THANKSGIVING FOOTBALL: An added slice of pie for 2019 Apple Classic

THANKSGIVING FOOTBALL: An added slice of pie for 2019 Apple Classic

CHESHIRE — They could enter Thanksgiving Day winless and it wouldn’t matter.

The fact that the Southington and Cheshire football teams are both among the top four in Class LL just adds another layer to this year’s Apple Classic.

Both the Rams and Blue Knights are 8-1. Regardless of Thursday morning’s outcome, each will play Tuesday night in the state playoffs. Cheshire is ranked No. 3 in Class LL points, while Southington checks in at No. 4.

So, what’s at stake in this tasty Thanksgiving affair? The winner stays home Tuesday and hosts a CIAC quarterfinal game. The loser is almost certain to hit the road.

Oh, of course, the victor also walks off Alumni Field with bragging rights. And that may be more important than any playoff implications.

“It’s a goal every year to beat them,” Southington senior captain Billy Carr said.  “Cheshire is always in the back of our minds. We are always worried about the team up next, but (Cheshire) is always there.”

“It’s Cheshire; it’s a big game every year,” added Carr, a linebacker who leads the Blue Knights with 94 tackles and 10 sacks. “Both teams could be 0-9. Who cares? (Both teams) are going to play like we’re 10-0. It doesn’t matter.”

“We are excited to play them; it’s a great rivalry,” said Southington senior wide receiver Josh Vitti, who leads the Blue Knights with eight touchdown catches. “It’s always the game I’m thinking about. It’s always a close game. It’s going to be crazy, but we are ready for the challenge.”

The feeling is mutual across a shared border.

“It’s getting hyped up to be a big game,” Cheshire senior quarterback Jason Shumilla said. “It’s going to be a big one. We are really looking forward to it.

“We have a bunch of goals coming into the season, and one of those is to beat Southington,” Shumilla added. “Regardless of what our record is, we go into the game knowing we have a shot.”

The Rams have achieved all their goals to this point. Cheshire won the SCC Tier 2 title with its 48-28 victory Friday night over Harding combined with Hamden’s 52-40 loss to Sheehan.

Friday night’s win also sent Cheshire back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. That year, Cheshire beat Staples in overtime to claim its seventh state championship.

“We are ecstatic, right, but we want one more piece of the pie,” Cheshire leading rusher Jake McAlinden said in looking ahead to Thanksgiving after Friday night’s win.

“There isn’t much to be said about it,” Cheshire head coach Don Drust said. “It’s Thanksgiving and it’s a rivalry game. It means a lot.

“You have two communities who are tremendously passionate about football and the programs,” Drust added. “When you match up two teams and two towns like that, it’s going to be a tremendous atmosphere. I’m just happy my guys are fortunate enough to play in a game like this.”

One thing Drust or his current players haven’t done on Thanksgiving is beat Southington. Cheshire’s last Apple Valley Classic win came in 2011.

Ironically, the last time Cheshire won the Apple Classic was in Southington head coach Mike Drury’s first season in charge of the Blue Knights. And the last time the Classic had as much playoff implications was in 2014, when the Blue Knights denied the Rams a spot in the Class LL field and went on to win a state championship.

Southington leads the Thanksgiving series 14-9 and won last year’s game, played on Thanksgiving eve, 23-13. But this year’s matchup, at least on paper, is all but even.

Both teams lost in Week 2. Both have won seven straight games since.

Both can run or pass the ball effectively. Both can score. Cheshire averages 38.5 points a game, Southington 36.3.

Southington’s defense has posted two straight shutouts, hasn’t been scored upon in 11 quarters and has allowed just 20 points in its past five games.

Cheshire hasn’t trailed at home this season and its starting defensive unit has allowed just 12 points in four routs at Alumni Field.

“It makes it fun, makes it exciting,” Drury said. “Both teams are doing really well this year. Both teams are playing real good football right now.

“But this game is always going to be a competitive game no matter what,” Drury added.

Last year’s win made it seven straight Southington victories over Cheshire. The Rams won four straight Apple Classic games from 2007-11.

