The Class M playoff bracket is one of the state’s most bizarre.
It features a Pequot powerhouse, a couple of SWC upstarts, a pair of virtual unknowns from the corners (both Quiet and otherwise), two playoff mainstays and then the FCIAC Catholic school with one of the state’s most impressive championship pedigrees.
The combined state titles from the seven other Class M participants don’t come close to matching St. Joseph’s mantle of 10 state titles. Two of these schools, Quinebaug Valley (aka Putnam/Tourtellotte/Ellis Tech and Barlow, have never taken teams to the state football playoffs. Gilbert/Northwestern’s only been here once before. Valley Regional/Old Lyme: twice.
Brookfield has two titles in five appearances.
Out of the whole group, Ledyard’s program comes closest with four CIAC state titles in 10 appearances.
And, guess what? Ledyard and St. Joseph meet in the state quarterfinals — a matchup of programs with 14 titles between them.
So one gaudy program is going to get the heave-ho after Tuesday. Judging by statewide rankings throughout the year, the smart money says it won’t be St. Joseph.
In fact, the Hogs have been anointed Class M champion since the preseason.
It certainly brings in the most polished club. It’s loaded with senior and junior talent. It’s beaten the likes of Darien, Fairfield Prep, Ridgefield and Trumbull. It hung with New Canaan in the FCIAC final.
Though its best days may lie ahead, perhaps this year’s Ledyard edition is too young enough to know that’s its supposed to be an underdog. That’s what coach Jim Buonocore’s been saying this season.
But what about the rest? Is this Valley Regional team, which dismantled everyone in the Pequot, for real? It has a nice cadre of stars that seem capable.
What of the strange amalgamation of SWC schools. There’s Barlow and stellar option quarterback Jack Shaban. There’s red-hot Bethel and stellar quarterback Joe Piatnik and end Cal Daniels. Like Ledyard, Brookfield is a young team filled with sophomore stars, yet it played for the SWC championship.
What about Tony Ortiz Jr. and the Gilbert/Northwestern YellowJackets? Can they make a run. Does Quinebaug Valley have a surprise in store for Valley’s dream season?
It’s an intriguing bracket, but maybe the result won’t be. Unless someone proves otherwise (Valley?), it looks like this is St. Joseph’s to lose.
–SEAN PATRICK BOWLEY
Capsules compiled and written by Mike Pucci.
No. 8 QUINEBAUG VALLEY (9-2)
at No. 1 VALLEY REGIONAL/OLD LYME (11-0)
• Where: Valley Regional High, Deep River
• Players to watch: Quinebaug Valley: John Sanderson, Sr., RB; Connor Pion, Sr., RB; Tylor Genest, Sr., QB; Valley Regional/Old Lyme: Phil Cohen, Sr., QB; Justin Cheverier, Jr., RB/LB; Chris Jean-Pierre, Jr., WR/DB.
• You should know: Valley Regional/Old Lyme rolled through an unbeaten regular season, which included wins over Class S quarterfinalists Coginchaug and Morgan. The Warriors are heavy favorites in this contest.
Valley/OL runs an offense that is effective in both the pass and run. Cohen has thrown for 1,584 yards and 24 touchdowns and he likes to spread the ball around to his arsenal of weapons. Jean-Pierre (33 catches, 390 yards, five touchdowns), Dave Peck (24-503-10) and Evan Smith (18-276-6) are dangerous receivers in the flat. Cheverier has rushed for 854 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Cheverier (153 tackles, 4.5 sacks) leads a tenacious defense. Peck (five interceptions) and Jean-Pierre (four interceptions) have also excelled defensively.
The Pride, comprised of players from Putnam, Tourtellotte and Ellis Tech, have won seven straight to earn a berth in the field. They lost only to Class S participants Prince Tech and Capital Prep/Classical Magnet/Achievement First.
It’s been a nice run by the Pride, but it doesn’t appear that they have the size nor level of talent to compete with the Warriors.
- Pooch’s pick: Valley Regional/Old Lyme.
- SPB’s Pick: Valley Regional/Old Lyme 48-12
No. 7 LEDYARD (9-2) at No. 2 ST. JOSEPH (10-2)
• Where: McDougall Stadium, Trumbull HS
• Players to watch: Ledyard: Khary Childs, Sr., RB/DB; Ty Ebdon, So., QB; Jordan Kowalski, Sr., WR/DB; St. Joseph: Jordan Vazzano, Sr., QB; Lars Pedersen, Jr., WR/S; Steve Hashemi, Sr., OL/DL.
