MERIDEN —No. 3 Maloney has seen first-hand what Daniel Hand football can do.
The Tigers defeated Maloney 54-14 in last year’s Class L final to collect their second straight state crown and 12th in program history.
This year, the squads will meet in the Class L semifinals on Monday night at the Surf Club in Madison. It’s a 6:30 p.m. kickoff.
The No. 2 Tigers (11-0) enter the game as winners of 35 in a row. But the No. 3 Spartans (10-1) are not going into the game intimidated.
“They are excited to go down there and play at the Surf Club,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said of his Spartans. “There’s a lot of history there and we are excited about the challenge.
“No one expects us to win and we like being the underdog,” Frederick added. “We like it when people doubt us. We feel we deserve more respect than we get. We are 10-1 and have 20 wins in the last two seasons. We are going in with a chip on our shoulders.”
The No. 3 Spartans head to Madison following a 35-7 romp of No. 6 Berlin on Wednesday night at Falcon Field.
That victory featured four touchdown passes from sophomore quarterback Angel Arce to senior wideout Kam Moreno.
It also featured 170 yards on the ground from junior running back James Tarver, who left the game in the third quarter with a leg injury. Tarver did return to practice and will play on Monday.
During the Berlin game, Tarver broke Edwin Roman's single-season school rushing record of 1,868 yards set in 1999. Now at 1,955, Tarver is just 45 yards from reaching 2,000 on the season.
Arce, meanwhile, has done well in his first season as starting quarterback. The sophomore is 133-for-225 for 1,882 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has thrown 10 picks.
Moreno has caught 63 passes for 979 yards and 15 touchdowns. Sophomore Ian Graham has caught seven touchdowns and senior Quanell Grimes has three.
Kody Talento and Kenny McMillian are the leading tacklers for the Meriden school. Sergio Muniz has three interceptions in the last two games and seven on the season.
Trevor Santiago leads the team with six sacks and fellow senior lineman Sitorius White will be back on the field after missing the quarterfinal with a leg injury suffered in the Stoddard Bowl.
The Tigers enter the semifinal a spotless 11-0 and return many players from last year’s title team, including senior QB Phoenix Billings.
The signal-caller has shredded defenses with his arm as well as his legs this fall. The UConn-bound baseball player has connected on 87 of his 142 passes for 1,371 yards and 21 touchdowns. He has thrown three picks.
Billings broke a school record with six touchdown passes in Hand’s 52-0 quarterfinal win over Newington. All six scores came in the first half.
Billings has also carried 61 times for 496 yards and eight touchdowns.
Senior Colin McCabe leads the backfield with 95 carries, 1,160 yards and 18 touchdowns. Jesse Lutz has toted the ball 76 times for 586 yards and nine touchdowns.
Seniors Ethan Haberman (34-643, 9 TDs) and Isaiah McNeilly (19-259, 6 TDs) are Billings’ favorite targets in the passing game.
Defensively, the Tigers are led by Shane Reiner (62 tackles) and Kade Doverspike (52 tackles, 4 sacks). Kevin Nizolek (8 sacks) and Ben Corniello (4) also put heat on the QB. Aiden Patrick and Colin Telford, with three interceptions apiece, are the ball-hawks downfield.
Hand head coach Dave Mastroianni has been coaching from the press box as he recovers from his second bout of cancer. He learned in September that he has cancer in his appendix. Mastroianni’s first bout with cancer was eight years ago.
Frederick said he watched 2018 Hand game with his assistants on Friday afternoon.
“It’s just a totally different year. We are two different teams and we are so much better in certain areas,” Frederick said comparing the 2018 to his 2019 team. “We are 10 times better up front. Our defense is better. We have more speed in the skill areas. We are similar at quarterback. Angel’s had a tremendous year and we are going to need a big game from him for us to win.”
The Hand-Maloney winner will face off in Saturday’s state final against the winner of No. 1 St. Joseph and No. 4 New Canaan.
Maloney has never won a state championship in football. The Spartans have qualified for the state finals on three occasions and, coincidentally, faced the other three teams in this year’s Class L final four — St. Joseph in 1989, New Canaan in 2006 and Hand in 2018.
“We expect to win the game,” Frederick said. “We go into every game thinking we are going to win. We consider our program one of the better programs in the state and Hand is obviously one of the best. It’s going to be a great football game.”