This year’s Cheshire team appears poised to end Southington’s streak and do something its head coach has never done: Beat Southington on Thanksgiving morning.

Cheshire’s balance on offense starts with McAlinden, who has 20 total touchdowns this season. The senior has run for 989 yards on just 110 carries.

A week ago, he rushed for 109 yards and two first-quarter TDs. He carried the ball just seven times and went over 100 yards rushing for the fifth time this season.

With the Rams rolling to big leads, McAlinden (9.0 yards a carry) has seldom seen much action in the second half of games.

Shumilla (80-of-151 for 1,169 yards) threw two more touchdown passes against Harding and now has 13 on the season. The senior quarterback, who missed last year’s Apple Classic with a broken foot, has done the majority of his damage in the first half of routs, just like McAlinden.

Sophomore Christian Russo is another offensive threat in the Cheshire backfield. Russo scored twice against Harding and has seven rushing touchdowns this season.

Cheshire’s top receiver is senior Alec Frione. He’s caught a team-high 23 passes and scored five TDs.

Colby Griffin, who also leads the Rams’ defensive unit at safety, caught a pair of touchdowns last week and is averaging over 20 yards a catch.

“It’s two state playoff teams and it’s going to be a state-game mentality,” Griffin said. “No matter if it’s a grind-it-out game or shootout, I just know they are coming here and the Rams are undefeated at home. We are going to do what we do at home, and go out there and get the win.”

To get that elusive Thanksgiving Day win, Cheshire will have to find a way to penetrate a Southington defense that has allowed just one team (Glastonbury) to run for 100 yards and one squad to pass for more than 200 (Darien). The Blue Knights are allowing just eight points a game.

While Carr leads Southington in nearly every major defensive stat, the Blue Knights feature a unit full of ball-hawking defenders: Max Casella (73 tackles), Riley Clingan (48 tackles), Ryan Walsh (39 tackles) and Anthony Henderson (35 tackles). Angelo Plantamuro (35 tackles) leads the Blue Knights with two interceptions.

On offense, Southington features a dynamic duo of senior running backs and a junior quarterback who’ll get his first taste of this Thanksgiving rivalry.

Dillon Kohl, who has missed two of the past three Southington games with an injured hand, will suit up against Cheshire and Drury expects him to play. Kohl leads the Blue Knights with 843 yards and 10 TDs.

In his absence, all M.J. Bennett did was rack up 107 yards on just eight carries against New Britain. Earlier this season, Bennett had 134 yards and two TDs on five carries against Enfield. On the year, the senior is averaging 10 yards a carry, has run for eight TDs and has 529 yards rushing.

Quarterback Brady Lafferty leads the Southington attack. He started the first four games behind center and seven of the Blue Knights’ nine games, He’s thrown for 22 TDs and 1,643 yards.

Shane LaPorte started at quarterback in Weeks 5 and 6, but hasn’t played since injuring his hand against East Hartford. Lafferty has thrown for 14 touchdowns and two interceptions since LaPorte’s injury.

LaPorte, who had his cast removed this week after hand surgery, moves back to wide receiver against Cheshire. LaPorte, Vitti and Carter Uhlman, who has a team-high 50 catches for 559 yards, are Laffery’s primary targets.

“There are a lot of expectations, but I’m ready for the battle,” Lafferty said.

“I really feel like the whole offense is coming together right now,” the quarterback continued. “The offensive line is firing on all cylinders and the receivers are catching everything. We are really connecting well and ready for this game.”

Since losing 28-6 in Week 2 at Darien — the No. 1 Class LL seed heading into Thursday’s game against New Canaan — Southington’s mindset has been playing each week as if it’s a playoff game. It led the Blue Knights, who had a bye last week, to a sixth straight undefeated CCC Division I West title and it’s their seventh trip to the Class LL playoffs in the last eight years.

Cheshire hasn’t lost since falling at Hall, 35-28.

Thursday morning could be a prelude to the teams meeting again this season. There is a possibility Cheshire and Southington could play a second time in the Class LL playoffs.

“It’s weird to think, win or lose, we could play them again (in the playoffs),” Carr said “It would just be double the intensity.”