CHESHIRE — It was only fitting that the defense sparked Southington’s massive celebration Thursday at the end of the Apple Classic.
Not a Hail Mary completion. Not a highlight-reel run to a winning touchdown. Not a last-second field goal.
The Southington sideline erupted on Thanksgiving morning after a defensive stop.
Not just any stop, but a winning play by 11 Blue Knights with a single goal: Stop Cheshire short of the goal line.
In an Apple Valley Classic for the ages, Southington stuffed Cheshire quarterback Jason Shumilla’s two-point conversion attempt in double overtime to beat the Rams 21-20 in the 24th edition of the Thanksgiving series.
The game featured two Class LL playoff teams, but the Southington defense stole the show once again.
When asked if he’d would have wanted the latest Apple Valley Classic to end any other way, Southington senior defensive back John Carrerio didn’t mince words.
“Oh, God, no,” Carrerio said. “Obviously, I’m a defensive guy and I love my guys, but I’d trust them against anyone in the world.
“We draw strength from each other,” Carrerio added. “It’s more than just the goal-line stand that you see. It’s all the lifting and all the stuff we do together. I couldn’t tell you all the work we put in. I’m just at a loss for words.”
The Blue Knights’ defensive effort Thursday, and throughout the season, has said enough.
Southington (9-1) entered the Apple Valley Classic having shut out both Glastonbury and New Britain. Prior to its back-to-back shutouts, Southington allowed just 20 points in routs of Manchester (44-6), East Hartford (41-7) and Class LL playoff-bound Simsbury (35-7).
On the season, the Blue Knights have allowed just 99 points in regulation – 72 coming in the first month of the season.
This special Southington defensive group has allowed just one quarterback to throw for at least 200 yards — Darien’s Peter Graham in Week 2. Cheshire’s Jake McAlinden (18-113) was the first running back to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark against Southington this season.
As the numbers show, Southington’s defense has been at its best as the playoffs approach.
“You’re always hoping your defense can step up and make those stops,” said Southington head coach Mike Drury. “I have faith in the way (the defense) is playing. They’re preparation is great and they work very hard.”
“We have faith in (the defense) to make plays and the ability of our coaches to adjust,” Drury said. “We are just playing together and as a family. This is a tight-knit group. Guys care about each other.”
A scoreless opening12 minutes on Thursday extended Southington’s shutout streak to 12 quarters. Cheshire broke that streak by tying the game 7-7 with 8:08 to play in the second quarter. It was the scoring Southington had allowed since Nov. 1.
Southington, which allowed just 84 yards in the second half, forced Cheshire to punt on its final four possessions. A scoreless second half set up overtime and the defense’s shining moment.
“We were keying on 43 (McAlinden),” Southington senior defensive back Josh Vitti said of the climactic two-point conversion try. “We really thought he’d touch the ball, but they ran the QB sneak and their guards weren’t ready and our defensive line was ready, and that was it.”
One of Southington’s defensive linemen in on the stop was senior Anthony Henderson.
“We put in our work in every day; we never cut it short at practice,” Henderson said. “It felt good (to stop Cheshire) there. We were all confident we could. We’re confident we can stop teams (in the playoffs).”
Speaking of the postseason, not only did Southington win its eighth straight Apple Valley Classic, the Blue Knights also moved up to the No. 2 seed in the CIAC state playoffs. As a result, Southington will host Ridgefield in the Class LL first round on Tuesday night.
The seventh-seeded Tigers are 8-2 and back in the playoffs after a two-year absence. Ridgefield beat Danbury 36-21 on Wednesday night to clinch a postseason bid.
Ridgefield’s two losses this season have come to very good teams — undefeated St. Joseph, the No. 1 seed in Class L, and 9-1 Greenwich, the No. 6 seed in Class LL.
So Ridgefield will be yet another test for the Southington, which lost at home a year ago to Fairfield Prep in the Class LL quarterfinals. The Tigers, one of three teams out of the FCIAC in the Class LL playoffs, averaged 33.3 points a game this season.
Carrerio and a Southington defensive unit affectionately known as “The Boogeymen” will be ready.
“We want to be a scary defense; we want to come hard and hit hard,” Carrerio said. “We knew we had a special defense from the start. We knew we’d show up when we had to.”
The Southington defense’s next showing: Tuesday night at Fontana Field, 6:30 p.m.