MERIDEN — The Stoddard Bowl is always an enormous game in the Silver City on Thanksgiving morning and, this year, it will have playoff implications again.
Falcon Field will play host to the 64th annual contest pitting two talented Meriden squads. Maloney comes in with an 8-1 record. Platt comes in at 6-3. Kickoff is 10:30 a.m.
Maloney, the defending Class L state champ, is firmly in playoff positioning. A victory Thursday would secure the Spartans a home game for next Tuesday’s state quarterfinals.
Platt needs to win to get into the Class MM field.
Despite their winning records, both teams are coming off of losses. Maloney’s 20-game winning streak was ended by Glastonbury, 28-21, in overtime on Nov. 10. That same night, Platt nearly completed a dramatic comeback win at Bloomfield before falling short 40-34.
Maloney leads the Stoddard Bowl series, 32-30-1. The overall series, which includes Maloney’s 16-6 win over Platt in the 2018 Class L semifinals, stands at 33-30-1.
“This is a game about who wants it more,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said. “These are two competitive teams and we are looking to bounce back after that loss. We want to win. We not only want to be the best team in the city, but we want to position ourselves well for the playoffs with a home playoff game. It’s great day for the city.”
Maloney wanted to go unbeaten this season, but will now look to its second goal winning a second straight state title. A Thanksgiving victory would be a step towards that goal.
“The loss was eye-opening and the intensity is up in practice and the focus has been better,” Frederick said. “We are hungry and we want to repeat. We wanted to go unbeaten, but now we have a new season with four games in front of us, and it starts on Thanksgiving and then heads into the playoffs.”
As for Platt, prior to the Bloomfield loss, the Panthers had won five straight games after starting the season 1-2.
There was turmoil at the start of the season. Platt defensive coordinator Birdie Nelson had a heart attack and the Panthers were without starting running back Amari Robinson for the first five games. The junior was limited to just defensive play as his broken hand healed.
“We had a slow start, good middle and a heartbreaker at the end to Bloomfield,” Platt coach Jason Bruenn said. “The second half of the Bloomfield game was probably one of the best outings of the years. We came back from a huge deficit, but when the final buzzer went off we were short. The thing is, we had our opportunities, but we didn’t take advantage.”
There is urgency not to let that happen again on Thursday. With a loss, Platt’s season is over.
“If we don’t win, we aren’t getting in,” Bruenn said. “Last week was a playoff game. If we had won we would have had a little more leeway. But if we win on Thanksgiving I’m pretty sure we are in.
“Obviously, Maloney is a great team. They were No. 1 in the state at one point. You are going to see a lot of athletes on the field. Meriden has always been like that, but I don’t think we’ve gotten the notoriety. But you are going to see two good teams going at it.”
Platt senior quarterback Avery Robinson has been one of – if not the – top quarterbacks in the area. He’s 118-for-186 for 1,711 yards and has an outstanding 23-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
His top target is Vittorio Church. The senior receiver has reeled in team highs in receptions (48), receiving TDs (8) and receiving yards (774).
Other dangerous ballcatchers are senior Kevin Acosta (30-353, 5 TD) and juniors Zack Baker (17-305, 4) and Deante Torres (12-129, 1).
Also, 6-foot-4 junior tight end Jayden Vega is a red-zone weapon. He’s caught five passes for 68 yards and five touchdowns.
Amari Robinson leads Platt with 678 rushing yards in a half season. He has six rushing TDs.
The Platt offensive line features senior left tackle Caleb Rich, senior left guard Hunter McMahon, sophomore center Isaiah Smith, sophomore right guard Jahi Mitchell and junior right tackle Andres Villanueva. Junior Trevor Cannata handles the kicking.
On defense, Platt deploys a three-man front headed by junior Julian Frias, junior Michael Melendez and senior Elier Ventura.
The outside linebackers are seniors RayQuan Bradshaw and Marc Bishop. Starting inside linebackers are juniors Avelino Nieves and Landon Freemantle.
In the secondary, the cornerbacks are Torres and Acosta. Church and Amari Robinson are the safeties.
Bradshaw has a team-high 68 tackles, including seven for lost yardage. Nieves has 56 tackles and Frias five sacks.
“We’ve come around and put up some points after a slow start of the season; we’ve played some defense,” Bruenn said. “I think we are a very good team. I just think we haven’t played good football at times. If you want to be a great team, you have to take advantage of your opportunities. We are a very good team with a lot of athletes.”
