Just a few weeks ago, maybe as late as 10:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, the Class L playoff field looked like a slam dunk: No. 1 ‘Jersey good’ New Canaan was the belle of the ball. They were going to roll this bracket like a bowling ball and take home the Walter Camp trophy as the No. 1 team in the state.
Something happened on the way to all-time glory. New Canaan looked relatively mortal while defeating St. Joseph to win the FCIAC title. But then came arch rival Darien. The Blue Wave stunned a state by toppling the Rams from the ranks of the unbeaten and capturing the No. 1 seed over unbeaten Platt.
Then New London stunned everyone by toppling NFA to join the field, keeping Naugatuck and/or Bristol Eastern out of the proceedings while Hand and North Haven rounded out the field.
Did anybody figure Class L would set up this way in September? Not a chance. It’s a wild bracket, but will the regular season results hold true.
Can Nick Lombardo, Silas Wyper and Co. continue to ride this wave into the final? Will they face their rivals again in a state championship rematch of 2008?
Defending Class L champion Hand was smoked by New Canaan 52-21 in the season opener. But the Tigers are a remarkably different squad which has learned a few lessons in the SCC. Can Hand successfully defend its title?
What does Platt (11-0) have to offer? The Panthers have dominated their CCC Division III schedule behind sensational junior back Tyzhaun Leatherwood. They read for a step up in competition? How does Ethan Suraci and the North Haven single wing stack up?
Not a month ago, Middletown was itself a Class L favorite. But New London stunned Dario Highsmith and the Blue Dragons to continue its meteoric run to the playoffs. The rematch is on Middletown’s turf. And they’re thinking payback.
Finally, Farmington comes in as a prohibitive underdog against the jilted New Canaan Rams at Dunning Field. The Indians are led by playmaker Ivan Guadalupe. Can he deliver a stunning upset?
Or was the last few weeks just a tease? Will Cole Harris and New Canaan make this whole bracket a slam-dunk after all?
–SEAN PATRICK BOWLEY
Capsules compiled and written by Mike Pucci.
No. 8 HAND (8-3) at No. 1 DARIEN (10-1)
• Where: McMahon High, Norwalk
• Players to watch: Hand: Nick van Dell, So., QB; Conor Dowd, Sr., RB; Tom Wilson, Sr., WR; Darien: Silas Wyper, Sr., QB; Nick Lombardo, Sr., WR/SS; Griffin Ross, Jr., WR.
• You should know: Hand, the two-time defending champion in this class, gets a chance for the three-peat despite being the only team in any of the four classes to lose three games during the regular season.
The Tigers are vastly improved from the team that lost 50-21 to New Canaan in the season opener. Hand then won six straight games before losing consecutive contests to Xavier and West Haven. During the winning streak, the Tigers defeated fellow Class L participant North Haven.
Van Dell has been a revelation since taking over at quarterback. He has thrown for 2,059 yards and 20 touchdowns. His top targets are Wilson (46 receptions, 711 yards, 10 touchdowns) and senior Jake Mirando (42 receptions, four touchdowns). Hand can also run. Dowd has gained over 1,000 yards rushing and junior Tommy Wilson ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns against Guilford last week. Junior kicker Tyler Phan could be an asset here. He kicked game-winning field goals against Hillhouse and Shelton this season.
The Tigers’ defense, which starts several underclassmen, hasn’t been as dominant as in past years and will be tested by the potent Darien offense. How well the Hand defense plays could be the deciding factor in this contest.
The Blue Wave are coming off an emotional 28-24 victory over then unbeaten New Canaan, who was ranked No. 1 in the Register Top 10 Poll at the time, on Thanksgiving. That allowed Darien to earn the No. 1 seed in this class. If the Blue Wave, who also defeated North Haven during the regular season, can play on the level they did against New Canaan, Darien may be tough to beat. The Blue Wave lost only to Class M quarterfinalist St. Joseph.
Wyper is one of the state’s most underrated quarterbacks, who can both pass and run. Wyper has dangerous targets in Lombardo and Ross. Lombardo is one of the state’s best players on both sides of the ball. Defensively, Darien’s front seven is as good as any unit in the state. Mark Evanchick, a sophomore, and junior George Reed, both ends, have been particularly dominant this season.
- Pooch’s pick: Darien.
- SPB’s Pick: Hand 29-28
No. 7 NORTH HAVEN (9-2) at No. 2 PLATT (11-0)
• Where: Falcon Field, Meriden
• Players to watch: North Haven: Ethan Suraci, Sr., RB/LB; Mike Halloran, Sr., QB/LB; Pat Mikos, Sr., RB/LB; Platt: Andrew McBride, Sr., QB; Creme Watford, Sr., WR; Tyzhan Leatherwood, Jr.. RB.