• You should know: St. Joseph is most pundits’ pick to win the title in this class, and for good reason.
The Hogs are highly explosive offensively led by Vazzano, one of the state’s top quarterbacks. Vazzano has targets in Pedersen, one of the best receivers in the state, senior Mark Hirschbeck and senior Shane Miller. Junior Mufasha Abdul Basir is an underrated running back who provides the Hogs with balance on offense.
St. Joe’s defense is somewhat of a weak spot. The Hogs have allowed 25 points per game. But the Hogs are talented defensively, led by Hashemi and senior lineman Mike Schuchmann.
Ledyard, which lost only to Class LL quarterfinalist NFA and Stonington (8-3), runs a multiple set offensively that has had success through the air this season. Ebdon, in his first season at quarterback, has thrown for 2,056 yards and 29 touchdowns. Kowalski has 640 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns, while Childs has 691 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, including a kickoff return, fumble recovery and interception that he’s returned for scores. Junior JoJo Shumaker has rushed for 1,606 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Both of St. Joe’s losses have come to New Canaan, and the Hogs are the only team to defeat Darien, the top seed in Class L, this season.
- Pooch’s pick: St. Joseph.
- SPB’s Pick: St. Joseph 55-22
No. 6 GILBERT/NORTHWESTERN (9-2) at No. 3 BARLOW (9-2)
• Where: Western Connecticut State University, Danbury
• Players to watch: Gilbert/Northwestern: Tony Ortiz, Sr., RB/FS; John Lippincott, Sr., QB/FS/P; Adam Issa, Sr., OL/LB; Barlow: Jack Shaban, Sr., QB/DB; Harry Wilson, Jr., RB/SS; Alex Gallaer, Sr., OL/DL.
• You should know: If for nothing else, fans may want to take the trip to Danbury to check out Shaban, one of the state’s most exciting players.
The 5-foot-9, 165-pound Shaban has rushed 204 times for 1,841 yards and 32 touchdowns. Wilson has added 864 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Falcons don’t pass much, but there’s no need to. Barlow has rushed for 4,299 yards and 56 touchdowns this season. Barlow is making its first trip to the postseason in program history.
The goal for the Falcons is to stop Ortiz, who was one of the top running backs in the Pequot Conference this season. Ortiz has rushed 214 times for 1,673 yards and 17 touchdowns. Lippincott (1,330 passing yards, 13 touchdowns) has done an effective job of directing the offense and he’s capable of leading the team down the field both through the air and on the ground. Issa has made 65 tackles and four sacks.
- Pooch’s pick: Barlow
- SPB’s Pick: Barlow 42-7
No. 5 BROOKFIELD (9-3) at No. 4 BETHEL (9-2)
• Where: DeSantis Field, Bethel
• Players to watch: Brookfield: Brad Westmark, Sr., QB; Bobby Drysdale, So., RB/LB; Justin Lyons, Sr., RB/NG; Louis Rodrigues, Sr., OL/DL; Dan Jackson, Jr., RB/DB; Bethel: Joe Piatnik, Sr., QB/DB; Cal Daniels, Sr., TE/LB; Zach Farrell, Sr., FB/LB.
• You should know: A rematch. Bethel defeated Brookfield 20-0 on Thanksgiving Day. Bethel has won nine straight games since starting the season at 0-2 after losses to Barlow and Newtown.
Brookfield thrives on running the ball. The Bobcats have rushed for 3,501 yards and 46 touchdowns this season. Drysdale is the team’s featured back, having rushed 176 times for 1,751 yards and 23 touchdowns. Senior Dan Jackson (613 yards, 10 touchdowns) and sophomore Austin Reich (630 yards, seven touchdowns) have also contributed offensively.
Lyons (seven sacks), sophomore Nick Seis (eight sacks) and junior Gabe Pompette (five interceptions) lead a defense that has allowed just 20 points per game. Brookfield, which lost to Newtown in the SWC championship game, has lost its last two games.
Bethel, like Brookfield, primarily runs the ball. Piatnik has rushed 149 times for 1.062 yards and 16 touchdowns. Daniels and Farrell are also threats offensively. Daniels is also a ferocious defender.
- Pooch’s pick: Brookfield.
- SPB’s Pick: Bethel 20-7