MADISON >> It’s not often that Hand, the two-time defending Class L champion, is considered the underdog, especially on its home field.
But that will be the case when North Haven invades the Surf Club Friday night at 7. The unbeaten Indians (3-0), ranked eighth in the Register Top 10 Poll, are a big, physical and experienced squad that already owns a victory over SCC Division I powerhouse Xavier, the three-time defending Class LL champion.
“It’s a juxtaposition for us and them,” Hand coach Steve Filippone said. “It’s always been them chasing us in the playoffs, or during the regular season where they have to get a big win to stay in the hunt. We’ve kind of spoiled that for them a couple of times.”
Since the SCC formed in 1994, Hand and North Haven have played 15 times, with the Indians winning just once — a 21-20 victory in 2001.
The Tigers have won seven straight meetings against the Indians, including during the postseason in 2007 and 2010. Last year, Hand won 24-7 on Oct. 26. That loss denied North Haven, which finished 7-3, a playoff berth.
“I’m sure (North Haven coach) Anthony (Sagnella) is making that very clear to them this week,” Filippone said. “That this is the team that kept you out of the playoffs, these are the guys that caused you not to reach your goals.”
While the Indians are a veteran club, Hand is in rebuilding mode after graduating 29 seniors. The Tigers had their 26-game winning streak snapped in a season-opening 50-21 loss to New Canaan in a game that was never close.
But Hand has responded, posting victories over Hillhouse (28-26) and Wilbur Cross (35-19). Against Hillhouse, the Tigers trailed 18-0 before rallying. Filippone wasn’t pleased with the lack of passion in the loss to New Canaan, but he says the Tigers are improving in that area.
“That’s getting better,” Filippone said. “Obviously it manifested itself in the Hillhouse game. We started to battle back and get a feel of who we were. We learned how to win in that game, which is important because we had no idea how to win.”
There has been a steady improvement in the Hand defense, which allowed just eight points in the second half against Hillhouse and seven points during the first two quarters against Cross.
“I feel like we’ve improved quite a bit,” Hand senior nose guard Ian Dieli said. “We started with all new players except for a couple of us. We had a long way to go, and we still have a long way to go, but I feel like we have made a lot of progress.”
Dieli and Pat and Dan Rogers, senior linebackers and brothers, anchor the Hand defense.
“This is a huge game for us,” Pat Rogers said. “North Haven is an extremely good team; we have to keep working in practice.”
Despite some uncertainty earlier this season, the Hand offense is starting to mesh. The Tigers have decided on promising sophomore Nick van Dell as their starting quarterback. Van Dell completed 13 of 20 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns against Wilbur Cross.
“Nick van Dell is unbelievable,” Filippone said. “I think he is just going to build on that for another three years. The sky’s the limit.”
Senior running back Connor Dowd and senior receivers Josh DeMartino, Jake Mirando, Tim D’Annolfo and Tom Wilson give van Dell plenty of options.
The Indians run an effective and deceptive single-wing offense led by quarterback Mike Halloran, running back Michael Montano and fullback Ethan Suraci. Behind a veteran line, the North Haven offense is known for its lengthy drives.
“They’re a very physical team,” Dieli said. “Their main goal is to pound the other team into submission, and they’re very good at it. We need to work on being resilient and not getting pushed back.”
Filippone is aware of the challenges North Haven presents.
“If we come out sitting on our heels, we will get beat to a pulp,” Filippone said. “It will be scary. But if we come out and play, we have a shot. We always have a chance if we play hard with these kids.”
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