CIAC FOOTBALL: The starting bell calls for Maloney, Sheehan, Southington & Cheshire

CIAC FOOTBALL: The starting bell calls for Maloney, Sheehan, Southington & Cheshire

reporter photo

MERIDEN — After the day-to-day grind of 3½ months, from August heat to Monday night’s snow, we’ve arrived right back to where we were on the high school football front this time a year ago.

At the state tournament, with four area teams qualified and ready to roll in the quarterfinals.

Three are back from last year: Maloney, Sheehan and Southington.

All three are coming off rivalry wins on Thanksgiving and are now looking to reel in the ultimate playoff victories that eluded them in 2018. Maloney fell in the Class L final, Sheehan in the Class M semis and Southington in the Class LL quarterfinals.

Joining this trio is the area team with the most decorated football trophy case, as far as state titles go, and yet the one that’s gone the longest in between playoff appearances: Cheshire.

The Rams, despite losing an epic Apple Classic in double overtime to Southington last Thursday, are playing after Thanksgiving for the first time since they won the Class LL crown in 2009. It was the latest pearl in their string of seven state championships.

Southington is chasing its fourth state title and first since the back-to-back glory years of 2013 and 2014.

The Titans are looking to match the cosmic run of 1985, when Halley’s Comet was approaching and Wallingford stars came into alignment with twin titles for Sheehan and Lyman Hall.

Sheehan is now riding another once-in-a-generation team, a squad that managed to qualify for the playoffs despite being moved to a harder class (M to S) the same year it was moved to a harder division in the SCC (Tier 3 to 2).

Then there’s Maloney, which is looking to win not only its first CIAC state championship in football, but the first for all of Meriden. 

It’s a tough gauntlet the Spartans face in Class L. The two teams that have been ranked 1-2 in the state polls all season — Daniel Hand and St. Joseph — are also the top seeds in Class L.

To go all the way, Maloney will undoubtedly need to beat both of those teams.

But that’s getting ahead of the game. First up are the quarterfinals, Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. Let’s roll it, small schools to big.

■Class S: No. 5 Woodland Regional (9-1) at No. 4 Sheehan (8-2), at Riccitelli FIeld

While Woodland has the better record, Sheehan got the higher seed and home-field advantage thanks to a rigorous schedule against larger schools that nearly kept the Titans out of the postseason.

That, and some help on Thanksgiving. A loss by Plainfield, which dropped to No. 8 seed with a 7-6 loss at Griswold/Wheeler, combined with bonus-point wins by Branford and Brookfield enabled Sheehan to beat Woodland on a tiebreaker for the No. 4 slot.

And so here we are, with Sheehan back in the postseason and playing a home quarterfinal for a third straight year.

“We didn’t know we would get a home game,” Sheehan coach John Ferrazzi said. “We needed some things to fall into place. Crazy things can happen. We controlled our business on Thanksgiving and the ball rolled our way. We are psyched to play at least one more game at home.”

The Titans should be. They are 5-0 at Riccitelli Field in 2019, including a season-saving 52-40 victory over Hamden on Nov. 22 and then the 56-0 Thanksgiving seal-the-deal rout of Lyman Hall on Thanksgiving.

“We had a six-week span where we had four away games and two byes,” Ferrazzi noted. “Being home the last two weeks has been nice. Our crowds have been great and our student section is continually growing.”

So have Sheehan’s totals on offense. The Titans are averaging 40 points and 410 yards a game led by senior play-makers Terrence Bogan and Jordan Davis.

Bogan, the SCC Tier 2 Player of the Year, has 1,650 yards rushing despite missing a game. Davis, also All-SCC Tier 2, has amassed 780 yards rushing and 570 receiving.

Senior QB Kyle Simmons (48-for-70, 1.039 yards) has been steady as a first-year starter. The blocking and protection of the line, led by All-SCC Tier 2 guard Mickey Deming, has been exceptional.

The defense is led by two additional All-SCC Tier 2 selecions, defensive end Braedon McCarthy and linebacker Tom DiPasquale, who has 56 solo tackles.

