APPLE VALLEY CLASSIC: After 2019 double-overtime thriller, Rams and Blue Knights hungry to renew rivalry; playoff berth on line for Southington

SOUTHINGTON — They’ll play the 25th Apple Valley Classic on Thanksgiving morning.

Southington and Cheshire will be hard-pressed to top their last meeting, a game that arguably was the best in the teams’ rivalry.

Before last year’s game was cancelled due to the pandemic, Southington won the 2019 Apple Valley Classic at Cheshire 21-20 in double overtime. 

While both teams had already clinched 2019 CIAC playoff spots, watching the Rams go for a do-or-die, two-point conversion in 2OT spoke volumes as to the importance of this game for both teams.

Cheshire was stopped just short of the goal line, allowing Southington to escape with its eighth straight win in the series.

“That was probably one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen,” said SHS senior Austin Pszczolkowski, who is tied with fellow defensive lineman Jackson Rusiecki for the team lead in tackles this season. 

As for making that decision to go for two points in 2019?

“You just want success for the kids,” said Cheshire head coach Don Drust. “After everything these kids go through, you just want them to feel success.

“The scoreboard doesn’t always show success. It shows wins and losses. But you want them to feel (success).”

This season, winning the Apple Valley Classic is still foremost in the minds of the Blue Knights (7-2) and Rams (4-5), but only Southington has a chance to play beyond Thanksgiving.

That is, if the Blue Knights can get past Cheshire.

“We get to wreck their season, ruin our rival’s season,” Cheshire senior captain Kevin D’Errico said. “It’s our last game; we are playing loose. Obviously, we’d like to have the burden (of winning) to get in the playoffs. But (beating Southington) means just as much to us. I can’t wait.”

Southington enters the Apple Classic ranked No. 7 in the CIAC Class LL playoff points. The Blue Knights lost at both No. 4 Hall on Oct. 1 and at Conard on Nov. 5. A third loss would end Southington’s season.

“Absolutely, it’s win or go home,” Southington head coach Mike Drury said. “This is a big game. We’re coming off a tough loss, but we are moving forward.

“(Losing last week) just creates a little heightened sense of awareness,” Drury added. “Everything matters; take nothing for granted.”

Southington senior captain Nate Hunt, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound leader of the offensive line, understands the importance of this Apple Valley Classic. But while the preparationweek brings with it an added attention to detail, the Blue Knights’ mentality hasn’t changed.

“These past few weeks have all been like playoff games, but now it’s real; the vibe is different,” Hunt said. “We’re all in ‘go mode.’”

“Unfortunately, last week didn’t go our way,” Rusiecki said. “It’s do-or-die for us, but our whole mindset (all season) has been every game is a playoff game for us.”

Cheshire, meanwhile, is No. 24 in the Class L rankings. A steady diet of Class LL opponents and close loses have derailed the Rams’ playoff hopes.

“We had the opportunity to play some really good football teams, week in and week out,” Drust said. “At the end of the day, I don’t make our schedule. We are going to show up every week and play as hard as we can. I feel we have honestly done that.

“They’ve played in an environment week in and week out that’s tremendous,” Drust added. “I think the experience and opportunity to do that is something these guys will take with them forever.”

Southington will be the eighth straight Class LL team the Rams line up against. 

Of Cheshire’s five losses, four were to LL teams with playoff aspirations — No. 5 West Haven (7-2), No. 6 Shelton (8-2), No. 9 Newtown (6-3) and No. 13 Norwalk (6-3). The losses to West Haven and Norwalk were decided in the fourth quarter. So was a 1-point loss to Xavier (6-4).

Cheshire defeated Staples, No. 10 in Class LL at 7-2. The Rams also beat Class LL NFA (3-6) and Class M North Haven (4-5) and Notre Dame-West Haven (3-6).

“They’ll be battle-tested,” Drury said.

With the playoffs out of reach, Cheshire knows spoiling the Blue Knights season would be a nice way to finish its season.

“We are playing this like our championship game,” Cheshire senior linebacker Luca Raccio said. “We don’t have another game after this, but the thought of knocking Southington out of the playoffs is huge.” 

