MERIDEN — Maloney’s defense was the backbone to the school’s state football championship last season.
So much so that when the Spartans took a big graduation hit, especially on the defensive side of the ball, there was some question about how good the Spartans would be with so many new faces in the lineup.
All of those questions were answered on Friday night in a 21-9 victory at Darien as the Spartans improved to 3-0 on the season by beating the reigning Class LL state champions.
Maloney forced three turnovers and was fast to the ball. And, when the Spartans hit their opponents, they hit them hard.
Junior linebacker Zakkai Moore was a machine for Maloney. He was in on 16 tackles. Three of them went for lost yardage. Moore also intercepted a pass.
“I’m not surprised,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said of Moore’s performance. “This kid was great for us as a sophomore. He’s an offseason warrior and a 4.0 student and a tremendous leader as a junior.
“You can’t say enough great things tonight … He’s a student of the game and played really well tonight.”
Moore said the Spartans went to Darien hungry.
“It was a great day,” said Moore, who joined the football program last year after transferring from Xavier. “We lost a lot of guys, but Maloney doesn’t rebuild, we reload. We missed a lot of pieces and we filled a lot of pieces. We work hard in practice and coaches had a great game plan and we executed it.
“We all depend on each other,” Moore added. “That's how a great defense works. If we want to win a state championship, we have to rely on each other. Do your job and do your assignments … Everybody doubts Maloney, but our coaches build this program from the ground up and we are here to stay.”
Donald Highsmith added a sack and fumble recovery as another one of Maloney’s defensive heroes. Jesus Martel had an interception to seal the game.
“Mike Dargan, our defensive coordinator, does a great job for us,” said Frederick. “We have guys who have bought into what we are doing. We’re fast on defense; we have smart kids. That helps us in the long run.”
Maloney limited Darien just to one touchdown. It came late in the second quarter, and that was all. The other two points were late in the game on a safety.
The Blue Wave had their chances, but Maloney was always there to make a big stop.
“We had good, timely stops,” Frederick said. “We played so well defensively and made plays when we needed to make plays. I thought (QB) Kyle (Valentine) played well and stepped up in the pocket and delivered some balls.
“I’m just so proud of the whole team.”
JoJo Gonzalez had a big punt return in the second half to set up one of Jake Boganski’s two rushing touchdowns.
“This was a great team win,” Gonzalez said. “We just came here and did what we had to do. It’s days like this you have to prove yourself and we did that today.”
“If people are still counting us out – damn, I don't know what else we can do,” he added.
Boganski said the win over Darien gives the Spartans confidence for the remainder of the season.
“We are feeling good, but we have to play next week like we are the underdogs again,” Boganski said. “We always feel like we are the underdogs and we need to run this back again.”
How big was this game for Maloney? Boganski said it felt just like the state championship final against Windsor.
“I felt like this was one of the most important games of my life,” Boganski said. “It was like a movie. It was just a great atmosphere, very similar to the state championship game. The only difference is it didn’t rain tonight.”
Valentine tossed a 14-yard TD pass to Donte Kelly to start the scoring in the first quarter.
“Everyone doubted us,” Valentine said. “People doubted the whole team and here we are. We are going to keep it going and keep fighting.
“Our defense was outstanding tonight and without them we wouldn’t be here right now. I can’t thank them enough.”