FOOTBALL: Beyond the score, a whole new ball game as city rivals reconvene on the gridiron

FOOTBALL: Beyond the score, a whole new ball game as city rivals reconvene on the gridiron

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MERIDEN — It went kind of the same way it went the last time Platt and Maloney played football against each other.

Maloney won, running back James Tarver had a big day and Maloney coaches posed for a group photo with the Stoddard Bowl trophy before leaving the field.

Except it wasn’t the Stoddard Bowl, it wasn’t Thanksgiving and, technically, it wasn’t even Platt and Maloney.

Technically, it was just a scrimmage when the Panthers (a.k.a. “The West Siders”) and the Spartans (a.k.a. “The Meriden East Siders”) played 11-on-11 tackle football at Falcon Field on Saturday afternoon as independent teams.

There was a final score: East Siders 27, West Siders 7.

There were stats and highlight reel plays:

■Tarver, last year’s Stoddard Bowl MVP, ran for three touchdowns and 172 yards.■Maloney sophomore Joziah Gonzalez had a remarkable debut with an interception, a fumble recovery and an 89-yard scoring reception.■Roberto Salas, the Platt senior running back, scored his team’s touchdown from 74 yards out and finished with 158 yards.

None of that will go into any sort of official record book. But for coaches and players, and for parents, it doesn’t have to. It’s not, ultimately, what mattered when the rivals duked it out on the turf of Falcon on this crisp fall afternoon between the hours of 4 and 6.

“People want to play football; people want to watch football,” said Platt coach Jason Bruenn. “Listen, I’m not happy we lost, but I’m glad we’re playing football.”

That possibility seemed to evaporate on Sept. 16 when the CIAC, after an extended back and forth with state health officials who deemed tackle football too high-risk to play amid the coronavirus pandemic, cancelled the 2020 season.

While a number of teams across the state have since taken up the 7-on-7 game that the CIAC and state Department of Public Health recommended as a safer alternative, the Meriden teams instead pursued playing traditional football in an independent capacity.

They found traction when the City of Meriden gave permission for games to be played in town and when the Board of Education allowed them to use school equipment, removing a financial burden that would have been too steep to overcome otherwise.

Liability was another stumbling block. Coaches and school officials would have been legally exposed if football played as school-affiliated clubs. That’s when the two teams moved under the umbrella of the Meriden Raiders youth football program and rebranded as the East Siders and West Siders.

The Meriden move to football independence also started a ball in motion that is spreading to other towns. Saturday’s game wasn’t a one-off. The two Meriden squads have aligned with teams from other towns, including Berlin and New Britain and possibly Southington, under the aegis of the “Connecticut High School Independent Football League.”

It’s one of two indy football circuits that have quietly been organized over the past few weeks in Connecticut. A second, attached to the Fairfield County Football League youth program, was due to open play on Saturday, as reported by GameTimeCT.

The local league was organzied by Mark Siemes, who has experience running semi-pro leagues.

“He’s the guy who helped us with the insurance to make it happen. He’s kind of set the groundwork, laid it out and then we kind of all jumped on with him,” noted Maloney coach Kevin Frederick. “He seemed like he had his stuff together. He had everything, all the paperwork, dotting his I’s and crossing his T’s, so we went with him.”

“Kevin and I were trying to do this independently without a league and just try to get games, and it was just too difficult,” Bruenn remarked. “With the independent league joining, it gave you some sort of structure to be able to put a schedule together, to have some continuity from day to day.”

The Connecticut High School Independent Football League was listed on the waiver form spectators had to sign before entering Falcon Field on Saturday. The form included a series of COVID-19 questions. It also held the league free of liability in case of infection.

Temperatures were checked at the gate. Masks were required.

The crowd was limited to 150 (each school got 75 tickets). With some people without tickets watching from outside the fence or up behind Washington Middle School, the total was higher than that, though not by much.

Folks kept their masks on and watched a game that was more like a scrimmage than the Stoddard Bowl. The rivals showed the rust of not having a regular preseason, though the hitting was pretty jarring throughout.

Maloney at least had the advantage of playing last Friday against Amity. For Platt, it was the first time out, and the West Siders showed it with three turnovers, including two deep in the red zone. Platt also had a 71-yard touchdown pass from Blaise Lenoue to Antwone Santiago erased by an ineligble receiver call.

That came in the first quarter, when the game was still scoreless. The East Siders wound up taking a 14-0 lead in the second quarter on scoring runs of 72 and 5 yards from Tarver, then levied the KO in the third quarter when Gonzalez took a short pass over the middle from Angel Arce and turned it into an 89-yard score.

That touchdown came moments after Gonzalez recovered a Platt fumble at the 2.

The teams exchanged touchdown runs in the fourth quarter — Tarver from 2, Salas from 74 — to cap the 27-7 final.

After the final horn, the teams lined up across the field and clapped for one another. Perhaps they’ll meet again this fall. If so, expect a sharper game from the West Siders.

“It’s amazing to be back, but we need to get back because we’re rusty,” said Platt linebacker Jasiah Cooper. “I hope we get back and I hope we get a win next week.”

Maloney has four more games lined up. Platt has five.

All that is subject to change, just as it is for the CIAC sports that are being played. A spike in COVID-19 cases can close the curtain at any time.

In the meantime, even as the state Department of Public Health extended its recommendation against tackle football to amateur leagues, the ranks of independent football have swelled.

“I think what happened is, they saw Meriden and now towns are being a pressured a little bit,” Frederick said. “Other parents and coaches are saying, ‘How come they can play safely and we can’t?’ I think we put the pressure on some schools and we’re hoping more kids want to join and play.”

For football parents in Meriden, the independent path has led to re-found opportunity that appeared lost when the official high school season was cancelled.

“When the CIAC announced they weren’t going to be able to play, the fire went out of his eyes,” said Melissa Pelletier, whose son Josh is a senior captain and lineman at Maloney. “So for him to be out on the field, and for everything that the Board of Ed and the coaches and the town did to make this happen, is just more than a thank you.

“As a parent, I understand we all have to take risks,” Pelletier added. “I think we’re doing everything we can to protect our players, but also let them live and enjoy their time together, because they don’t get these moments back.”

Sheila Carraway, mother of Platt senior Shamar Mason, watched from the other sideline, yet expressed an opinion that aligned with Pelletier’s.

“Senior year, I really wanted him to play, so I was all for it,” Carraway said. “I’m OK with it as long as he wears his mask. We’ve been keeping up the precautions, doing what we have to do.

“It’s a whole different way of living now,” she added. “We’re all trying to do the best we can. It’s very stressful. We need to keep them busy.”

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