WINDSOR >> Windsor coach Rob Fleeting nailed it.
“This was our best game of the season,” Fleeting said following his No. 1 ranked club’s 40-14 win over No. 4 Middletown in the semifinal round of the Class L state championship playoffs at Jack O’Brien Stadium Monday night.
“I thought we executed very well and we blocked pretty well; the best we have all season.”
Middletown coach Sal Morello agreed.
“They were as tough as nails at the point of attack,” Morello said. “We passed too much tonight [14 times] because we had to. They beat us up front and we couldn’t run the ball like we wanted to.”
Middletown (9-3) rushed the ball 39 times for only 133 yards. Windsor did an especially good job containing quarterback Tyshaun James, holding him to just 63 yards on 23 carries. The Middletown defense was unable to stop Windsor (12-0), especially running back T.J. Gardner.
Gardner had a career night, rushing for 202 yards on 22 carries, good for five touchdowns and a two-point conversion. After Middletown took a 7-6 lead on a 10-yard touchdown pass from James (8-for-14, 114 yards) to DeAaron Lawrence, it was Gardner who put the Warriors on top for keeps, scoring on a 47-yard run just before the end of the first quarter.
“This was T.J.’s best game,” Fleeting said. “He has the ability to break tackles and he’s capable of doing many things on the football field. He was outstanding tonight and he has really matured mentally. Tonight he played up to his ability.”
Gardner scored the Warrirors’ first touchdown on a 2-yard run with 8:42 left in the first quarter. His 52-yard run to the Middletown 23-yard line was the big play in the game-opening drive.
Middletown came right back, marching 80 yards on 13 plays with James hitting Lawrence from 10 yards out and with Mike Aresco’s kick, the Blue Dragons led 7-6.
That lead lasted about as long as it took Gardner to get his hands on the ball, which wasn’t very long.
On Windsor’s third play from scrimmage, he ran the aforementioned 47 yards for the score. After a short punt by Aresco — caused by a terrible snap from center — gave Windsor the ball on the Middletown 42, it took Windsor six plays to score, this time on a 17-yard run by Gardner.
Windsor pushed its lead to 27-7 on a 16-yard run by Gardner with 3:28 left in the half before Middletown drove 80 yards in 10 plays with James hitting Lawrence on a 13-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 27-14 at the half
MHS got the ball to open the second half and a 37-yard return by Nico Cavaliere brought the ball out to the MHS 42. Middletown moved to the Windsor 34, but a fourth down pass was off the hands of C.J. Sprowl around the 15-yard line and Windsor took over.
Again Middletown couldn’t stop the Warriors as they drove 66 yards in 14 plays — all on the ground — with that man again, Gardner, scoring on a 1-yard, third down run that gave Windsor a 24-14 lead. