CHESHIRE — Make it 10 straight for the Southington football team.
But there were more than a few anxious moments down the stretch for the Blue Knights, who held on to beat Cheshire 21-14 in the 26th Apple Valley Classic on Thanksgiving morning at Alumni Field.
Up 21-0 entering the fourth quarter, Southington’s comfort level lessened as Cheshire scored 14 points and had the ball with under four minutes to play.
But the Blue Knights (9-1) prevailed for a 10th win in a row over Cheshire (6-4) in the Apple Valley Classic. And, as a result, SHS players posed with 10 fingers raised in celebration, or crossed arms to form the Roman numeral “X,” in post-game celebration photos.
Southington now leads the annual Thanksgiving morning affair 17-9 and the all-time series against Cheshire 26-18.
“This just feels amazing,” said Southington linebacker Luis Matias, who had one of five Southington sacks and was named his team’s defensive player of the game. “I moved here in eighth grade, but these are my brothers (now). I love them all to death.
“We just want to make history,” Matias added.
While the Blue Knights wrote another winning chapter of the Apple Valley Classic, they can start the process of putting themselves in the CIAC record books starting Tuesday night.
The Blue Knights’ victory, combined with Greenwich’s 39-38 loss to Staples on Thanksgiving morning, moved SHS to No. 1 in the CIAC Class LL playoff points. Official seedings and first-round playoff matchups will be released Friday by the CIAC.
The Class LL standings indicate Southington will host No. 8 seed Trumbull (7-3) in a quarterfinal game Tuesday night at Fontana Field.
“We have to just stay focused and move on in the playoffs,” Matias said. “We are going to play at home, but are going to just take it one game at a time.”
While Southington was assured of a Class LL playoff spot win or lose Thursday, that wasn’t the case for Cheshire.
But about 30 minutes after losing to their rival, and after crunching some CIAC playoff points, Cheshire head coach Don Drust and his Rams found out they would be playing on Tuesday night as well.
As something of a silver lining, Cheshire unofficially qualified for the Class L playoffs as the No. 8 seed. Its postseason spot was made possible by Darien’s 13-10 loss to New Canaan in the Turkey Bowl.
The Rams will hit the road Tuesday night to play at top-seeded St. Joseph (9-1), which beat Trumbull 20-17 with a field goal with two seconds to play on Thursday.
“Losing stinks; it hurts to lose to your rival on Thanksgiving morning,” Durst said. “But it won’t hurt quite as bad (knowing we made the playoffs).
“Obviously you want to win on Thanksgiving, but at the end of the day, to get a few more days with those guys is the most important thing to me,” Durst added.
As for Thursday, Southington controlled the game for the first 36 minutes and led 21-0.
Cheshire, however, ran 20 of 27 plays in the final 12 minutes of the game and had the ball with 3:39 to play.
After cutting the deficit to 21-7 with 7:02 to go on the first of two Matt Jeffery touchdown runs in the fourth quarter, Cheshire recovered the ensuing onsides kick and made it 21-14 on another 4-yard Jeffery TD run with 4:12 remaining.
Cheshire’s defense then forced a 3-and-out and the Rams took over at their own 35 after a Southington punt.
With just over two minutes to play, and the Rams facing a third-and-15, running back Jeffery Gonzalez’s knee was ruled down as he made a catch. Cheshire argued the call, which brought an ensuing unsportsmanlike penalty, pushing the ball back to the Cheshire 15.
Now facing fourth-and-30 with 2:08 to play, Southington’s Rashard Williams intercepted an Aniston Marsh pass to ease the SHS faithful’s mind and silence the Cheshire sideline.
Williams returned the ball to the Cheshire 3. From there, the Blue Knights simply ran out the clock.
“I wish it didn’t take as long as it did for us to get going and get some traction,” Drust said. “But at the end of the day, I’m really proud of those guys. I’m really proud of those seniors.
“They gave us everything they had; they played for 48 minutes, and that’s all you can ask for,” Drust added. “They played 48 minutes against a really good football team.”
Drury expected nothing less from Cheshire, which was led on defense by MVP end Brett Rochford.
“We told the guys that we were on a 5-, 6-game skid to them early in my career,” Drury said. “I said, ‘They are going to be hungry.’ We were in that position.”
Prior to the Blue Knights’ run of wins, Cheshire had beaten SHS five straight times, including in Mike Drury’s first Apple Valley Classic as Southington head coach in 2011. Drury is now 10-1 against Cheshire.
