CHESHIRE — Last year’s game MVP Jack Barnum summed it up best following Southington’s latest win over Cheshire in the Apple Valley Classic.
“Their turkey won’t taste as good as ours,” the Southington quarterback said following a 17-10 SHS victory.
Barnum may be gone, kicking for the University of Albany, but his words still ring true.
For the past decade, folks in blue and white have enjoyed their Thanksgiving meal a little more than those in red and black. That’ll happen when a team wins an annual border war nine straight times.
This year, Southington will try to make it 10 straight when it visits Cheshire High School at 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning for the 26th edition of the holiday rivalry.
While nothing needs to be at stake for this game to mean everything to everyone suiting up and in attendance, there is plenty on the line other than bragging rights.
Southington (8-1) has been among the top teams in the state since beating then-No. 1 Greenwich 29-28 on Sept. 26. Twice, the Blue Knights were ranked No. 1 in the GameTime CT state media poll, and only a change of heart among some voters dropped them to No. 2 this week behind 9-0 West Haven.
Cheshire (6-3), which cracked the state Top 10 following a 4-0 start, would like nothing more than to end its Apple Valley Classic losing streak and, in the process, end Southington’s hopes of being considered No. 1.
“There is just a lot of tradition in this game,” said Cheshire senior co-captain Charles Kurtz, a third generation Cheshire captain following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. “We haven’t beaten them in, what, 11 years? We’ve been grinding every day in practice; we are just really hungry.
“I feel like we have the whole town behind us and we’d remember beating (Southington) for the rest of our lives,” Kurtz added. “Knowing that, knowing what it could feel like, motivates us.”
“We want to take it home this year; we want to be that team,” said junior Matt Jeffery, who watched his brother Michael, a four-year varsity starter, lose from 2015-2018 and then saw Cheshire fall in two overtimes at home in 2019.
Kurtz said Cheshire is treating Thursday like a playoff game. And why not? As far as the postseason goes, SHS will play after Thanksgiving for the ninth time in head coach Mike Drury’s 10 seasons at the helm.
Ranked No. 3 in the Class LL points, the Blue Knights are assured of a playoff spot. A loss, however, could mean hitting the road for next Tuesday’s quarterfinals instead of hosting at Fontana Field.
“We know what this game means,” Drury said. “We are playing for a lot; they are playing for a lot. We know we’ve played the whole season with a bull’s eye on our backs and we are always going to get everyone’s best.
“And with Cheshire we are always going to get their best,” Drury added.
Cheshire, meanwhile, is one of four teams jockeying for the final three Class L playoff spots. Ranked No. 6, the Rams are in with a win Thursday.
Even if they lose, the Rams could still make the playoffs at 6-4. In that instance, however, Cheshire needs No. 8 Darien (6-3) to lose Thursday morning at home against No. 5 New Canaan (8-1).
No. 7 New Milford and No. 9 Shelton also presented potential avenues in for Cheshire — had one of them lost in their regular-season finale on Tuesday night. That didn’t happen. New Milford (7-3) beat New Fairfield. Shelton (6-4) beat Xavier.
If the Rams lose to Southington, New Milford will jump over them. So will Darien with a win over New Canaan. Then it would come down to bonus points between Cheshire and Shelton for the eighth and final spot.
Beating Southington would simplify the math for CHS.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for these guys,” said Cheshire head coach Don Drust. “They’ve put themselves in this position by working hard every week and, again, Thanksgiving comes down to a little more than what is always is: us against Southington.
“It’s all you can ask for: to play a meaningful game in November,” added Drust.
Postseason aside, Mike Simeone is one of 17 Cheshire seniors who have one last shot to beat the Blue Knights, a fact that hasn’t been lost on the Rams.
“Last year was different because you don’t feel that same senior year feeling where it’s your last game possibly,” said Simeone, who has started at quarterback this season as well as safety. “As a motivation, it definitely makes you want to play harder.”
There is a good reason the Blue Knights enter Thanksgiving near the top of the GameTime CT Top 10. Southington’s only blemish this season was a 31-28 double-overtime loss at Maloney on Nov. 4.
“I really don’t look at all that — who’s No. 1 and who’s No. 2,” said SHS senior co-captain Kam Beaudoin. “We just have to get the job done on the field. Our goal is to be playing in December.”
In winning eight of nine games in September, October and November, Southington has proven to be a balanced bunch.
■Senior running back Lincoln Cardillo has run for 1,410 yards and 19 touchdowns;■Junior quarterback C.J. DiBenedetto has thrown for 1,901 yards and 20 touchdowns.
And despite the loss of junior wide receiver Evan Anderson to a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 — he was leading SHS in receptions and TDs — DiBenedetto has had plenty of targets, spreading the ball around to junior wideouts Ray Williams, John Flynn and Beaudoin.
Williams and Flynn have each caught six DiBenedetto touchdown passes. Beaudoin, who missed the Conard game with an injury, has 26 catches for 313 yards and a touchdown. Flynn has 26 catches for 358 yards; Williams has caught 27 passes for 339.
Another weapon at DiBenedetto’s disposal is junior Blake Stephen, who has come on over the past month in the place of Anderson to give the Blue Knights a solid corps of receivers.
“We’ve beaten them nine times in a row, but I don’t look at it as a game with any added pressure,” said Beaudoin, who started last year’s Apple Valley Classic as a junior defensive back. “Obviously, tensions will be high. They are a big rival, and it’s important to get that 10th win on the board.”
