MERIDEN — Whenever Maloney needed a big play Tuesday night, the Spartans turned to game-breaker Donte Kelly.
The junior had two interceptions, returned a punt for score and caught five passes, including the clutch go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter as No. 3 Maloney earned a 27-7 CIAC Class L state quarterfinal win over No. 6 New Milford at Falcon Field.
“This was a very special win and I didn’t want to let the seniors down; I didn’t want to let anyone down,” Kelly said. “I didn’t want to let the coaches down. They believe in us and that makes us believe in ourselves.”
Maloney (10-1) will stay at Falcon Field to host No. 7 Shelton (7-4) in the semifinals on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. The Gaels advanced by knocking off No. 2 Newtown, 21-20.
In Meriden, the Spartans led 6-0 at the half on a 57-yard kick return by Kelly. The Green Wave (7-4) took a 7-6 lead on a Darnell Bronson 5-yard TD run with 5:14 left in the third quarter.
Maloney QB Kyle Valentine didn’t play in the second half after being hit late in the second quarter. He was out due to concussion protocol and Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said after the game the senior is day to day.
But Maloney backup QB Ethan Nedinsky came through with a pair of fourth-quarter TD passes to lead the hosts to victory.
The first was a 21-yarder to Kelly with 11:52 to go in the fourth quarter that put the Spartans up 14-7 after a successful two-point conversion run by Joziah Gonzalez.
Later in the quarter, following Kelly’s second INT of the game, Gonzalez caught a 17-yard TD pass from Nedinsky on a fourth-and-5 play from the New Milford 17 as Maloney went up 21-7 with 5:30 remaining in the contest.
Gonzalez capped the scoring with a 3-yard TD run with 1:06 left in the quarter as the defending Class L champions left Falcon Field with a harder-than-expected victory.
“We battled a lot of adversity and I knew I had to pull through for the team,” Gonzalez said. “The defense played great and all of the credit to the offensive line. It was a great team win.
“Losing Kyle was a big loss, but we have the next-man-up mentality,” Gonzalez added. “Ethan stepped up and you can’t ask for anything more from a sophomore.”
Kelly saved a frustrating half for Maloney with his 57-yard punt return with 1:18 left. The Spartans had four empty red zone trips earlier in the half.
On the punt, the junior picked up a bouncing ball at his own 43-yard line and ran almost a straight line down the right sideline for the touchdown.
The previous four empty trips to the New Milford goal line ended with a pair of turnovers — a fumble recovery by Angelo Fernandez and an interception from Bronson pick — a fourth-down stop by New Miford and a blocked Josh Scaramuzzo field goal attempt.
The Maloney defense, meanwhile, had little trouble against the Green Wave in the first half. The Spartans forced four punts and had a Kelly interception to end the first half. Zakkai Moore also had a fumble recovery in the first half.
Maloney forced a punt on the first drive of the game after deferring the coin toss. The Spartans marched all the way to the New Milford 9 before an incomplete pass ended the 9-play drive.
Maloney’s next march was a 10-play drive that ended in Bronson’s pick. Josh Boganski (27 carries, 130 yards) ripped off a 21-yard run on that drive and Valentine tossed a 10-yard pass on fourth-and-9 to Amir Phillips to keep it alive.
The teams exchanged turnovers in the closing seconds of the first quarter. The pick by Bronson with 30 seconds left was immediately followed by Moore’s fumble recovery with 14 seconds to go.
Maloney got down to the New Milford 11 on the next possession to open the second quarter. The drive was aided by a fourth-and-3 grab by Kelly. This drive ended with the missed field goal.
Maloney’s next drive stalled at the NM 12 after a 24-yard grab by Kelly on third-and-19 for 24 yards. The Spartans fumbled on the next play.
After a New Milford punt, Kelly broke free with his 57-yard punt return and his pick ended the half.
New Milford took a 7-6 lead with 5:14 left in the third quarter. The drive featured a juggling catch on a pass down the middle from Bronson to John Balzi III on a third-and-11 for 19 yards.
Bronson capped the 13-play, 61-yard drive and Balzi’s PAT gave the Green Wave its lone lead of the night.
Andrew Brown had a interception for the visitors following the TD, but the Spartan defense forced a 3-and-out after a Nick Arroyo sack.
This set the stage for three-TD fourth quarter for Maloney.
“Great team win,” Frederick said. “Guys stepped up at the end. Kyle suffered a concussion. We had a couple of guys who had the flu and were questionable. I wasn’t sure who was going to step up and who wasn’t. Guys stepped up. Ethan came through with two good throws and I’m just so proud of him.”