Under normal circumstances, Lyman Hall’s fourth-down stop of East Haven late in the fourth quarter would have set off wild celebrations on the sideline, and — in particular — the head coach.
The Trojans led 22-14 and had the ball back. Game over, right? There was a problem, though, that to most was a mere formality.
There were still 10 seconds to play.
With East Haven out of timeouts, that meant one snap. And when you haven’t won a football game in nearly two years (meaning only a handful of the players on Lyman Hall had ever experienced the feeling in a varsity game), it’s not over until the clock reaches zero.
“We had to get the snap, the blocking,” Lyman Hall quarterback Kyle Smith said, “We wanted to make sure, I guess, nothing went wrong.”
Of course, in this case, the scoreboard at Crisafi Field had malfunctioned, the Trojans had been intercepted on three consecutive possessions in the second half and squandered a couple of other chances to save some of the coaching staff’s hair by making the ending less frightening. But ‘tis the season, I guess, for scary things.
“That was the most difficult Victory Formation I’ve ever been a part of,” Lyman Hall coach Rob Marone said. “I think I aged 20 years in those couple of minutes.”
After a couple of timeouts, Smith took the snap and fell to a knee without incident. Finally, Marone could exhale with a few fist pumps and hugs for his assistants. About the same time Ed McCarthy was getting doused with Gatorade for career win No. 322 a few miles away, Marone had his first. As far as I could tell, only one had to fight back tears while addressing their team in the post-game huddle, and it wasn’t the state’s new all-time wins leader.
“They’ve been waiting a long time for that,” Marone said. “Here’s the bottom line: How many times can a 16-year-old kid listen to their coach say, ‘Keep your head up. Keep your head up. Keep your head up.’ Kids that weren’t of this type of character would have tuned me out a long time ago. They’ve stuck with each other and stuck with us, and they deserve all the credit for that.”
Lyman Hall was in the CIAC Class MM playoffs in 2010, and longtime coach Chip McKeehan retired after the next season, which concluded with the Trojans beating Sheehan in the Carini Bowl on Thanksgiving. That was 23 months ago. They hadn’t won since.
And Marone had never won, each loss wearing more than the last on the young head coach. After last season’s 0-10 mark, they had T-shirts made up that said simply, “Never Again” on the back. But six more defeats to start 2013 (granted, with a fairly difficult slate to begin) and here they were again. Until Friday night.
“There was a little bit of ‘Here we go again’,” Marone said. “We were trying not to let that creep into our minds. But we held on, and our kids earned it.”
If you’ve never been there, it’s hard to underestimate how much losing repeatedly harms morale, even in the best of situations. Most of the press and recognition goes to the victors, to the squads that are fighting for state playoff berths. But sometimes, as Thomas Paine famously said, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly, it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
As Marone added, it takes character to keep showing up and giving the same effort every day in practice when your record is 0-and-something midway through the season. To keep believing when fewer and fewer people believe in you. But when that victory does finally come, as it did for Lyman Hall Friday night, what a feeling that is.
To be fair, the Trojans are in a decent position to add to their win total in the next few weeks. Until he struggled throwing in the second half, Smith was brilliant, completing his first six passes as Lyman Hall did not have to punt until the fourth quarter. Running back Justin Brown, who had missed the Trojans’ previous three games, carried 19 times for 86 hard-earned yards. They do not face a team with a winning record the rest of the way.
“Every single week in this league is tough, but we want to keep it going,” Marone said. “We want to get back to winning consistently again.”
Shut them down
Somehow I’m in front of the Elm City prediction standings this season, but I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t see the Foran-Hillhouse result coming. Not even close.
The fact that the Lions defeated the defending state champion Acs was shocking enough. After all, it broke a 13-game winning streak against Division II teams (dating back to the “Ain’t No Way, Yo” game against North Haven in the 2011 season opener). The Acs had also won 23 of 25 games against Division II opposition (ironically, the other defeat coming to Lyman Hall in 2010). Hillhouse had struggled a little this season, but had nearly beaten Hand and was coming off a thrashing of Sheehan.
But take all that away, and consider this: in last year’s game between Hillhouse and Foran, Harold Cooper touched the ball three times, scored on all three, and finished with 131 yards rushing. In all, the Acs ran for 469 yards in a 55-34 rout. In Week 2 of this season, Ervin Philips and West Haven finished with 502 yards on the ground in a similar 57-26 blowout.
Although Foran was improved and explosive offensively, it was clear they didn’t have the size to stay with the elite teams of the SCC. The data told us that, no?
And then the Lions crushed Hillhouse 34-6 and in the process held Cooper, the fifth-leading rusher in state history, to 14 yards on 17 carries (4 on 16 if you include his first 10-yard carry). The Acs had 72 yards on 37 carries overall, astounding numbers. The only time Cooper’s name appeared in the box score was a third-quarter pass that surely came out of desperation.
“Hats off to our defensive staff — Jim Esposito, Mark Manning and Garrett Walker,” Foran coach Jeff Bevino said. “They just did a tremendous job of defending that kid (Cooper). That kid is one of the best backs that we will see in our lifetime, and to hold him (down) the way we did is an achievement in itself.”