In the big picture, the key factor for Sheehan is full health. The Titans have recovered from the injuries that dogged them in late October and early November, particularly to Bogan and Simmons.

As for Woodland, the Hawks ripped through the Naugatuck Valley League with a spread offense directed by senior QB Tyler Bulinski. Operating behind a line anchored by senior Alex Tolboe, the Hawks vary sets with receiver James Champagne and running backs Jason Palmieri and Nick Rousseau.

“They have two players they rotate around in the backfield and the receiver spots, and that makes them dangerous,” Ferrazzi remarked. “They do a good job mixing up those guys and they keep the offense balanced.

“They give you run and pass elements out of the spread,” the Sheehan coach continued. “They have a three-year quarterback that can manage the game and distribute the ball. He can also run. Accounting for him puts some strain on the defense. You have to know what he’s doing.”

Led by Bulinski, Woodland has gone 9-1 for two straight seasons. The Hawks were the No. 5 seed in Class S last season and lost 49-10 to eventual champ Bloomfield in the quarterfinals. This year, Woodland’s lone loss came in a 26-20 thriller against Ansonia.

Ansonia, the No. 1 seed at 10-0, will likely be awaiting the winner of this game in Monday’s semifinals.

Sheehan and Woodland have never met. Woodland, 7-5 in the playoffs, won Class SS crowns in 2004 and 2005 and lost to Ansonia in an all-NVL Class S final in 2013.

■Class L: No. 6 Berlin (8-2) at No. 3 Maloney (9-1), at Falcon Field

With Berlin moving up from Class M after the 2018 season, this game presents a playoff rarity: two state runner-ups from the previous year going head to head.

Granted, both teams would just as soon forget about those state finals from a year ago. Berlin lost 70-18 to St. Joseph in Class M and Maloney lost 54-14 to Daniel Hand in Class L.

No. 1 St. Joseph (also elevated from Class M) and No. 2 Hand sit above Berlin and Maloney in this year’s Class L seedings, with Hand likely waiting the winner in the semifinals.

First, the Redcoats and Spartans must deal with each other. It’s a compelling matchup pitting two squads that share a border and a conference. It’s also a rematch of the 2006 Class MM semis, when Maloney whacked Berlin 40-14 at Ceppa Field.

The Spartans are happy to be at their new home away from home, Falcon Field, for Wednesday night’s game. They’ve lost there only once in the last three years — to Platt in the 2018 Stoddard Bowl.

And while the Spartans have reached the postseason for three years running, this is the first time in that span they’ll be opening the tourament at home. Two years ago, Maloney was in Windsor. Last year, it was Middletown.

“We are super-excited about hosting a playoff game,” remarked Maloney coach Kevin Frederick. “It was one of our goals going into the season. We wanted to host a home playoff game. We wanted to be in one. It means a lot to the City of Meriden.”

In going up against Berlin, the Spartans are facing a team with more postseason experience. This is the fourth straight year the Redcoats have made the playoffs and, overall, Wednesday night marks their 30th CIAC postseason game. Comparatively, it is Maloney’s ninth.

The thing with this year’s Berlin team? It’s found a way to win. Despite suffering heavy graduation losses and then six starters to injury during the season, including All-State linebacker Zach Hrubiec, the Redcoats rampaged through the CCC’s Division III and whipped Division I New Britain 26-6 in its regular-season finale on Nov. 22.

Berlin’s losses were to reigning Class S champ Bloomfield (10-0) and Class M contender Killingly (9-1).

Forced by injury into the starting quarterback’s role, senior Justin Skates has flourished running Berlin’s multiple-look offense. Aiden Jones, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound nose guard, leads the defense.

“Judging by the film on them, they look like a tough football team with good size up front and good skill players,” Frederick said.

“They go under-center, I-formation and with spread sets,” the Maloney coach elaborated. “They can throw it and run it and love their screens. They are balanced and give us a lot to prepare for.”

The equation works the other way. Maloney, like Berlin, suffered some big graduation hits, yet is right back on the playoff stage.