Aided by Amari Robinson’s return to the backfield, the Panthers are 5-1 since those two losses in the opening three weeks of the season — 38-28 to 10-0 Berlin on opening night and 49-0 to 8-1 North Haven in Week 3.
“With the exception of the North Haven game, we’ve done a pretty good job moving the ball and we’ve moved it the way we’ve wanted it,” Bruenn said. “Avery has been tremendous. We’ve been pretty diverse. We’ve moved the ball around. It’s not always the same guy.”
Frederick said the Spartans respect Platt.
“They are coming in with a good record,” the Maloney head coach said. “They are athletic, with some playmakers, and are good up front. It’s going to be a really good game.”
Frederick noted that the Spartans play the Tier 1 schedule in the Central Connecticut Conference — Platt was in Tier 3 this year — and are battle-tested.
“Our schedule favors us immensely,” Frederick said. “We played Darien, Southington and Glastonbury; there have been no lay-ups.”
Defense was a big key in Maloney’s state championship run last season and is good again this year.
The defensive line features senior Sean Finn (32 tackles) and juniors Brendon Borak (43 tackles) and Rafael Rodriguez (61 tackles, 15 for a loss, 6 sacks). Howard Stedford, who anchors the offensive line at left tackle, has also been seeing time on the D-line.
Borak, one of Maloney’s top two-way players, has missed a few games this year, including the Glastonbury loss. He will be back to face Platt.
Maloney’s starting linebackers project as junior Zakkai Moore (101 tackles, 10 for a loss) and sophomore Donald Highsmith (73 tackles, 8 for a loss). Juniors Armani Ortiz (58 tackles), Nicholas Arroyo (51) and Joshua Hawkins are also in the linebacking mix.
Frederick said senior Joziah Gonzalez (41 tackles) and junior Donte Kelly (28) have been shutdown corners. Jaden Vasquez (3 INT) is a senior cornerback and sophomore Jesus Martell (34 tackles) is at safety.
On offense, the Spartans work behind the line of Stedford, sophomore left guard Kaleb Marquez, junior center Rafael Figueroa Rosario, junior right guard Rafael Rodriguez and senior right tackle Jayden Guilavogui.
“The offensive line is coming together but we have to be more consistent. I like where we are heading and we just have to get better each day.”
Kyle Valentine directs the attack at QB. The first-year senior starter has completed 119 of 199 passes for 1,684 yards and 20 TDs against five interceptions.
His wide receivers are Gonzalez (47-630, 9 TDs), Kelly (29-466, 7), senior Amir Phillips (14-236, 2) and senior Ayden Vazquez (12-180, 1).
“Kyle Valentine has done a tremendous job,” Frederick said. “He had no varsity experience before this year and I’m tremendously proud of that kid and what he’s done for the program.”
Senior Josh Boganski is the running back. A second-year starter, Boganski has 877 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season on 196 carries.
“He ran tremendouly against Southington and we hope he does that against Platt,” Frederick said. “We’re looking for him to get things going. We have to establish the run. We are expecting big things from him.”
Senior Joshua Scaramuzzo is the kicker and junior Marquis Ward is a special teams specialist. Sophomore Elias Vargas has also lined up at fullback.
Gonzalez is a game-breaker for the Spartans not only at receiver, but as a kickoff and punt returner.
“He gets our engine going; he’s our sparkplug,” Frederick said. “He’s a great player for us and will have a big impact for us all over the field.”
Frederick said he’s confident the Spartans will bounce back from the overtime loss to Glastonbury that ended their one-week hold of No. 1 in the state polls.
“We feel we are battle-tested and we feel teams don’t understand how good we are until you step on the field with us,” Frederick said. “We are hoping to bring that experience and battle-tested mentality on Thursday morning.”
Frederick wants his team to start off fast on offense.
“We can’t get off to a slow start like we did against Glastonbury,” Frederick said. “We’ve had a couple of games where we’ve gotten off to slow starts.”
Bruenn noted that the Maloney offensive line has been solid and that the Panthers need to be aggressive in the box.
“We aren’t going to stop the run, but we have to stop the big run. They are going to get their yards.” Bruenn said. “They can say their quarterback is 5-5, but he delivers the ball and does a great job delivering the ball. He does what he needs to do.
“They just have so many skill players, as we do. Defensively, they are very fast. We have to move the ball offensively and take advantage of what they give us. Their defense doesn’t get enough credit. They play confident and aggressive.”