WEST HAVEN — Momentum swung back and forth at a dizzying pace.
Fairfield Prep used its superior bulk and power to control the first half. Despite the Jesuits’ reputation as a second-half team, Southington punched back in a big way.
Trailing by two touchdowns at halftime, the Blue Knights rode a stunning second-half comeback Thursday night to gain their second Class LL championship with a 52-34 conquest of the Jesuits at Ken Strong Stadium.
Southington (12-1) won its previous state crown in 1998 over Norwich Free Academy. The Knights have appeared in seven finals. Prep (11-3), which last won a title in 1988, lost in the finals for the second time in five appearances.
“Champions are made when you bounce back when you’re down, how you react. The kids reacted, responded, came out and played a great second half,” Southington coach Mike Drury said.
Stephen Barmore threw four touchdown passes, all in the second half, but it was his 67-yard interception return with 2:04 to go that emphatically sealed the deal. The Knights made four picks on the night.
The Jesuits, up 28-14 received the second-half kickoff and sputtered, immediately reversing the momentum they enjoyed in the first half.
Alex Jamele, the Knights’ record-breaking receiver, was kept off the scoreboard in the first half but changed that by grabbing a Barmore pass and scooting down the sideline on Southington’s second play of the third quarter.
The defense threw a log on the fire by stopping Prep cold. Defensive end Matt Koczera, felled by a knee injury early in the season, played a major role as he did all game long with a team-high 12 tackles.
“They played very hard in the second half,” Prep coach Tom Shea said. “A couple guys that we were blocking, all of a sudden we couldn’t block them. It wasn’t a scheme thing. We lost a few one-on-one battles in some key situations, they got some stops on third down and they exploited a few things that are not our strengths (pass defense).”
Jamele struck again on the ensuing possession with a 42-yard catch and run that brought the ball inside the Prep 10. On third down from the 4, he turned a little “out” pattern and Barmore was right on target to tie the game.
Kyle Smick booted a 21-yard field goal on the first series of the fourth quarter to give Southington its first lead at 31-28, but a 70-yard run by Smith paved the way for the Jesuits to regain the advantage less than a minute later.
But the relentless Knights offense went 66 yards in seven plays with Barmore hitting Jay Rose from seven yards out to put them ahead for good.
“We kept coming and didn’t let up,” Drury said. “We like to say we get better as the game goes on and we did.”
Junior linebacker Matt Thomson’s interception and 30-yard return halted Prep’s next drive. Jamele scored his third TD of the half with 3:46 left to make it a two-possession game. Barmore’s interception dealt the Jesuits the final blow.
“[Jamele] can run every route and catch every ball,” Drury said. “After the catch, he’s dynamic.”
The game began with Southington failing to get a first down on its first two possessions, Fairfield Prep went to work on the Knights’ 48. A thundering 21-yard run by 6-3, 246-pound back Nick Crowle and an eight-yard carry by quarterback Colton Smith penetrated the red zone. Two plays later, Smith sliced off tackle for a 17-yard touchdown.
The Knights had the answer.
Tyler Hyde’s 37-yard kickoff return put the ball at the Prep 48. A 15-yard pass play from Barmore to Alex Jamele augmented by a personal foul penalty on the tackle set the Knights up at the 18. Hyde, inspired by the ferocity of the illegal hit, bolted 13 yards. He scored two plays later from the 2. But the Knights struggled to cope with the power thrusts of Crowle and Smith’s slashing runs. An interception by Barmore foiled the Jesuits’ next possession, but when the Knights were unable to move the ball, Prep had a short field with just over two minutes left in the quarter.
A 39-yard aerial from Smith to Jack DelliSanti cutting across the middle was the big play as the Jesuits used Smith’s two-yard burst to regain the lead.
Southington went three and out to start the second quarter. Crowle rolled 53 yards to pay dirt to boost Prep’s lead to 21-7.
Faced with a possibility of a massive first-half deficit, Barmore found his rhythm and the Knights unleashed an aerial assault that carried them 68 yards in 11 plays. Hyde, Jamele, Kyle Borawski and Zach Maxwell all caught passes on the drive that Barmore consummated with a one-yard plunge.
Despite some effective work by defensive ends Matt Koczera and Maxwell, Prep converted two third-down challenges and the Smith-to-DelliSanti connection delivered gains of 23 and 31 yards, the latter for a touchdown and a 28-14 lead with 4:06 remaining in the half.
The ledger showed Prep with 189 rushing yards in the first half, 128 by Crowle, Barmore’s future teammate at Yale.
Southington 52, Fairfield Prep 34
At Ken Strong Stadium, West Haven
Fairfield Prep 14-14-00-06—34
FP—Colton Smith 17 run (Henry Healy kick), 6:39
S—Tyler Hyde 2 run (Kyle Smick kick), 5:36
FP—Smith 2 run (Healy kick), :12
FP—Nick Crowle 53 run (Healy kick), 10:59
S—Stephen Barmore 1 run (Smick kick), 8:24
FP—Jack DelliSanti 31 pass from Smith (Healy kick), 4:06
S—Alex Jamele 60 pass from Barmore (Smick kick), 7:39
S—Jamele 4 pass from Barmore (Smick kick), 3:50
S—Smick 21 FG, 10:35
FP—Crowle 7 run (kick failed), 9:52
S—Jay Rose 7 pass from Barmore (Smick kick), 8:11
S—Jamele 20 pass from Barmore (Smick kick), 3:46
S—Barmore 67 interception return (Smick kick), 2:04
RUSHING —Fairfield Prep: Crowle 26-176, Smith 19-157, Anthony Johnson 1-minus 1. Southington: Hyde 17-67, Maxwell 5-35, Barmore 8-minus 1, Team 2-minus 2, Jamele 1-minus 6.
PASSING —Fairfield Prep: Smith 8-24-4-120. Southington: Barmore 22-33-1-346.
RECEIVING: Fairfield Prep: DelliSanti 4-104, Stephen Walsh 1-9, Andrew Ostrosky 1-3, Crowle 1-2, Brendan Beiser 1-2. Southington: Jamele 10-230, Kyle Borawski 7-67, Maxwell 3-38, Rose 1-7, Hyde 1-4.