Angel Arce, though only a sophomore, has proven ready to run the ship at quarterback. The rookie has completed 124 of 211 passes for 1,714 yards and 22 TDs.

Senior Kam Moreno (55-853) has been the leading target, but sophomores Ian Graham and Stone Deleon and senior Quanell Grimes also factor heavily into the mix.

Then there’s James Tarver. The junior running back, coming off a five-touchdown MVP performance in the Stoddard Bowl, has 1,785 yards on the season, only 84 shy of Edwin Roman’s single-season Maloney record of 1,869.

So if Maloney has a lot to prepare for in Berlin, Berlin has a lot to prepare for in Maloney, which has looked very good since suffering its lone loss, a 42-35 fourth-quarter collapse in Newington on Oct. 25.

The Spartans’ current four-game run included a 35-6 romp in Wethersfield, which holds the No. 5 seed in Class L at 8-2.

“The kids are hungry and are showing up hungry,” Frederick said of the practices Maloney has had since dispatching Platt 42-6 on Thanksgiving. “These guys want to bring home some more hardware other than the Stoddard Bowl trophy.”

■Class LL: No. 7 Ridgefield (8-2) at No. 2 Southington (9-1), at Fontana Field

The Blue Knights didn’t just secure home-field advantage for the quarterfinals when they held off Cheshire’s two-point conversion try in double overtime on Thanksgiving, they secured it for the semifinals, too. Darien’s 20-0 loss to New Canaan dropped the Blue Wave to No. 3 and pushed Southington to No. 2.

This could prove critical. Darien beat Southington in the Class LL semifinals of 2015 and 2016 and again in the regular season earlier this year. All three of those games were played in Fairfield County.

This time, the winner of No. 3 Darien-No. 6 Greenwich quarterfinal will travel to Southington.

Provided, of couse, the Blue Knights deal with Ridgefield, the third FCIAC team to qualify in Class LL. The Tigers are a lot like Southington. They spread the field and primarily pass while mixing in a healthy dose of run. They also play some solid defense.

Those 11.2 average points per game allowed by linebackers Billy Carr, Max Casella and the Southington defense? Ridgefield has allowed just 12.2 led by linebacker Danny Morony and 6-foot-3, 235-pound defensive end Reid Englert, who’s heading to Columbia.

“They are just a solid team all around,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “Schematically, we do a lot of similar stuff, so we see each other offensively and defensively.”

The similarity in numbers is uncanny. Southington is averaging 34.8 points and 371 yards of offense a game — 210 through the air and 161 on the ground. Ridgefield (24.3 ppg.) doesn’t light up the scoreboard nearly as much, but averages 366 yards — 242 passing and 124 running.

Senior RB Dillon Kohl (991 yards) leads the ground game for Southington. Sophomore Kai Prohaszka (700-plus) paces Ridgefield.

Southington junior QB Brady Lafferty is at 148-for-241, 1,892 yards after his MVP performance in the Apple Classic. Ridgefield senior QB Owen Matthews was at 135-for-222, 1,744 yards heading into the Tigers’ 36-21 win over Danbury on Thanksgiving eve.

Carter Uhlman (54-604) and Josh Vitti (53-612) have the big receiving numbers for Southington, yet the Blue Knights have also gotten key aerial contributions from Jack McManus, Shane Laporte and Jake DelMonte.

Owen Gaydos (48-801) is the leading receiver for Ridgefield, yet there is depth at the position with Nick Agliardo, Gianni Gorham and Max Bornstein.

So, yes, there is a bit of mirror-mirror in this one.

There is also history. Southington routed Ridgefield 45-0 in the semifinals en route to the Class LL crown in 2013.

Ridgefield is back in the playoffs after a two-year absence. The Tigers lost to Darien in the 2016 Class LL final.

Southington is in the postseason for the seventh time in the last eight years, yet looking to shed some recent hard luck. Along with the semifinal losses to Darien in 2015 and 2016, the Blue Knights fell in last year’s quarterfinals at home to Fairfield Prep, 28-21, when they were stopped on fourth down at the goal line in the waning minutes.