Beaudoin also starts at cornerback on a defense that features junior linebackers Aaron Borkowsky (team-high 91 tackles), Chris Totonis (70 tackles) and senior defensive back Nick Bertola (team-high 4 INTs).
As a group, the Blue Knights have proven to be a bend-but-don’t-break unit.
“You always know Cheshire is (waiting) as the biggest game (at the end of the season); it’s make-or-break for them and could be make-or-break for us,” said defensive lineman Eli Cullota, a senior captain.
“It’s a big game for us every year,” said another senior captain, offensive lineman Gio Chiulli. “It always seems to come down to us making the playoffs or them making the playoffs. It’s always a big game for both teams.
“It’s been a rivalry ever since we were young; it’s special,” Chiulli added.
Potentially new to the Apple Valley Classic stage is Rams sophomore Aniston Marsh, who made his first varsity start at quarterback 10 days ago at Xavier.
Drust wouldn’t commit to starting Marsh on Thursday, saying Cheshire’s offense will be led by a “mix of everybody,” but has confidence in Marsh to get the job done against the Blue Knights.
Marsh was the third Ram behind center this season, stepping in for Simeone, who had taken over Jeffery when he suffered a shoulder injury on Oct. 14 at Fairfield Prep.
Jeffery remains a dynamic piece of the Cheshire offense. Against Xavier, he caught Marsh’s first career TD pass and took a direct snap at QB and ran 34 yards for a second score.
Jeffery also intercepted a pass at Xavier and punted in the second half.
“This whole week we just have different personnel groups; we have every little thing you can imagine for this game,” said Jeffery.
“There is no hiding what (Jeffery) is,” Drust said. “He’s a tremendous athlete, but also a tremendous person on top of that. His preparation is second to none. We have to find ways to keep him involved and get the ball to him.”
While Jeffery has moved around, junior Jeffery Gonzalez has been Cheshire’s main running back all season. He ran for over 100 yards in wins over Conard and Notre Dame-West Haven. He’s also run for at least one TD in every Cheshire win.
Against Xavier, Gonzalez sealed a must-win over the Falcons with a third-quarter touchdown run.
“I’m pumped for this game; I’ve been waiting for this game,” said Gonzalez, who has a team-high 12 rushing touchdowns. “I’m going to play with a real edge to my game.
“It’s exciting; I know there will be a huge showing of people,” added Gonzalez. “I just have to get my mind right and make sure everyone else’s mind in the locker room is right to go out and perform like we have in big games. We should be OK.”
Cheshire’s calling card this season has been its defense. When victorious, the Rams’ defense has led the way.
In blanking Xavier 26-0 for their third shutout of the season, the Rams held the Falcons to just 86 total yards. Cheshire also forced three turnovers — two by its special teams.
Cheshire has lost at Shelton (34-14) and at Fairfield Prep (33-10). Its third setback was a 10-0 decision at home to North Haven. For the year, the Rams are allowing just over 11 points a game.
“We’ve played well on D; we run to the football and play very hard,” Drust said. “When you run to the football and play hard, good things are going to happen.
“The game doesn’t change much no matter how long it’s been going,” Drust added. “If you run to the football, play hard and create turnovers you are going to have success.”
Brett Rochford anchors the Cheshire defense. The junior defensive end had two sacks in the win at Xavier. He leads the Rams in both sacks (7) and tackles for loss (12).
Bookending the other side of the Cheshire defensive line is another junior end, Evan Russo. He is second on the team sacks (6½) and leads the Rams in quarterback hurries (13).
At linebacker, juniors Adam Vernon (59) and Jack Brewster (54) lead the Rams in tackling. They and the other Rams will have Cardillo, DiBenedetto and the Blue Knights in their sights.
“My thinking is that if we can score the ball on defense or special teams, that’ll be a contributor to winning,” Simeone said. “Turnovers — none on our side and if we can force some on their side — will be a big thing and lead to a victory for us.”
Southington has dominated the Apple Valley Classic for a decade to now hold a 24-19 lead all-time in the series. This will be the teams’ 26th meeting on Thanksgiving, with SHS having won 16 times and the past nine games.
But the last two games have been close. Southington led last year’s game 3-0 at halftime, grabbed the second-half momentum with an onsides kick coming out of halftime, then staved off a Cheshire rally to win 17-10.
Three years ago, in what became an instant classic, the 2019 game came down to the final play in double overtime. The Blue Knights beat Cheshire 21-20 by stopping the Rams on a two-point conversion attempt.
“We have to be ready to play 48 minutes-plus,” said Drust. “We you have two good football teams; it’s going to be a battle. And that’s the way it should be on Thanksgiving.”
“It’s always tough,” Drury said. “Last year was really tight; the year before that was really tight. Defense wins big games. Defense and special teams are always big in this game.”
Since it began in 1996, the Apple Valley Classic has seen a run of success by both schools. Prior to the Blue Knights’ nine straight wins, the Rams won five straight from 2007-2011. From 2001 to 2006, the Blue Knights won six straight.
Drury actually lost his first Apple Valley Classic as head coach of Southington before ripping off nine straight wins.
“There’s been some close, epic games against them,” Drury said. “This game means as much to them as it does to us.
“We understand there’s going to be a big crowd and a great atmosphere, but we’ve played in that twice this year already (at Greenwich and Maloney),” added Drury. “It’s all about making plays in the field and when your opportunity is called, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, understanding everyone is going to be fighting for every little centimeter on that field.”