MERIDEN — Maloney football is back in the Class L final four and will host Shelton on Sunday afternoon at Falcon Field at 12:30 p.m. with a trip to the finals at stake.
No. 3 Maloney (10-1) comes in off a 27-7 quarterfinal victory over No. 6 New Milford. The No. 7 Gaels (7-4) enter the contest after a 21-20 upset of No. 2 Newtown on Tuesday night.
Sunday’s winner will face No. 4 New Canaan or No. 8 Cheshire in the state final next Saturday at CCSU or Rentschler Field.
“We’re thrilled to still be playing football,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said. “We are in December now and when we are playing in December, it’s a good thing. This is where we want to be. We are relishing the opportunity.
“We have to prepare extremely well and we can’t let a minute go by without improving our team.”
The squads are unfamiliar foes. Maloney and Shelton have never met on the gridiron.
This season, both have been hardened by playing in Tier I of their respective conferences — Maloney in the CCC and Shelton in the SCC.
The Spartans have been hard to beat at any time over the past two years, especially at Falcon Field. Their 28-21 overtime loss to Glastonbury on Nov. 11 snapped a 20-game winning streak and was Maloney’s first loss on home turf since 2018.
“Playing at home is a huge advantage for us,” Frederick said. “I know we lost to Glastonbury, but a team has to travel to Meriden, and playing here is no fun for the opposing team. We relish in the opportunity to play at home for a chance to get to the state championship.”
Shelton battled through SCC Tier I, a division that went 5-0 in the quarterfinals Tuesday night. All four of Shelton’s losses were by eight points or less to playoff-bound teams: North Haven (18-10), West Haven (34-28), Fairfield Prep (16-15) and Notre Dame-West Haven (24-20).
Shelton needed Darien to lose to New Canaan on Thanksgiving to qualify for the postseason. The Gaels celebrated when New Canaan came up with a goal-line stand to seal a 13-10 win.
The Gaels are headed by second-year coach Mike DeFelice, a 1996 Shelton grad who was an assistant coach for 22 seasons at his alma mater. He played on Shelton’s 1995 CIAC Class LL state championship team.
“The guys are really upbeat and they have been upbeat all year,” DeFelice said. “We had some tough regular-season games, but we fought every game, every week. We were thinking that 6-4 could still get us in the playoffs. We were at Darien (on Thanksgiving morning). Me and a few of the other coaches were there and excited that we get to play some more football.”
The Gaels have won three of their last four games. They entered Thanksgiving week at 5-4 needing to beat Xavier and got the job done, 33-13.
DeFelice singled out senior captains Ayden Sepkaski (RB/LB), John De Camps (WR) and Tyler Radzion (OL/DL) as his team leaders.
The Shelton coach said Sepkaski had his best defensive game of the year against Newtown. De Camps caught the eventual game-winning TD. Radzion returned on the line after missing the Xavier game due to injury.
Also for the Gaels, junior running back David Dojlidko is averaging 85 yards per game and Ricky Feola is the leading receiver at 78 yards a contest. Junior Michael Kinik is the QB. He’s thrown 15 TDs and nine picks.
Defensively, Ryan Heinz has a team-high four sacks and Kayne Tinney has four picks.
In game-planning for Maoney, DeFelice said he’s preparing his players as if they are playing West Haven, a team with a lot of speed and very good up front.
Frederick has the same respect for Shelton.
“They are a tough team and they have some good athletes,” Frederick said. “They have a lot of skill guys at the wide receiver and defensive back position, and their inside linebacker is unbelievable. Their interior linemen get after it. I like what I see from them. It’s going to be a slugfest on Sunday.”
Health could be a factor. While DeFelice said the Gaels enter the semifinal as healthy as they’ve been all season, there is a big injury question on the Maloney side regarding Kyle Valentine. The first-year senior quarterback did not play the second half of Tuesday’s game after going into concussion protocol.
“He’s day to day, but doing much better,” Frederick said. “He’s been in school and he’s hoping to be ready to take the field on Sunday. But, it’s in the trainers’ hands. We are hoping and praying for him, but if not, Ethan (Nedinsky) is ready to go.”
Nedinsky, the sophomore backup, relieved Valentine at the half against New Milford and led the Spartans to victory with three scoring drives in the fourth quarter to erase a 7-6 deficit.
If Valentine isn’t ready to return Sunday, Nedinsky will make his first varsity start in the Class L semifinals.
“Not much has changed as far as preparation at that position,” Frederick said. “We run the same offense and he always gets reps with the 1’s. It’s going to be be different if he starts, but he’s a student of the game. He’s been committed all season long and is a two- or three-sport athlete and is in the weight room all season.
“He knows our offense extremely well. We are taking extra time with him to make sure he gets the right looks. We’ve got to get him ready and treat him like the starter. We hope Kyle is ready. If not, Ethan is the guy.”
Frederick added that the team will rally behind Nedinsky if he’s called into action.
“Both lines are going to have to step up no matter what,” Frederick said. “We have to be physical up front and protect the QB. They will feel a little urgency if Ethan does play. They will want to make him as comfortable as possible, and that starts with good protection and being physical up front.”
The Spartans got a monster game from receiver/cornerback Donte Kelly against New Milford. Kelly returned a punt for Maloney’s first score, picked off two passes and caught the go-ahead TD pass from Nedinsky early in the fourth quarter.
Senior Joziah Gonzalez, a returning starter from last year’s Class L state championship team, is Maloney leading receiver with 61 catches for 768 yards. He had a rushing and receiving TD against New Milford in the fourth quarter as the Spartans pulled away to the 27-7 win.
Senior running back Josh Boganski rushed 27 times for 130 yards against New Milford after grabbing the Stoddard Bowl MVP on Thanksgiving morning with a three-TD performance against Platt. He now has 1,143 yards and 18 TDs on the season
On defense, the inside linebackers, junior Zakkai Moore and sophomore Donald Highsmith, are Maloney’s top tacklers. Moore has 126 and Highsmith 94. Both have made 10 behind the line of scrimmage.
Junior lineman.Raf Rodriguez has 72 tackles, including a team-high 16 for lost yardage, including six sacks.
“We are going to lean on our experienced guys that went through this last year — like Sean Finn, Brendon Borak, Howard Stedford, JoJo Gonzaelez, Josh Boganski,” Frederick said. “They have been there and done it and have led by example.
“If you’ve played at Maloney in the last two years, you’ve played in some epic football games,” Frederick added. “We’ve drawn large crowds and have felt this pressure before. All eyes are on us and this is where we want our program to be. We want to handle the pressure well and stay dialed into what we are doing.”
On Tuesday, the defense kept the Spartans in the game after a frustrating first half that saw the offense come away empty on four trips to the red zone. The New Milford offense came in hot and Maloney held the Green Wave to seven points.
“I said it all last year and I still say it: Defense wins championships,” Frederick said. “Our assistants do an amazing job to prepare us for these big games. We have guys on staff that put the guys in right spots and the kids go out and execute.
“Our defense has been strong all year,” Frederick added. “We’ve been able to stop the run and the pass. We bend sometimes, but we don’t break. We just have to keep it going on Sunday.”