“We want to go home and have that turkey taste real good,” said Cheshire senior running back Christian Russo. “The atmosphere is something most guys have never experienced. It’s something that shocks you when you walk out there. There’s always 5,000 to 6,000 people there. “

With last year’s Apple Classic cancelled, Russo is the only player with significant experience in an Apple Valley Classic. Other seniors on both sides may have seen the field as sophomores on special teams, but Russo has been playing varsity since his freshman season.

“I was there (in 2019) and, fortunately enough, got on the field on special teams,” Raccio recalled. “The atmosphere was amazing; people everywhere. It was great to have the town behind us.”

Russo remains the key to Cheshire’s offense. However, he has battled injuries after a strong start to his senior season. While he’s expected to play Thursday, his health remains a factor.

Russo was considered one of the state’s top running backs coming into the season and was on pace for nearly 2,000 rushing yards before a hamstring injury forced him to miss two games midway through the season. When he returned against Xavier, he injured his ankle and missed yet another game.

Last week on Senior Night, Russo returned to action, but ran for just five yards on seven carries. 

When healthy, Russo is a game-changer. He ran for 148 yards upon his return from the hamstring injury against Xavier. In Cheshire’s first four games, he had run for 760 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

“His preparation is tremendous,” Drust said of his running back. “Who he is, and what he is, it’s tremendous.

“We have to do our jobs as coaches to make sure he’s as healthy as he can be for Thursday morning,” added Drust. “It’s a day-to-day thing, and anything can happen, but I’m confident in him.”

The Rams have also been without junior quarterback Michael Simeone for the second half of the season. Simeone and sophomore Matthew Jeffery had platooned behind center before Simeone was injured. Earlier, it was Jeffery who had been injured.

“Between (Russo) and their quarterback (Matthew Jeffery), they’ve got good runners; they are both great with the ball in their hands,” Drury noted. “They’ve got some good receivers as well. They’ve got good speed on defense. They’re well coached (and) will play hard, just like they always do.

“The (Southington) kids need to prepare; we need to prepare as coaches,” Drury continued. “It’s like any other game. If you don’t execute, bad things will happen.”

Southington’s success starts on the ground. The Blue Knights feature a pair of running backs who have run for nearly 700 yards: senior Javon Thomas (699 yards, 9 TDs) and junior Lincoln Cardillo (667 yards, 10 TDs).

“I’ve been waiting for this,” said Thomas. “I just want to recreate (what I’ve watched). I’m going to run my butt off, do the best I can do.”

The pair have opened up plenty of opportunities for senior quarterback Jack Barnum, who has thrown for 1,520 yards as a first-year starter Barnum has 17 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.

His favorite target is senior Ryan DelMonte, who has 30 grabs for an area-high 516 yards. DelMonte leads the team with seven touchdown catches.

Fellow senior wideout Gavin Anderson has hauled in 28 passes for 449 yards and five touchdowns.

“We have to maintain balance,” Drury said. “Depending on what they’re giving us, see what we can take advantage of. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Drust, who played on defense for Cheshire in the ’97 and ’98 Apple Valley Classics, not surprisingly takes a defensive approach to the game as a head coach.

“Football is football at the end of day; you have to be able to stop the run,” Drust said. “If they are able to run the football, it’ll create a lot of challenges.

“You can’t make mistakes against (Southington); they will certainly exploit mistakes,” Drust continued. “You can’t have blown coverages, guys in wrong place at wrong time. They will make you pay for it by scoring touchdowns. They’ve done that for years.”

Cheshire has seen it first-hand. The Blue Knights hold a 15-9 advantage in the Thanksgiving morning affair. Overall, SHS leads Cheshire 23-19 in all-time matchups between the neighboring schools

Drury is 8-1 on Thanksgiving as a head coach, his lone loss coming in his rookie year of 2011 against Drust’s predecessor, Mark Ecke. Drust, who was an assistant under Ecke, has yet to taste Thanksgiving success as a head coach.

“At the end of day, this isn’t about me. It’s cliché, but I want (the players) to feel success,” Drust said. “The challenge ahead of us is Southington. They are very good team, well coached. That being said, we’ve faced some pretty good football teams this year.”

“It’s Thanksgiving morning, against Southington … the records are thrown out.”

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