“(Cheshire) came out and played really hard, but our guys made great plays when they had to,” said Drury. “(Momentum) changed there (in the fourth quarter) a little bit, but we had some big penalties on defense and offense. That allowed them to stick around a little bit when we could have taken it away.”
Up until the fourth quarter, Southington dominated the game on both sides of the ball.
Senior Lincoln Cardillo, who was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player, scored the first and third Blue Knights’ touchdowns.
Junior quarterback C.J. DiBenedetto, Southington’s Offensive Player of the Game, threw for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
One of DiBenedetto’s touchdowns was to Williams with 36 seconds to play in the first half to put SHS up 14-0 at the break. Williams, who battled illness along with 18 other SHS players, finished with six catches for 93 yards.
“I was feeling pretty good all week, but went to bed last night and sort of felt it; then I woke up this morning feeling terrible,” said Williams. “My head hurts a little now, but I feel a lot better.
“Going into the game, I just had to forget about it; I wasn’t going to sit out,” Williams continued. “I feel like when others are hurt, we just have to step up and do our jobs.”
Williams was alluding to SHS playing Thursday without starting wide receivers Kam Beaudoin and Evan Anderson. Beaudoin missed his second game with a shoulder injury, while Anderson is out for the season with a torn ACL.
With those two out, Williams played a bigger role in the SHS offense.
“Ray’s a great player; he stepped up big,” Drury said. “He made big plays when needed. We had actually played him out of position most of the game and he did a great job adapting.”
Cardillo’s second TD came after DiBenedetto hooked up with Williams for a 50-yard gain that saw Williams take a swing pass and race down the sidelines into the end zone. Williams, however, stepped out of bounds at the Cheshire 28.
No matter. DiBenedetto hit Cardillo out of the backfield on the next play for a TD. Cardillo broke a tackle at the 5, then ran into the end zone for his 22nd touchdown of the season.
“C.J. just threw a beautiful ball,” Cardillo said. “It was a fake screen and he threw it perfectly over the linebacker.”
While SHS was taking a 21-0 lead, Cheshire’s offense was pretty much a one-man show.
Jeffery accounted for 78 of the Rams’ 91 total yards heading into the fourth quarter. The junior, who lined up at quarterback and wide receiver, was named Cheshire’s top offensive player.
Jeffery finished with 66 yards rushing and caught nine passes for 87 yards.
“We were scheming (on Jeffery) because we knew he was very athletic,” Matias said. “We were trying to find ways to slow him down.”
When Cheshire got within 21-14 on Jeffery’s second TD, Matias was there to keep spirits high.
‘Everyone was down, but I was just trying to pick up my brothers,” said Matias of Cheshire’s fourth-quarter rally. “We had to stay focused. We just got it done.”
The Rams started senior Michael Simeone at quarterback, but Marsh moved to quarterback in the first half when Jeffery wasn’t taking direct snaps.
Marsh, a sophomore, finished the game 14 of 21 for 113 yards.
After Connor Moran recovered the fourth-quarter onsides kick, Marsh hit Luke Wiedemann for 11 yards and a first on fourth down. He then found Jeffery on a pair of passes for 17 more yards to set up Jeffery’s second TD of the fourth quarter.
“Scoring two touchdowns is always awesome; I do whatever I can do to make the team win,” said Jeffery.
As for rallying late?
“I told the guys, ‘Just believe in yourself, believe in the team,’” Jeffery said. “We score a touchdown, get the onsides kick, then score another touchdown. We got the momentum, and we believed.
“But things happen (at the end) for a reason,” Jeffery added.
“We never quit; we never stopped,” said Drust. “That’s our character coming through. Those last 12 minutes, we really played our butts off.”
The first half started with Southington marching 80 yards on 14 plays. Cardillo was the workhorse on the drive, carrying the ball 11 times for 40 yards.
The effectiveness of the SHS run game opened things up for DiBenedetto.
“I feel like they threw a lot at us on that first drive,” Cardillo said. “So, we got to see how they were going to do things. But we always want to establish the run before we go to the pass option.”
APPLE VALLEY CLASSIC
SHS—Lincoln Cardillo 4 run (kick failed)
SHS—Rashard Williams 25 pass from C.J. DiBenedetto (Cardillo pass from DiBenedetto) 0:36
SHS—Cardillo 28 pass from DiBenedetto (Cardillo kick) 3:30
CHS—Matt Jeffery 4 run (Micah Galloza kick) 7:02
CHS—Jeffery 1 run (Galloza kick) 4:12