APPLE VALLEY CLASSIC: Southington springs a second-half surprise, takes 9th straight from Cheshire

SOUTHINGTON — After a first half dominated by both defenses, Southington had a special surprise for Cheshire to open the second half of the Apple Valley Classic.

Southington’s successful onside kick coming out of halftime led to 14 straight points in the third quarter on a beautiful Thanksgiving morning that ended with the Blue Knights beating their rival for a ninth straight time, 17-10, to clinch a Class LL playoff berth.

Game MVP Jack Barnum, who doubles as Southington’s kicker and quarterback, dribbled the second-half kickoff just past the “S” on the Southington turf. The onside kick turned the tide in Southington’s favor in front of an overflow crowd that watched the 25th edition of the game at Fontana Field.

The bounding ball went through Barnum’s hands, but it was recovered by SHS senior Alex Maindon at the Cheshire 48. 

Ten plays later, Southington (8-2) turned a 3-0 halftime lead into a 10-0 advantage on Javon Thomas’ 4-yard touchdown run.

Then, with 2:29 left in the frame, the Blue Knights stretch their advantage to 17-0 on Lincoln Cardillo’s 3-yard TD run.

“We worked on it all week in practice. We knew we were going to do it; just a matter of when,” Maindon said of the pivotal onside kick. “Coach made a great call. Jack made a great kick.

“The ball squirted out from under the other guys’ legs; I fell on it,” added Maindon. “It was nice to get that change of momentum. Coming out of halftime, we knew we needed to make a big play. Our number got called; we had to make a big play.”

“We’ve been thinking about it all week, so when he came out with it, it was kind of a ‘go thing’ right out of halftime,” said Barnum, who completed 18 of 26 passes for 170 yards. “Everyone executed it perfectly and we got the job done.

“I definitely think that swung the momentum our way. It just got everyone going,” 

“There is never, ever a better way to start Thanksgiving than to beat (Cheshire),” Barnum added. “Their turkey won’t taste as good as ours.”

The onside kick certainly seemed to put Cheshire on its heels. And while the Rams would fall behind 17-0 heading into the fourth quarter, they scored the game’s only points over the final 12 minutes.

After managing just one first down in the third quarter, Cheshire got on the board with 8:10 remaining in the game on a Mike Galloza field goal to make it 17-3. 

Cheshire then had a chance to get even close three plays later.

Danny Zawalich, who was named Cheshire’s defensive player of the game, intercepted Barnum on Southington’s next procession with 7:18 to play. But the Rams failed to take advantage of the game’s first turnover and turned the ball over on downs with 5:39 to play. 

Following Zawalich’s interception at midfield, Cheshire got to the SHS 12 on the game’s longest play — a 32-yard pass from Matt Jeffery to Zawalich. But personal-foul and illegal motion penalties on the Rams resulted in a fourth-and-33.

Cheshire (4-6) would finally find the end zone with just over a minute to play on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Jeffery to Ethan Rosenthal, but its own last-ditch onside kick was recovered by Southington’s Kam Beaudoin, allowing the Blue Knights to run out the clock.

“It wasn’t the first time we’ve had our backs against the wall,” Cheshire senior linebacker Kevin D’Errico said. “Our defense is going to hit you, and hit you again. That’s what we do. It’s our job to get our offense back on the field and score some points.

“Hopefully, we’ll come out with a win. It didn’t happen today,” added D’Errico.

Southington wideout Justin Zitofsky (7 catches, 54 yards) was named the Blue Knights’ offensive player of the game, while senior end Austin Pszczolkowski was SHS’s defensive player of the game.

Led by Pszczolkowski and fellow senior defensive end Jackson Rusiecki, Southington held Cheshire to just over 200 yards of offense.

Cheshire senior running back Christian Russo had 41 of those yards on the ground as the Rams leading rusher. He was named Cheshire’s offensive player of the game.

Jeffrey completed 14 of 30 passes for 139 yards. 

“We talked about (the possibility of the onside kick), but they executed it and made a play,” Cheshire head coach Don Drust said. “At the end of the day, they made a play and it was an important play.

“(But) our story all year is we played hard to the end,” continued Drust. “They made a few less mistakes than we did. In a game like this, against teams like this, we’ve learned that’s how it is. You can’t make mistakes against good football teams.”

The call for an onside kick was made on the sideline and actually suggested to Southington head coach Mike Drury by defensive coordinator Rob Levesque.

“I wanted to see how (Cheshire) reacted up front (on kickoffs),” Levesque said.  “It was favorable, so we just went for it.” 

“We didn’t tell anyone; nobody knew,” Drury said. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’

“In big games, there are momentum shifts and that was a big one,” Drury added. “We got the ball back and Jack drove us down the field.”

The victory unofficially clinched Southington’s eighth playoff appearance in head coach Mike Drury’s 10 years at the helm. Pending official CIAC approval on Friday morning, the Blue Knights are seeded 7th in the Class LL rankings and will play at No. 2 New Canaan (9-1) on Tuesday night.

New Cannan beat previously undefeated Darien 12-7 on Thanksgiving morning.

The Blue Wave (9-1) fell from the top seed to No. 3 and will host No. 6 Hamden (8-2) on Tuesday night. Fairfield Prep (9-1) moved up to No. 1 and will host No. 8 Greenwich (7-3), which handed Prep its only loss of the season, but needed to beat Staples in overtime on Thursday to qualify.

Rounding out the CIAC Class LL playoff field is No. 5 Shelton at No. 4 Hall.

As for Southington-Cheshire, neither team amassed 100 yards of total offense in the first half. Southington scored on its first possession on a 40-yard field goal by Barnum.

Barnum had 80 yards passing of Southington’s 90 total yards in the field half. Cheshire managed just 52 yards and punted three times.

Still, it was just 3-0 Southington at the half.

“We are right there,” Drust said. “We just have to keep playing hard and executing. In game like this, it’s a big play here and big play there. These games come down to one or two plays.”

The second quarter started with Southington facing fourth-and-two at the Cheshire 42. The Rams defense came up with a big play, stopping Cardillo for a two-yard loss.

Cheshire’s Charles Kurtz had two sacks in the first half.

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