SOUTHINGTON — The Southington football team has played with a bull’s eye on its back all season.
That target couldn’t be any bigger heading into the CIAC state playoffs.
The Blue Knights open the postseason Tuesday night as the No. 1 seed in Class LL. Southington (9-1) will host No. 8 Trumbull (7-3) at Fontana Field. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m.
The Blue Knights are also ranked No. 1 statewide in the GameTime CT media poll, returning to the top spot Monday when previous No. 1 West Haven fell 21-6 to Fairfield Prep the night before Thanksgiving Day.
Southington paved its ascent back to the top of the media poll, as well as the Class LL playoff point standings, the following morning when it beat rival Cheshire 21-14 in the Apple Valley Classic and Greenwich lost a wild Thanksgiving contest to Staples, 39-38.
Southington’s win and Greenwich’s loss meant the teams switched playoff seeds. The Blue Knights, despite beating the Cardinals 29-28 during the regular season, were ranked No. 2 in playoff points behind Greenwich heading into Thanksgiving.
That all changed when Staples scored in the final minute to beat Greenwich in a game that saw the lead change hands seven times.
As a result, Tuesday night’s other Class LL quarterfinals feature No. 2 Greenwich (8-2) hosting No. 7 Hamden (8-2), while No. 3 West Haven (9-1) welcomes No. 6 Glastonbury (8-2) and No. 4 Staples (9-1) hosts No. 5 Fairfield Prep (7-3).
With Thursday’s developments, Southington assured itself of playing at Fontana Field in the quarterfinals and in the semifinals. Should it win Tuesday night, the Blue Knights will host Sunday’s semifinal matchup against the winner of the Staples-Fairfield Prep game.
A year ago, Southington endured the long bus ride to New Canaan in the quarterfinals. The Blue Knights lost 38-14 to a Rams team that is now the fourth seed in Class L.
“We have to just stay focused and move on in the playoffs,” said Southington senior linebacker Luis Matias, who was named the top SHS defender in Thursday’s 21-14 victory over Cheshire. “We are going to play at home, but are going to just take it one game at a time.”
Over the past three seasons, the Blue Knights are 16-1 at Fontana Field, a place the team likes to refer to as “The Dungeon.” Southington’s lone loss in that time, however, was in the 2019 playoffs, when it fell to Darien 21-12 in the Class LL semifinals.
This season, the Blue Knights’ lone loss came on the road at Meriden’s Falcon Field in double overtime to Maloney, 31-28. Southington has outscored opponents this year at home 189-77.
The postseason isn’t anything new to Southington head coach Mike Drury. Since taking over the SHS program in 2011, Drury has led the Blue Knights to the playoffs in nine of 11 seasons.
“We just have to continue to win; it’s one game at a time,” Drury said. “We don’t care if we are ranked 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. We just have to move forward in the playoffs
“We’ll identify who we are playing, beak them down, and get things right,” Drury added.
One thing Southington has done right all season has been maintaining balance on offense.
Lincoln Cardillo has proven to be more than reliable on the ground. The senior has run for 1,452 yards and 20 touchdowns. He has also caught two touchdown passes from junior quarterback C.J. DiBenedetto, including one against Cheshire that put Southington up 21-0.
DiBenedetto has 22 scoring tosses this season. He went over the 2,000-yard mark (2,120) against Cheshire by throwing for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Ray Williams caught DiBenedetto’s first TD pass against Cheshire. Williams finished with five catches for 89 yards, which gives the junior 32 receptions on the season for 428 yards and seven TDs.
“We know that this season isn’t close to being over yet,” said Cardillo following the win over Cheshire. “We have three more hard weeks, potentially, and we want to be playing those weeks.
“We all want to be here,” Cardillo continued. “We want to get better in practice so we are playing on December 10.”
FYI: Dec. 10 is the date of the Class LL state title game.
On defense, Southington is led by Aaron Borkowski’s 101 tackles. The junior leads a linebacking corps that includes Chris Totonis (80 tackles) and Matias.
Behind them are a secondary led by Devin Bougie (58 tackles), Caden Sirois (2 interceptions, 38 tackles) and Nick Bertola (4 INTs). Up front, Josh Frappier leads a group of senior linemen with 53 tackles.
One key Trumbull player the Southington defensive unit might not have to worry about Tuesday night is junior running back Rowan Johnston, who didn’t play on Thanksgiving.
Prior to that, the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Johnston had proven to be elusive. He scored 28 total touchdowns and ran for over 1,400 yards.
In Trumbull’s season-opening win over Masuk, Johnston announced his arrival by scoring seven TDs, running for six and gaining 186 yards. Johnston then had another four TDs the next week against Westhill.
In a Week 4 loss to Staples, Johnston ran for 228 yards. He had another 229 yards on the ground against Ridgefield, scoring three times.
The running of Johnston was complemented by the passing of senior quarterback Hunter Agoste, who has thrown for 20 TDs and over 2,000 yards.
Agoste’s top target is senior Luca Antonio. Eight of the 6-foot-3 Antonio’s 33 catches this season have been for TDs. He’s gone over the 100-yard mark three times.
All three of Trumbull’s losses this season have come in the highly competitive FCIAC. The Eagles lost to Staples (36-29) and at both Greenwich (37-24) and St. Joseph (20-17).
Trumbull’s loss on Thanksgiving morning to St. Joseph’s, the No. 1 seed in Class L and the No. 1 team in the Day of New London coaches poll, came with two seconds to play when Logan Spoestra kicked a 21-yard field goal.