MERIDEN — There were some guys from Monroe, back in the day, when Maloney football coach Kevin Frederick played at Marist College.
They had been Masuk Panthers before becoming Red Foxes in Poughkeepsie, and they weren’t shy about letting their college teammates know about it.
“They were always bragging to the Connecticut boys up there that they were the best,” Frederick recalled the other night after a practice in preparation for Sunday’s Class L semifinal between Masuk and his Maloney Spartans.
“I just spoke to one of them,” Frederick added with a chuckle. “He sent me an emoji of a black cat to give us some bad luck.”
Just how much luck will come into to play today between the No. 3-seeded Spartans (10-1) and the No. 7 Panthers (9-2) will be seen starting at 12:30, when the two teams kick off at Falcon Field.
More likely, matters will be settled by the skilled play-makers and physical linemen on both sides, with the winner advancing to face the survivor of No. 1 St. Joseph (10-1) and No. 5 Windsor (10-1), who meet in today’s other Class L semifinal.
The championship game will be Saturday, either at Trumbull High School or Veteran’s Stadium in New Britain.
Masuk is looking to reach the state finals for the first time since 2017, Maloney since 2018. (Both lost to Daniel Hand, a quarterfinal casualty this year to St. Joseph in overtime.)
For Masuk, the 2021 postseason ride has been something of a return to normalcy. The Panthers went an uncharacteristic 5-5 in 2018 and 6-4 in 2019, a far cry from the 12 postseason appearances they made from 1998, when they beat Fitch to win Class L, through 2012, when they fell to Hand in the semis.
In all, Masuk has won three state finals and appeared in 10. In 14 state semifinals, Masuk is 8-6.
Those Monroe guys with whom Frederick played at Marist could brag for a reason.
“Yeah, it’s a storied program for sure,” Frederick acknowledged. “They’ve got a lot of history behind their program; they’ve got a good following in their fan base. A lot of alumni come back and still support it. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Masuk comes to Falcon Field on something of a magic carpet ride. Sitting at 4-2 midway through the regular season, the Panthers closed 4-0 against top South-West Conference rivals.
Three of the wins were decided by three points or less. In all three, Masuk came from behind. Two were decided by field goals in the final seconds.
■Trailing New Fairfield 28-0 the night of Oct. 29, Masuk rallied with four touchdowns and converted a game-winning two-point try to prevail 29-28.■Trailing Joel Barlow 34-19 in the third quarter on the night of Nov. 5, Masuk rallied in the fourth quarter and prevailed 37-34 when Michael Epifano booted a 22-yard field goal with 18 seconds left.■Tied with Newtown 21-21 late in the fourth quarter the night before Thanksgiving, needing to win to qualify for the playoffs, Masuk pulled out a 24-21 victory when Jake Dellapiano picked off a pass with 31 seconds left to set up Epifano’s 37-yard game-winner with six seconds to go.
Compared to that, Tuesday’s 20-17 quarterfinal win at No. 2 Nauagatuck could hardly have fluttered a butterfly’s wing in the bellies of the Masuk faithful.
Sure, the Panthers trailed 17-7 late in the third quarter, but the winning touchdown came with 4:12 to play.
Then it was up to the defense to keep Naugatuck at bay. The Greyhounds drove to the Masuk 11. Facing fourth-and-3, Naugatuck was flagged for 12 men on the field. A pass fell incomplete on the next play and Masuk ran out the clock.
“They’ve been tested; they’ve been tested as far as fighting adversity in football games,” Frederick noted. “I think that’s so important in high school. You’ve got to be able to fight those highs and lows.
“They’ve been down this year and they battled their way back, so that’s a testament to their coaches and their will to win. They’re hungry. You can tell.”
Little secret: The Spartans are hungry, too. They’re hungry to win the first state football championship not only in Maloney, but Meriden, history.
While the Spartans do not have Masuk’s pedigree — this is only their fifth semifinal, with wins over Platt (2018) and Berlin (2006) countered by losses to Hand (2019) and Fitch (1998) — they’ve been the more successful program in recent years. The Spartans have reached the postseason for four years running and the semifinals for three straight.
Over that four-year span, Maloney has gone 39-8 overall, including 24-1 at Falcon Field.
The lone loss? 36-20 to Platt in the 2018 Stoddard Bowl. The Spartans have won 14 straight on their home turf since.
Lately, the Spartans have been winning emphatically wherever they’ve set foot. Maloney has won 10 straight since falling 13-7 on opening night in Southington. The last six wins have been by an average score of 45-14. Tuesday’s 49-14 win over Bristol Central was never close.
This is why, for all that Masuk magic, the Spartans aren’t superstitious about Sunday.
“I’m confident in our defense that they can stop them; they’ve been doing it all year,” said Maloney quarterback Angel Arce. “I know they’re going to keep the same energy that they have. It’s just hard to stop that.”
That said, Masuk opponents have had a hard time stopping twin brothers Ryan and Nick Saccu. The two seniors have accounted for the bulk of Masuk’s yardage.
Nick Saccu, in particular, is a handful. Head coach Steve Christy deploys him at multiple positions — in the slot, split wide, in the backfield, as a Wildcat quarterback. He scored all three touchdowns Tuesday against Naugatuck, two on runs and one on a reception.
“They’ve got a good scheme, I think, offensively and defensively,” Frederick remarked. “They do a good job; they’re well-disciplined. The two twins are playmakers for them. They want to get the football into their hands.”
The Saccu twins, as well as junior Dylan Jackson, Masuk’s more traditional quarterback, also happen to work behind a very good line.
Said Maloney senior linebacker Kenny McMillan, “It’s going to be the best offensive line we’ve played all year and they’ve got some playmakers on their team, so it’s going to be a good game, a dogfight.”
Maloney’s schedule against CCC Tier 1 teams should help. The Spartans dealt with strong lines against Southington, Simsbury and East Hartford, Frederick noted, and again on Thanksgiving against Platt.
“We saw some good offensive and defensive lines, but you expect the best teams now in the semis,” the head coach said. “They’re physical up front. They’ve got some big boys on the defensive and offensive line, so it’s going to be a challenge for us. We have to match their physicality. We’ve got to exploit their holes on defense.”
Maloney will come at Masuk with a balanced attack averaging 35.3 points and 359.3 yards.
The ground game (181.1 ypg.) is led by junior running back Joshua Boganski (222 carries, 1,453 yards, 13 TDs).
The passing game (178.2 ypg.) is directed by Arce, 115-for-192 on the season for 1,700 yards and 22 TDs.
“When we’ve got the ball, they’ve got to respect us running and they’ve got to respect us throwing,” said Maloney senior fullback Stone DeLeon.
Arce has been deadly accurate lately, a combined 24-for-29 in his last two games for 395 yards, four TDs and no INTs.
Beyond those numbers, Arce brings experience to the fray. He’s been Maloney’s starter since his sophomore year. He was behind center the last time the Spartans played in the semifinals.
“He’s got experience; he’s played in these big games before,” Frederick said. “We’re going to rely on him to take us to the championship. He’s got to play well for us to go there. The pressure’s on him a little bit, but when the pressure’s on Angel he rises up to the occasion.”
So, yes, Masuk has that pedigree and that present magic. Maloney has an Angel, and perhaps a few more, on its side, too.