TRUMBULL >> Entrenched in an all-out turf war and deep into the fourth quarter on a cold December afternoon at McDougall Stadium, the Fairfield Prep football team pulled off the biggest and timeliest play of the game. And it came from the unlikeliest of players.
With the clock winding down, Prep clinging to a 29-26 lead and West Haven facing a second and 12 on the Prep 25 yard line, sophomore Brendan Beiser, seldom used on defense, came up with the stop.
Beiser picked off West Haven’s Duane Gary’s pass at the 8 yard line to give the Jesuits the ball back with a minute and six seconds left. The Prep offense ate up the remaining time and quarterback Colton Smith ran out of the end zone for the safety as the scoreboard read 29-28 for the final.
The seventh seeded Jesuits (11-2) punched their ticket to the Class LL state title game to face No. 4 Southington (11-1) at Arute Field at Central Connecticut State University on Saturday at 6:05 p.m. It is the first time since 1988 that Prep has advanced to the state championship.
“It means so much,” said Smith of advancing to the title game. “I can’t even describe how I’m feeling right now.”
It was a game of momentum that featured six lead changes and a myriad of big-time plays. And Prep seemed to have more answers down the stretch.
Down 26-22 midway through the fourth quarter, senior back Nick Crowle highlighted a Prep drive as he collected a first down on fourth and 1. Crowle then busted to the far outside, shook a defender and dove for the end zone for the 28 yard touchdown, to give Prep the 29-26 lead with under four minutes to play.
“He’s (Crowle) a huge part of our team, huge part of that drive, Smith said. “Everybody feeds off of his energy. He’s always hyped up, always ready to go. (You) can’t ask for anymore in a captain.”
Crowle finished the afternoon with 95 rushing yards.
The Prep defense was faced with the challenge of stopping a dynamic West Haven offense that had produced a few big plays in the first half.
With the clock ticking and West Haven needing an answer, Gary produced a big run down the field to put the Blue Devils at the Prep 34 with under two minutes left in the game. West Haven picked up another first down but Maxwell Trudeau and the Jesuit defense stopped running back Ervin Phillips for a 2 yard loss that set up the second and 12 play.
Beiser, who normally plays on offense for Prep, said that was his first interception of his high school career.
“Well, I just saw the wide receiver going for a pass so I just had to stay back and luckily I was just right there to make the play,” he said.
Added Smith: “I was nervous but I trust my defense with my life. And to have Beiser come up with a huge interception like that, it just puts the icing on the cake.”
Smith led the Jesuits with two touchdowns, and added 100 yards on the ground.
It was a disappointing ending for West Haven (10-3) as they came up short after an afternoon of an all-out gritty performance. Gary finished with 124 yards on nine carries, while Phillips had 16 carries for 126 yards.
“West Haven is like handling dynamite,” Fairfield Prep head coach Tom Shea said. “They are so explosive, they are very dangerous. But we got the stops when we needed too.”
The Prep defense molded to the formula of bend but do not break. After allowing a 65 yard TD run by Gary and a 65 run by Phillips to end the first half and start the second, the Jesuits defense made the plays when the time counted.
Late in the third quarter and West Haven up 19-16, Trudeau and Connor Brecik came up with a big sack to force a punt. Prep’s John DelliSanti corralled the ball and ran down the sideline 65 yards to the end zone to put Prep up 22-19.
West Haven answered though as Gary connected with teammate Zatrell Lyons for a 36 yard catch and then Marshont Little ran in for the 3 yard score.
But as the game went, Prep responded.
“They made one more play than we did,” West Haven head coach Ed McCarthy said. “We’re really incredibly proud of them (our team). Our seniors were 0-10 when they were freshman. We’re incredibly proud of our whole team, but tough loss. We wish them (Prep) luck; they’re going to win it. They deserve to win it.”
Fairfield Prep 29, West Haven 28
Fairfield Prep 0 9 13 7 — 29
West Haven 0 13 6 9 — 28
W—Zatrell Lyons 29 pass from Duane Gary (Tayvon Gibbs kick good)
F—Anthony Johnson safety
F—Colton Smith 9 run (Hank Healy kick good)
W—Duane Gary 65 run (Pass no good)
W—Ervin Philips 65 run (Pass INT)
F—Colton Smith 3 run (Healy kick good)
F—John DelliSanti 65 punt ret
W—Marshont Little 3 run (Kick good)
F—Nicholas Crowle 28 run (Kick good)
WH–Safety. Prep’s Colton Smith ran out of end zone
Team records: West Haven 10-3; Fairfield Prep 11-2