MILFORD >> North Haven’s deliberate and methodical offense performed as expected in the Class L state semifinals against New Canaan.
The seventh-seeded Indians, as they have all season, controlled the tempo with several long drives. But unlike prior games, North Haven just couldn’t find the end zone.
North Haven drives stalled on four occasions in New Canaan territory, including once in the red zone, as the Indians’ season ended with a 17-0 loss to the No. 3 Rams Saturday at Law High.
“We have to score when we have chances,” North Haven coach Anthony Sagnella said. “We can’t chew clock and come up empty; that’s working against us. But you certainly have to credit New Canaan. They were a very, very physical team. They rose to the occasion. They knew what we were about and buckled up.”
New Canaan (13-1), ranked fifth in the Register Top 10 Poll, returns to a state final after a one-year absence. The Rams will attempt to win their first title since 2009, and ninth overall, when they face Darien in the championship game on Saturday at 2:05 p.m. at CCSU’s Arute Field. It will be a rematch of a regular-season contest won by Darien 28-24 on Thanksgiving. New Canaan reached the semifinals for the ninth straight season.
“This is huge,” New Canaan senior quarterback Nick Cascione said. “We missed (going to a final) last year for the first time in a long time (since 2005). It means the world that we can finally come back and finally right the wrong that we had last year (losing in the semifinals).”
Just before halftime, and trailing 10-0, a North Haven pass fell incomplete on fourth down at the New Canaan 6. In the third quarter, North Haven drove 56 yards on 18 plays to the New Canaan 24 on its second possession of the second half before turning the ball over on downs.
“Once they have the ball, we can go on vacation over here,” said New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli with a smile, “because they keep it for long periods of time. They have the right formula for beating our offense. But then, as you get down (to the red zone), the closer they get, everything gets a little bit tighter. I think our kids really hung in there today. To our kids’ credit, they kept on fighting.”
The Indians also missed out on an opportunity on their first possession of the game. North Haven drove to the New Canaan 17, fumbled and the Rams recovered.
New Canaan, which entered having averaged 46 points, was slowed offensively by North Haven’s style. The Rams, though, also did an effective job of moving down field on the ground. Junior Frank Cognetta led New Canaan with 25 carries for 136 yards. Cascione added 74 yards on 14 carries.
“We just took what they were giving us,” Cascione said. “They only put five in the box, so that opened up the run game for us.”
Cascione, who was named the game’s most outstanding player, completed 8 of 19 passes for 202 yards and one touchdown. Cascione connected with Alex LaPolice on a 15-yard touchdown pass to give New Canaan a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. Peter Swindell added a 30-yard field goal to up the Rams’ lead to 10-0 at halftime. Morgan Carson then scored on a 4-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
The Rams had just four offensive possessions in the second half.
“It’s one of the most frustrating things in the world,” Cascione said about waiting to get back on offense.
Senior Mike Halloran rushed 10 times for 97 yards, junior Cole Pecora gained 85 yards on nine carries and senior Ethan Suraci carried 11 times for 74 yards for North Haven (10-3), which rushed 40 times for 278 yards.
Despite falling one victory shy of advancing to its first state final, it’s been an impressive season for the Indians. North Haven earned the program’s first playoff victory with a 35-0 win over Platt in the quarterfinals, and defeated three-time defending champion Xavier during the regular season.
“I have nothing but praise and respect for our team, and especially our seniors,” Sagnella said. “I don’t think that there was a lot of expectation around the area for our team to be as good as it was. I think a lot of that falls on the shoulders of our seniors, how hard they worked; how hard they dedicated themselves. We’re really a team that doesn’t have a star. Every kid, his role is vital and important. I think the reason we got as far as we did was because of our senior class.”
New Canaan 17, North Haven 0
North Haven 0 0 0 0 — 0
New Canaan 7 3 0 7 — 17
NCA—Alex LaPolice 15 pass from Nick Cascione (Peter Swindell kick)
NCA—Peter Swindell 30 FG
NCA—Morgan Carson 4 run (Swindell kick)
Team records: New Canaan 13-1; North Haven 10-3