With four teams that don’t throw much remaining, similar performances the rest of the way would see the Lions finish at 9-2, very likely good enough for a Class M playoff berth. It will still be extremely difficult to get there, but not nearly as improbable as it looked before Friday night certainly.
Ed McCarthy did indeed get win No. 322 and is the all-time winningest coach in Connecticut history. Lost in the fact might be how well his current team is playing at the moment, as they annihilated Hamden 49-7 in McCarthy’s record-breaker. McCarthy’s teams always seem to improve as the season progresses, and that might be bad news for the teams remaining on the Westie schedule… Another game that it seemed like Hand should have lost, and yet they find a way, even if it has to score 44 points to do the job in Shelton. The Tigers seem to be having a season like Hamden did in 2008: close games every week against good teams, winning most of them. And Steve Filippone summed it up better than I could, “A lot of everything,” joyous Tiger coach Steve Filippone said afterwards. “This was a tremendously exciting game between two very good football teams. They exploited us. Jeff (Roy) and his coaching staff did a magnificent job, but our offense answered every call. You score, we score, you score, we score. They get it with 30 seconds left, and the ball’s in the end zone on the last play of the game. God bless America.” … All Hand has to do this week is host Xavier, which routed Notre Dame last week, and should be desperate with their playoff hopes on the line. How well did Xavier play Friday? “I was happy with how we played tonight,” Sean Marinan said. Wow. Praise from Caesar … If you haven’t yet, follow me on Twitter at currenscc.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Ethan Suraci, North Haven — Suraci carried the ball 15 times for 199 yards and four touchdowns as North Haven beat Guilford 47-20 in a contest that was a little tougher than the final score indicated. Still, it was a necessary step forward for North Haven, which faces Hillhouse, Foran, and Darien in the next three games on its way to try to return to the playoffs.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Number of consecutive extra points Hand kicker Tyler Phan had connected on before missing in the fourth quarter against Shelton Friday. No matter, though, when the Tigers needed Phan to kick a winning field goal with 24 seconds left, that’s exactly what he did. Phan did the same in last year’s Class L final at Rentschler Field, connecting on a field goal after missing a PAT earlier in the game.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Xavier at Hand, Friday, 7 p.m. — We hate putting Hand in here every week, but how could we not? It’s hard to see the Falcons getting back to the postseason with a record of 7-3 (they don’t play on Thanksgiving), so they have to win out, including this one to have a chance to go after their fourth consecutive Class LL title. The Tigers are certainly no stranger to close games, and they’ll likely be part of another one here. God bless America, indeed.
- 1. Hand (6-1; Last Week 1)—Looked dead to rights for much of game Friday. Hopefully, Surf Club lights stay on.
- 2. West Haven (6-1; LW 2)—Starting to roll, wouldn’t they love to add another state title to McCarthy’s resume?
- 3. Xavier (5-2; LW 4)—Old-school Falcons’ performance Friday. Can they dominate line of scrimmage this week?
- 4. Shelton (5-2; LW 5)—Not that far from being 7-0, but that’s probably little consolation for the Gaels currently.
- 5. Fairfield Prep (5-2; LW 3)—Still have the talent to win out and be a factor in LL playoffs, but we shall see.
- 6. North Haven (6-1; LW 6)—Probably not wise to overlook Hillhouse this week no matter what happened last.
- 7. Foran (5-2; LW 12)—I mean, if Lions can hold Hillhouse to six points, the sky’s the limit in Class M, no?
- 8. Amity (4-3; LW 10)—Quietly staying in top half of Power Rankings all year. If they can beat Prep, talk playoffs?
- 9. Cheshire (3-4; LW 11)—Would desperately like to finish the season above .500, and they have a chance to.
- 10. Hillhouse (3-4; LW 7)—Not sure how you regroup after last loss, but have to find a way for North Haven Friday.
- 11. Notre Dame (2-5; LW 8)—Seems like Knights should have a better record, but we know what Division I does.
- 12. Wilbur Cross (3-4; LW 9)—May be a good week to catch West Haven if they can get up early and hope.
- 13. Guilford (3-4; LW 13)—Have never really recovered from that tough loss in the first week against Wilton.
- 14. Sheehan (2-5; LW 16)—Seems to be either a lot of yards or no yards for Titans, we’ll see this week.
- 15. Hamden (3-4; LW 14)—Took a 7-6 lead at one point against West Haven, then was all downhill from there.
- 16. Jonathan Law (1-5; LW 15)—Bye week didn’t seem to help too much, but schedule not too bad at the end.
- 17. Lyman Hall (1-6; LW 19)—“Never again”. Well, not this season. Never did a 1 in win column look so sweet.
- 18. East Haven (1-6; LW 17)—Looked like they might pull game out at end, moved the ball fairly well.
- 19. Branford (0-6; LW 18)—Team got to check out Lyman Hall-East Haven on bye week, two teams left on sked.