FOOTBALL: Spartans hit ’em with D and special teams, then the offense got rolling

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MERIDEN — The Maloney defense and special teams carried the Spartans to a nice first-half lead and the offense had its time to shine in the second half. It all added up to a 48-13 season-opening victory over East Hartford for the defending Class L football champions on Friday night under a harvest moon overhanging Falcon Field.

Maloney had a punt return TD by Joziah Gonzalez, a interception return from Jaden Vasquez, a fumble recovery by Armani Ortiz, two rushing TDs by RB Josh Boganski and two passing TDs from QB Kyle Valentine.

“We played with great team speed and I liked what we saw tonight,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said. “The name of the game is to get better now. We have great potential and we always knew that, but we have to keep practicing hard and taking it one game at a time.”

Valentine didn’t complete a pass in the first half and his only two completions in the third quarter were touchdown throws to Donte Kelly and Jesus Martell.

Maloney led 27-13 at the half. Defense and special teams were critical on all four of the Spartans’ first-half touchdowns. Maloney ran only eight plays from scrimmage in the opening half for 12 yards, while East Hartford ran 33 plays for 131.

Maloney forced East Harford to punt on the opening drive of the night and Valentine’s first pass from scrimmage as Maloney starting quarterback was a pick-6 in the arms of East Hartford senior linebacker Dallas Cruz. Cruz made the interception and ran it back in for 18 yards as the visitors went up 7-0 with 6:22 to go in the first quarter.

“He was obviously nervous in the beginning of the game,” Frederick said of his first-year starting QB. “He can’t make that mistake; it was a big mistake. That’s not how we want to start the game, but he rebounded for us. He will get better. He’s a hard worker and a good leader. He’s going to lead us and we are going to go with him.”

The Maloney defense forced its second punt of the game and one of the Spartans’ top playmakers made an impact. Gonzalez, a senior, picked up a low kick and brought it down the right sideline for a 69-yard punt return.

A PAT by Joshua Scaramuzzo tied the game, 7-7, with 3:49 to go in the first quarter.

“Before the ball came to me I told me teammates I was going to score. As soon as it went up, it hit the ground. I picked it up. I saw green and I brought it in,” Gonzalez said. “This was super-big. We aren’t rebuilding. We are reloading for another one.”

The Maloney defense forced another punt inside the East Hartford 20. The Hornet punter had trouble with the snap and couldn’t get the kick away and was tackled at the one-yard line by Maloney junior Rafael Rodriguez.

Boganski (10-46, 2 TD) plunged in on the next snap to put the Spartans up 14-7 with 2:22 to go in the first quarter.

East Harford put together an 11-play drive down to the Maloney 24 before East Hartford sophomore QB Drayvn Roberts (16 carries, 90 yards) had a pass picked off by Vasquez. He brought it back 95 yards as Maloney went up 20-7 with 7:15 left in the first half. 

“We worked on that all day, just staying with your man and making the play,” Vasquez said. “I wanted to make a play and give us some momentum, and that’s what I did. We had no doubts after we fell behind. We have the same expectations as last year.”

The Maloney D had yet another score its next time on the field late in the second quarter. The Spartans pressured Roberts and forced a fumble. Ortiz recovered and ran it into the end zone. The scoop-and-score with 2:30 left in the first half went for 42 yards as the Spartans went up 27-7.

Ortiz, a Platt transfer, is a strong safety. This was his first varsity touchdown.

“The quarterback was in the pocket and fumbled, and I picked it up and scored,” Ortiz said. “I had to do it for my team. The defense played great. We made no mistakes. We just played great on defense. It was a big moment for me. I didn’t know what to do when I scored.”

East Hartford responded with its second big play of the game as Saquan Rosa Felton bolted down the right sideline for a 91-yard kickoff return with 2:15 to go in the half. The play cut the lead to 27-13 and that’s how the half ended.

Maloney ran its first offensive play from scrimmage in the second quarter with 2:08 to go in the frame.

Appropriately, the half ended on a big defensive play: an interception by Gonzalez. Even without a catch on the day, he made a big impact on Friday night.

“JoJo is a game-breaker; JoJo is electrifying,” Frederick said. “When the ball is in his hands good things happen. Just a dynamic player. He’s just scratching the surface.”

Maloney nearly started the second half with another special teams TD. Marquis Ward had a kickoff return TD negated by a holding penalty.

But, two plays later, Valentine completed his first pass of the season with a 67-yard bomb to Donte Kelly down the left sideline as Maloney went up 34-13 with 11:08 to go in the third quarter. 

Maloney’s defense stymied the East Hartford offense again. The visitors went for it on fourth-and-long from inside their own 20. Rodriguez had a tackle for a loss and the Spartans took over on downs at the EH 15.

Three plays later, Boganski rushed in from eight yards out. The senior’s second TD of the game and put Maloney up 41-13 with 8:33 to go in the third.

Maloney scored again before the quarter was out. Martell, a sophomore receiver, made a move on his defensive back and Valentine (5-for-11, 131 yards, 2 TD, INT) hit him in stride for a 34-yard scoring connection as Maloney went up 48-13 with 5:35 to go in the third quarter. That started running clock.

This was Maloney’s 13th win in a row. The Spartans finished 12-1 last season, winning the first state title in Meriden history. Maloney won its last 12 games of the season and took the Class L championship with a 35-21 victory over Windsor in the final.

En route to the 2021 postseason, Maloney won 28-21 in East Hartford on Oct. 1. East Hartford was 5-5 last season.

“Our team speed and defense tonight was great,” Frederick said. “We were flying to the football and it was a good practice week with guys flying around and being physical. Usually, when its a good week of practice, we are going to play well.”


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