SOUTHINGTON — The field for the wide-open Class LL football championship rounds into the clubhouse turn with Southington the highest remaining seed.
The fourth-seeded Blue Knights (10-1) are roaring down the stretch toward their seventh final with only No. 8 Ridgefield (10-2) standing in the way. The game is slated to kick off today at 2 p.m. at Ken Strong Stadium on the campus of West Haven High School.
While the Knights were pounding Norwich Free Academy 52-14 on Tuesday night, the Tigers were holding off a determined comeback by top-seeded Newtown. They held a 22-point lead with three minutes left in the third quarter, but needed a stop on a two-point conversion in the waning seconds to eke out a 35-33 win.
Southington has won one state title: in 1998 when MVP quarterback Scott Bard executed former coach Jude Kelly’s run-and-shoot offense to perfection in a 54-26 stomping of NFA at Southern Connecticut State University. The Knights lost to Glastonbury (1984), Hartford Public (1994), Greenwich twice (1999 and 2006) and Xavier (2005) in their other championship bids.
Ridgefield, which finished first in the FCIAC Central Division, won a Class L-II crown in 1983 and emerged as the 2002 Class L champion with one-point wins over Amity and Windsor. The Tigers’ lone postseason disappointment came in the 2011 quarterfinals against Staples.
The teams had one common opponent this year. Ridgefield began the season September 15 with a hard-fought 17-14 win over Cheshire, the same team that the Knights dismantled on Thanksgiving 38-6.
But Southington coach Mike Drury was quick to express that comparative scores are moot.
“You take things like that with a grain of salt,” he said. “It was early in the year. You don’t know how the team developed. Some teams came out a lot differently in the first game. We came out slowly against Glastonbury until we found our identity. There were new kids who had never started before.
“I stressed that to the kids. They see the scores, but it means nothing. They’re in the semifinals, they’re a very good team and we’re going to have to play a great game.”
The Ridgefield offense operates almost identically to Southington’s. Coach Kevin Callahan runs a spread offense directed by junior quarterback Ryan Dunn and led by explosive tailback and University of Maryland lacrosse recruit Will Bonaparte (251 carries, 1,750 yards, 18 TDs).
Dunn’s primary targets are Andrew Chuma and Erik Weber, both of whom surpassed 40 receptions and combined for 15 TDs.
“Our quarterback is very efficient (64 percent completion ratio) and our tailback is pretty sensational,” Callahan said. “He’s one of the top runners in the state. He’s very dynamic.
“Chuma has been getting Division I-AA offers. He’s a special kid who goes both ways for us.”
Drury aims to take one aspect of Ridgefield’s offensive prowess away.
“Bonaparte has the whole package,” he said. “He has size, speed and vision and he gets the ball a lot. We’ll try to make them a one-dimensional team, but [Dunn] is a great player too and they have a couple of big-play receivers who can make plays on the edge …
“You have to make [in-game] adjustments and that’s one thing our coaching staff does extremely well.”
Like Southington, the Tigers don’t have much size up front, relying on quickness and toughness to compete. That toughness is personified in 5-10, 220-pound Lucas Goff, who played both ways against Newtown and will play against the Knights with a broken wrist.
On the Southington side, left tackle Jimmy Nardi injured his ankle severely enough against Cheshire that he had to sit out the second half. He wasn’t sitting against NFA. He and his front-line friends gouged open gaps that enabled Tyler Hyde (136 carries, 899 yards, 16 TDs) to run and neutralized the NFA rush so Steve Barmore (157-for-243, 2,550 yards, 5 interceptions, 35 TDs) could throw.
Southington kept mistakes to a bare minimum, which Drury pointed to as a key to victory.
“In a few games we had too many penalties and too many turnovers,” he said. “We had four penalties (only two assessed) and we put no balls on the ground. That’s huge in big games. They really swing the momentum.”
Southington’s only major malfunction against NFA was getting the offense in gear early.
After Kyle Smick’s field goal on the first possession, the Knights went a full quarter without a first down.
Similarly, Ridgefield was within a deflected conversion pass away from blowing its big lead and heading to overtime against a Newtown team that rallied with the hopes and dreams of a nation still mourning the events of last December 14.
“It was an emotional night,” Callahan said. “We’ve been coaching our kids mostly from the neck up. We’ll get a good two days of practice and see what we can do.”
Meanwhile, Drury and company were applying some last-minute modifications before heading to the starting gate.
“They call this the gauntlet for a reason,” Drury said. “This is the playoffs and they’re all tough opponents. They’re being coached up well. We’ve addressed getting our rhythm early and playing a four-quarter game. When you’re playing at this point of the season, it’s all about playing clean football.”