MERIDEN — No. 3 Maloney was moving the ball on Tuesday night throughout the first half, but there was nothing to show for it.
Four empty trips inside the 20-yard line had netted zero points in a scoreless Class L quarterfinal with No. 6 New Milford heading into the final minutes of the first half.
The Spartans’ defense was doing more than its part, but the defending state champs needed some points.
Donte Kelly proved to be the man for the job. The junior fielded a bouncing punt seven yards shy of midfield and took it home for a 57-yard return for the game’s opening score.
What made it more impressive was Kelly lost his shoe during the run and still sprinted into the end zone without trouble.
“I saw the outside guy run past me and I saw green,” said Kelly, referring to the Falcon Field turf and not the green jerseys of both Maloney and New Milford. “I had to go get it. My shoe came off, but I still made it to the end zone.”
Kelly’s return sparked the Spartans to a 27-7 victory that advances them into Sunday’s semifinals. Maloney (10-1) will be back at Falcon Field at 12:30 p.m. to host No. 7 Shelton (7-4), a 21-20 upset winner over No. 2 Newtown.
Kelly’s return was just part of a remarkable night for the two-way junior. At cornerback, he picked off two passes. At wide receiver, he pulled down a TD reception in the fourth quarter, when the Spartans scored three times to pull away.
“Donte’s special,” Maloney head coach Kevin Frederick said. “He’s a playmaker. I told him before the game that big-time players step up and make big-time plays in big-time games, and he’s a big-time player.
“The punt return was huge for us; the interception changed the course of the game. He’s special, and when his number’s called he’s ready to make a big play.”
The first interception came in the closing minute of the first half. The second came in the fourth quarter.
The TD pass, thrown by backup QB Ethan Nedinsky, was from 21 yards out and it was the go-ahead score.
“The touchdown felt great,” Kelly said. “The coaches made the right calls. I knew it was going to happen; I knew I was going to score.”
Nedinsky, a sophomore, was called into the action in the second half after starter Kyle Valentine was forced to leave due to concussion protocol. Down 7-6 to start the fourth quarter, Nedinsky threw a bullet to Kelly down the middle to put the Spartans up 14-7 with 11:52 remaining to play.
Senior Joziah Gonzalez scored the game-icing touchdowns, one on a pass from Nedinsky and the other on a run.
“We kept our heads up,” Gonzalez said. “We just had to keep our energy up and nobody on our side thought we were going to lose. We always have confidence we are going to pull through.”
Kelly, who also plays basketball and runs track for the Spartans, said Tuesday night was the best football game he’s ever played.
“I was happy to do my part. The team trusted me and I trusted them,” he said. “I love them. They are my brothers and I had to get it done for them.”