• You should know: This is an intriguing contest between two teams who thrive on running the ball.
North Haven, which lost only to fellow Class L quarterfinalists Hand and Darien, runs a methodical single-wing offense known for chewing up the clock. The Indians’ offensive line is slightly undersized but very physical. North Haven has rushed for 3,723 yards and 49 touchdowns this season. Suraci leads the way with 145 carries for 1,003 yards and 21 touchdowns. Sophomore Mike Montano has added 682 yards and six touchdowns, while Halloran has gained 762 yards rushing and 10 scores.
Platt rolled through an unbeaten regular season, although its schedule was less daunting than the Indians. The Panthers, though, did defeat Class S quarterfinalists Bloomfield and Rocky Hill. Platt is led by McBride, a dual-threat quarterback, who has weapons in receivers Watford and junior Olajuwon McLeod.
Leatherwood is in the midst of an incredible break-through season. He’s one of the state’s best running backs, but has been slowed of late with a nagging ankle injury. When he’s healthy, he’s difficult to contain since he often gets lost behind one of the state’s biggest and most physical offensive lines.
North Haven, because of it’s style of play, isn’t a team that has much success of playing from behind. But if the Indians can get a lead, they will be tough to beat.
- Pooch’s pick: North Haven.
- SPB’s Pick: North Haven 28-14
No. 6 FARMINGTON (9-2) at No. 3 NEW CANAAN (11-1)
• Where: Dunning Field, New Canaan
• Players to watch: Farmington: Ivan Guadalupe, Sr., RB/S/P; Kenny Jones, Sr., WR/CB; Jayson Martin, Sr., OL/DE; New Canaan: Cole Harris, Sr., RB/LB; Connor Buck, Sr., DL; Nick Cascione, Sr., QB.
• You should know: New Canaan, the FCIAC champion, saw its 11-game winning streak end in a 28-24 loss to Darien on Thanksgiving. The Rams. though, are, arguably, still the favorite to win the title in this class. New Canaan defeated fellow Class L quarterfinalist Hand in the season opener and earned two wins over Class M participant St. Joseph this year. The Rams have advanced to the postseason for the ninth straight time.
New Canaan runs an effective spread offense, led by Cascione and receivers Jack Gilio, Alec LaPolice and Cole Turpin. The Rams also have one of the most physical and aggressive defenses led by Harris and Buck.
Farmington likes to run the ball. Guadalupe is a triple-threat. He can run, play defense and he’s one of the state’s best punters. Jones is both a threat out of the backfield and in the flat.
- Pooch’s pick: New Canaan.
- SPB’s pick: New Canaan 62-21
No. 5 NEW LONDON (9-2) at No. 4 MIDDLETOWN (10-1)
• Where: Rosek-Skubel Stadium, Middletown
• Players to watch: New London: Jose Garcia, Sr., WR/DB; Danny Maranda, Jr., QB/DB; Orinn Parke, Sr., RB/DB; Middletown: Dario Highsmith, Jr., QB; Jacob Homar, Sr., WR; Cody Carrillo, Sr., LB; Isiah Thompkins, Jr. RB/LB
• You should know: A rematch from a regular-season contest won by New London.
New London started the season at 1-2, losing to Class S quarterfinalist Capital Prep/Classical Magnet/Achievement First and Class M participant Ledyard. Since, the Whalers have been on a roll. New London has won eight games in a row, including a 23-21 victory over Middletown on Nov. 8 and a 9-7 win over Class LL quarterfinalist NFA on Thanksgiving.
The Whalers are balanced offensively. Maranda has passed for 1.943 yards and 26 touchdowns, while Parke has rushed for 1,206 yards and 13 touchdowns. Garcia is one of the team’s top two-way players. He’s caught 45 passes for 797 yards and 14 touchdowns and has made four interceptions.
Middletown has had much success running the ball. Highsmith, one of the state’s best players, is a running back playing the quarterback position and runs behind a big and physical offensive line. Twin brothers Anthony and David Bednarz, both 6-foot-7 and over 250 pounds, are two of the best linemen in the state.
Give the edge to Middletown at home, but this contest could be just as competitive as the first. New London freshman Garrett Burdick kicked the game-winning field goal the last time these teams played, and he also kicked the game-winner against NFA. He could impact the game once again.
- Pooch pick: Middletown
- SPB’s Pick: Middletown 21-16