A year later, Southington has a shot at redemption.

“This is where we want to be; that’s the goal,” said Drury. “We have to make sure we come out here and give our best effort. Take care of things that kind of hurt us last year. We turned the ball over on three different occasions.”

Southington has won eight straight since losing to Darien 24-8 in Week 2.

Ridgefield opened 5-0, including wins over Class L qualifiers New Canaan and Wilton. The Tigers went 3-2 in the second half, with the losses coming to Greenwich and St. Joseph.

“That's a good conference; they do a good job down there,” Drury said of Ridgefield and the FCIAC. “This is a team that has earned the right to be in the playoffs. We have some history with them. We played in 2013, but that is a long time ago. Both are different teams. (Ridgefield) is a good team and will present challenges for us. We have to play disciplined ball.”

■Class LL: No. 5 Cheshire (8-2) at No. 4 Simsbury (9-1), at Holden Field

There is fascinating subject matter coursing through this game.

First, recent history: Both Cheshire and Simsbury are back in the postseason for first time since 2009, when Cheshire won Class LL and Simsbury lost to Pomperaug in the Class L semis.

Second, ancient history: That 2009 state title was Cheshire’s seventh. Nos. 2 and 3 came at Simsbury’s expense, in 1993 (7-0) and again in 1994 (45-27).

Simsbury, while we’re on the topic, has never won a football playoff game. Cheshire is 12-2.

Third, current events: Both Cheshire and Simsbury lost to Southington this year — Cheshire 21-20 on that failed two-point try in double OT on Thanksgiving, Simsbury 35-7 on Nov. 1.

Then there is Hall, and the divergent fortunes of Cheshire and Simsbury against the Warriors are what decided home-field advantage for this quarterfinal. Cheshire lost to Hall, 35-28, in Week 2. The week before, Simsbury beat Hall 9-3 in overtime.

That was September. It is now December. New month, new season.

“Any time you are playing football in December, it is a great opportunity,” said Cheshire head coach Don Drust, who was an assistant on the 2009 team. “It means that you have had a great season and get to compete among the final eight teams playing in the state.”

Simsbury is led on offense by QB Aidan Boeshans. The junior is a run-pass threat who will keep it himself or look downfield to receivers Zack Gilbert and Jeffrey Coleman.

“They are a physical team,” Drust remarked. “They have two good receivers and their quarterback is a great player. He is athletic and tough.”

On the other side of the ball, senior linebacker Tommy Guilfoyle is the linchpin of the Simsbury defense. That group will be tasked with containing a Cheshire attack led by senior RB Jake McAlinden (1,102 yards, 20 TDs) and senior QB Jason Shumilla (91-for-168, 1,253 yards).

Seniors Alec Frione (24-179) and Colby Griffin (20-216) are the leading receivers, though junior Nick DiDomizio (14-267) continues to climb in the mix. DiDomizio is the one who had the TD catch in double overtime that brought the Rams to within one point of Southington.

Then there are the two-way boys up front — seniors Will Bergin and Sean Cangiano, and junior Chisom Okoro. All three were named All-SCC Tier 2 with McAlinden and Griffin.

In all, it is a tight, senior-led group that has taken Cheshire back to a promised land it dominated in the 1990s and last saw in 2008 and 2009.

“I’m happy that our kids get to play in this (quarterfinal) game and experience it,” said Drust. “It is great to watch the guys develop as players and people. There are 14 seniors in that (locker) room who have done everything we’ve asked and have done a lot of great things on and off the field for our program.”

Like any 4-5 game, Cheshire-Simsbury is a close one to call. While the Rams are coming off a loss, they did string together seven straight wins prior to it, including a season-changer against Shelton. And they played Southington extremely well on Thanksgiving — certainly better than Simsbury did on Nov. 1.

Bottom line: the Rams have to keep doing what’s gotten them here.

“You have to be able to run to the football on defense and take care of the ball,” said Drust. “So many of these games come down to little moments. It comes down to which team executes the best out there and doesn’t make mistakes.”

Sean Krofssik, Ron Buck & Greg Lederer contributed to this story