FAIRFIELD >> Fairfield Prep junior quarterback Colton Smith remembers what it was like before coming to Fairfield Prep. He remembers the conversations he had with head coach Tom Shea a few years back. He remembers the instant attraction to the school.
For the former Newtown High kid, he needed a change and new environment; Prep was the answer.
“It wasn’t just football,” said Smith, who transferred to Prep after his freshman year at Newtown.
“It was academics. I knew I wanted to challenge myself. And when I shadowed here I loved it. I loved the brotherhood.”
Prep was the right fit for him as he’s emerged as one of the state’s best dual-threat quarterback’s and been a key piece to Prep’s success this season.
The No. 7 Jesuits (10-2) are playing in the Class LL state semifinals on Saturday at Trumbull at 2 p.m. against No. 6 West Haven (10-2) in a rematch of Southern Connecticut Conference foes that last met on Thanksgiving.
Prep is seeking its first state title since 1988. They are just one game away from getting back to the championship.
“Coach (Shea) told me when I shadowed and when I talked, that their goal was to bring this program back. And I believe that’s what we did,” Smith said.
It’s been a steady uphill climb since Shea took over the program in 2010. A year prior the team went 0-10. Prep won three games in Shea’s first year, five in his second and barely missed out on the playoffs last season with a 6-4 record.
“It takes time,” Shea said. “Now we have the players. We figured this would probably be the timetable. We’ve made great strides and hopefully we can finish this year.”
For the veterans on the team, getting to the playoffs has been a long time coming. Shea credits a lot of the success this season to their dedication.
“Yeah, it was a long process,” senior and third year varsity player Nick Crowle said. “When we were sophomores and juniors it was always something we talked about getting back to the playoff that was always the goal, but I don’t know if anyone believed it. But once we started getting on a roll this year, especially after the Xavier win, we looked at ourselves and said, ‘We can actually do this.’”
For the 6-foot-1 Smith, he experienced his share of waiting, too. Last season he played starting safety while Strecker Backe was the signal caller.
“It was tough, but I knew I could help the team in other ways,” Smith said.
Smith bought into the team philosophy and played where the Jesuits needed him at the time.
“He was tremendous,” said Shea of Smith at safety. “(He) just wasn’t quite ready to take the quarterback role last year.”
It was well worth the wait for Smith to return to the position he’s been at since he first started playing the game in grade school. Smith has been the model of a dual-threat quarterback this year. He’s thrown for 1,513 yards and nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s run for 1,649 yards and 25 scores.
“He worked real hard in the offseason getting himself physically ready,” Shea said. “He’s as tough as nails and strong. He’s a real student of the game; he’s so much wiser now. That’s why he’s developed into a complete player, he works very hard at it and he’s very gifted; nice combination.”
As big of a game Saturday is for Prep, Smith and the Jesuits will be ready against a dynamic West Haven team averaging 340.1 yards on the ground.
Despite a long absence from the playoffs (last appearance was 2006) the Jesuits have risen to the occasion when the moments have presented themselves. After falling to Daniel Hand back in October, the Jesuits haven’t lost. They enter Saturday on a six-game winning streak. That includes a huge 46-27 win over Xavier that was followed by a come-from-behind 29-20 victory over West Haven on Thanksgiving to secure a playoff spot.
In the last three games for Prep, Smith has rushed for 851 yards, including a momentum-shifting 77-yard TD against No. 2 Glastonbury in Tuesday’s state quarterfinal 33-23 victory.
Smith feels and looks comfortable making those type of plays for his team. But the first-year starter knows the team is full of play makers.
“I do believe that,” said Smith of being the guy to make a big play. “But I also believe that Nick Crowle can do it, John DelliSanti and all of our receivers can do it, but it all starts with our line. They got to give me time, they got to block, without them we’re nothing.”