TRUMBULL >> It wasn’t the prettiest of victories for the No. 1 team in the state, but when push came to shove, New Canaan answered.
Tied at 14 with No. 6 St. Joseph (9-2) at halftime of the FCIAC championship game Friday night at McDougall Stadium at Trumbull High, the Rams’ defense held the Cadets to one score, while the offense, led by senior quarterback Nick Cascione, did the rest en route to a 31-20 victory.
It was the Rams’ first conference title since 2008 and eighth overall.
“It kind of shows you the character and the fight that they have, not to give up and not to panic,” New Canaan head coach Lou Marinelli said. “They stuck to the offense and they stuck to the defensive plan.”
The story of the night and week, was if Cascione would even play in the game. After suffering a concussion two weeks ago his status was uncertain. But after being cleared to play on Friday, he made the most of it from the opening play. He tossed a 76-yard score to teammate Kyle Smith for the 7-0 lead.
“It felt great,” Cascione said of making the play. “I mean I really don’t want to miss a championship for my life. Coming out after two weeks, I was a little nervous. And (when) the first play of the game was a touchdown, I was like, ‘All right’.”
Cascione, who was named the MVP of the game, did his most productive work when it mattered most. He paced the Rams with three touchdowns, highlighted by two second-half rushing scores, including a 1-yard TD late in the third quarter to give New Canaan the 21-14 advantage.
He was accompanied by Frank Cognetta who was a force to reckon with. He had 167 yards rushing yards on 25 carries and one score for the Rams. Cascione finished with 119 rushing and 141 passing yards.
“The ‘O’ line kept us moving, and opened holes in the run game,” Cascione said. “We were running the ball all over them. Then the defense did a great job all game.”
What appeared to be headed for a shootout in the last two quarters fell short. As Cascione directed the offense in the second half, it was the Rams’ relentless defense that took over in the final 24 minutes and held the Hogs.
“We just didn’t make plays,” St. Joseph head coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “We had guys that were wide open, we just didn’t finish stuff. I thought we ran the ball well. They’re (New Canaan) a terrific team.”
St. Joes, kept pace with the Rams for the first 24 minutes, as quarterback Jordan Vazzano threw two first half touchdowns, including engineering a 97-yard drive late in the second quarter that started off with a fumble by New Canaan fullback Connor buck.
Vazzano connected with Shane Miller for 79 yards and then a play later found Mark Hirschbeck to tie the game at 14.
“We felt really good about what we did in the first half,” DellaVecchia said. “We did everything we wanted to do, in our first time here. It would have meant a lot to our program to win this. We didn’t make enough plays.”
Vazzano finished with 227 yards and two picks, but was limited to just two passing completions in the second half. The Cadets did move the ball well on the ground as they were paced by Mufasha Abdul-Basir’s 186 yards, which included a 50-yarder late in the fourth quarter.
“He’s one of the best backs I’ve seen,” said Marinelli of Abdul-Basir.
New Canaan made it a 24-14 game early in the fourth as Peter Swindell added a 32-yard field goal. Cascione extended the lead with a short 6-yard TD to seal the deal with 4 minute left and give the Rams the 31-14 lead.
at McDougall Stadium, Trumbull
ST. JOSEPH 0 14 0 6 — 20
NEW CANAAN 7 7 7 10 — 31
NC–Kyle Smith 76 pass from Nick Cascione (Peter Swindell kick)
SJ–Lars Pedersen 8 pass from Jordan Vazzano (Kevin Bortnick kick)
NC–Frank Cognetta 8 run (Swindell kick)
SJ–Mark Hirschbeck6 pass Vazzano (Bortnick kick)
NC–Cascione 1 run (Swindell kick)
NC–Swindell 37 field goal
NC–Cascione 7 run (Swindell kick)
SJ–Mufasha Abdul-Basir 50 run (Bornick kick)
Team records: St. Joseph 9-2, New Canaan 11-0