WEST HAVEN >> New Canaan was predominantly a team that threw the ball at will on opponents all season long. See the 440 yards quarterback Michael Collins threw for in the Class L state semifinals against Notre Dame-West Haven.
But with Saturday’s Class L state final at stake, the Rams continued to take what North Haven gave them — opportunities to run the ball. And churn out the rushing yardage New Canaan did.
Ryan O’Connell capped a 15-play drive — 14 of them runs — from 1 yard out on New Canaan’s winning drive. The sixth-seeded Rams then held on defense one last time to defeat North Haven 42-35 before 6,500 at Ken Strong Stadium.
“You can’t ask for more heart than you saw out of two teams tonight,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “I’m proud of North Haven, I’m proud of our kids. They put on a tremendous show.”
It was the third straight state championship for the Rams (11-1) and 11th overall for the program. Their only loss came to Darien, the Class LL champion and likely unanimous No. 1 team when the final Register/GameTimeCT poll is released.
“I think those kids (North Haven) played their hearts out. It was a great football game,” Marinelli said. “I’m proud of our kids the way they never gave up. They kept fighting back, they kept fighting back, they kept fighting back. It was a shame anybody had to lose this game.”
It was Marinelli’s 300th win at New Canaan and 319th overall. He is third all-time in CIAC history behind Ed McCarthy (331) and Bill Mignault (321).
Matt Cognetta rushed for a game-high 224 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns for the Rams. On that final drive, he had six carries for 40 yards, the last taking it down to the North Haven 1-yard line before O’Connell scored with 3:34 left.
“We were very thrilled we would get a chance to measure ourselves and it looks we did OK,” North Haven coach Anthony Sagnella said. “We didn’t win, but we certainly measured up. I wasn’t sure coming in how it was going to end up.”
Marinelli felt Cognetta, who got hurt in the quarterfinal win against Windsor, “really shouldn’t be playing because he’s so banged up. He just kept on going and wouldn’t quit.” Cognetta did play against Notre Dame last Monday.
“It’s surprising (to run it so much) with Mike Collins at quarterback,” Cognetta said. “They (North Haven) are a tough team and really, really good. It was a fun game.”
Collins threw for 180 yards and a touchdown to Kyle Smith to finish his season with a state-record 54 touchdown passes.
North Haven’s Mike Montano rushed for 171 yards and three touchdowns, threw for another and made a diving interception just before halftime with New Canaan driving. His final rushing touchdown for the Indians came with 9:45 left to tie the game at 35.
Andrew DeFranco intercepted North Haven quarterback Jake Steinman (10 of 21, 146 yards) on 4th down with just over a minute remaining to end the chances for the Indians (12-1), who were playing in their first state championship game.
“They are a great team and deserved to win,” Montano said about New Canaan. “I can’t thank my coaches and my teammates for such a great year. I love them all, I will miss them dearly, but hats off to New Canaan.”
New Canaan never trailed and led by two touchdowns at two different times in the second quarter. But North Haven came all the way back to tie it at 28 on Montano’s 29-yard touchdown run with 6:21 left in the third quarter.
New Canaan scored on another 15-play drive, this time with 10 rushes, nine by Cognetta. Michael Cognetta, Matt’s twin brother, scored on a 3-yard run to put the Rams up 35-28 with 1:12 left in the third.
“That was incredible, everyone doubting us, thinking we didn’t have a chance. It was this close,” Montano said. “The season speaks volumes to our community. The team has been together since the fourth grade. We had one goal, to win the state championship. I think we put our foot down for our underclassmen to get back here. We were just a couple plays short.”
It ended a fine season for the Indians, arguably the best in school history, going toe-to-toe with one of the storied programs in state history.
“This is just another step forward,” Sagnella said. “We didn’t bring it home, but it’s another step forward. I’m sure there were a lot of young guys here today watching the Montanos, the (Jeremy) Imperatis, the (Dave) Mikos and saying, ‘I want to be like them,’ and they should want to be like them. They are outstanding individuals, moreso than football players. They’re great kids. If we get more kids like that, then we will be back here again.”
New Canaan 42, North Haven 35
(at West Haven)
New Canaan 14 14 7 7 0 — 42
North Haven 7 14 7 7 0 — 35
NC—Matt Cognetta 53 run (Peter Swindell kick)
NH—Nick Ponzio 23 pass from Mike Montano (Sabrina Fronte kick)
NC—Ryan OConnell 3 run (Swindell kick)
NC—Kyle Smith 9 pass from Michael Collins (Swindell kick)
NH—Mike Montano 6 run (Fronte kick)
NC—Matt Cognetta 1 run (Swindell kick)
NH—Nick Ponzio 36 pass from Jack Steinman (Fronte kick)
NH—Mike Montano 29 run (Fronte kick)
NC—Mike Cognetta 3 run (Swindell kick)
NH—Mike Montano 6 run (Fronte kick)
NC—Ryan OConnell 1 run (Swindell kick)
Team records: North Haven 12-1; New Canaan 11-1