GUILFORD >> Hand opened the season with a crushing loss at the hands of New Canaan. It looked as if it could be a long year for the two-time defending state champions.
“At that point we didn’t even know if we’d have a winning season,” Hand coach Steve Filippone said. “We knew we had a lot of work to do.”
But following a 41-20 Thanksgiving Eve win over rival Guilford at a wet Kavanaugh Field, the Tigers are once again primed for another state title run. Hand now leads the series 35-5-1.
The Tigers (8-3) still need some help to get into the Class L playoffs, which would be their fourth-straight postseason appearance. Hand put itself in good position with Wednesday’s win. Losses for Naugatuck (who plays Ansonia Thursday) and New London (play Norwich Free Academy Thursday) would be helpful. The Tigers’ bonus games are also favorable. They hold tiebreakers over Bristol Eastern and North Haven as well.
Sure it may be a down year for Hand standards. The Tigers three losses are the program’s most since going 5-5 and missing the playoffs in 2009. They are young and play up to seven sophomores regularly. But the Tigers are obviously not a team to be taken lightly.
“I don’t know that there will be another team that has been through a rugged gauntlet like we have,” Filippone said.
Of its three losses, Hand fell to a pair of the state’s best in New Canaan and West Haven, along with a tough Xavier team. The Tigers also have quality wins over teams like Fairfield Prep, North Haven and Shelton.
Add to that, a victory over a progressing Indians squad on Wednesday.
Hand set the tone on its second drive. On his first varsity carry, junior running back Tommy Wilson broke through the line and raced for a 60-yd touchdown to put the Tigers up 7-0. After stopping the Indians on a fourth-down attempt, Wilson came through again. On the ensuing drive, he turned the corner and sprinted down the right sideline for a 66-yard score on his second varsity carry. That gave Hand a 14-0 lead late in the first. He later scored on a 19-yard run in the third.
Wilson finished with eight rushes for 165 yards and three touchdowns.
“It felt really nice,” said Wilson, who had only played safety up until Wednesday. “I’ve been practicing (at running back) for two weeks now. Thanks to all my lineman because they get enough credit.”
Senior Conor Dowd added 20 carries for 93 yards. Sophomore quarterback Nicolas van Dell chipped in with touchdown passes of 56 and 25 yards.
As for Guilford (5-6), the Indians finished a victory shy of its first winning-season since 2007. Senior quarterback Joe Nault did not the Indians go quietly. He finished with 22 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown. Nault also threw for touchdowns of 19 and 27. He came up with an interception on defense and returned kicks.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Guilford coach Tom Unger said. “He’s an incredibly, hard-working young man. Dynamic runner and throws the ball really well. He’s been a great leader. He’s had a great work ethic and tried to be excellent in every rep in practice. And hopefully that’s what the younger players take from him moving forward.”
Regardless of a playoff berth or not, it perhaps has been a season of overachieving for the Tigers, with all things considered. The youth and inexperience. The adversity. But they played through it all. Filippone can’t say enough about his coaching staff and the job they have done this season. And of course, his players, too. The combination has kept Hand in contention right until the end.
“They’ve really done things which amaze us in terms of ability,” Filipone said. “They’ve weathered storms, came back from deficits. It sound like cliché, but they never quit. They’ve faced some tough circumstances. The juniors and sophomores haven’t lost a game before this year. The senior class only has nine guys. They all knew nothing, but winning. They’ve faced some tough times and lost a couple of games, and could’ve very easily rolled over.”
But they didn’t. And now this year’s group — with a little luck — is hoping to continue another memorable season for the Hand program.
Hand 41, Guilford 20
Hand 14 7 13 7 0 — 41
Guilford 0 6 6 8 0 — 20
H—Tommy Wilson 60 run (Phan kick)
H—Tommy Wilson 66 run (Phan kick)
H—Nick Van Dell 6 run (Phan kick)
G—Joe Nault 39 run (kick failed)
H—Tommy Wilson 19 run (Phan kick)
H—Jacob Mirando 56 pass from Nick Van Dell (kick failed)
G—Nash Singleton 27 pass from Joe Nault (kick failed)
H—Tom Wilson 25 pass from Nick Van Dell (Phan kick)
G—Tony Pensa 19 pass from Joe Nault (Knapp run)
Team records: Guilford 5-6; Hand 8-3