114) and 21 have gone for touchdowns against just two interceptions. In particular, he throws an accurate fade, and Watford and McLeod can torch single coverage.

So, in other words, Jean and the Maloney defense are probably going to have to pick their poison Thursday.

As for the East Side offense, the Spartans are far more a running team. They average just shy of 200 yards on the ground and only 68 through the air.

What the numbers don’t measure is Maloney’s character. Sounds trite, but senior RB/LB Jophy Nieves raises a valid point.

“Think about it: not a lot of kids are going to stick with a team that’s 1-8,” he said. “It takes a kid with a big heart to actually still come to practice and push hard every day and give it all you got, even with that record, and play like were 0-0.”

This has not passed notice with Bruenn. It’s a point he’s making to his Panthers to guard against under-estimating their rivals.

“They’re not going to be like, ‘Hey, that’s Platt, they’re awesome and we’re just going to lie down,’” Bruenn said of the Spartans. “They care about what they do. You can see them working; you can see them on the field. I don’t see their heads going down and giving up on anything. No matter what the score is, they’re always going after it. They’re persistent kids.

“I’ve got alumni telling me, ‘Don’t take them lightly.’ I know that,” Bruenn added. “The goal is to try to get these guys to believe that they’ve got to play their best game no matter who they’re playing against. Certainly, coach Brennan’s going to have his kids fired up ready to go.”

And certainly an upset of Platt would redeem a 1-8 season in one stroke. The Spartans, being such long-shots and a team building for the future, have the luxury of playing loose — or, as Nieves put it, “playing as a family and just enjoying it.”

The Panthers, with that more extensive portfolio — repeat playoff qualifiers, perfect season, home-field ramifications — must be more business-like.

Then again, whether dead-serious or yukking it up, the Panthers have been simply bullish this season. A 34-32 come-from-behind win in Bloomfield in Week 6 was their one close call. In the four weeks since, they’ve outscored opponents 200-43, including Berlin at Falcon Field (44-6) and Northwest Catholic in West Hartford (48-8).

“We’re ready to play anybody,” said McBride. “We’ve just got to keep practicing like we’re ready to play anybody. It doesn’t matter what team we have next.”

For the third time in four years, there will be a “next” after Thanksgiving for Platt. The difference is the Panthers, not content to just be back, are driven to avoid the fate of 2010 and 2012, when they lost on the road in the quarterfinals. They want a home playoff date, which is why they say they’re treating Thanksgiving as if it’s part of the postseason path.

“We’re definitely not taking a team lightly. No team,” Leatherwood said. “I don’t care who or what. We never take a team lightly. We’re going to go in there like we’re playing a state championship game.”

bcarpenter@record-journal.com (203) 317-2204



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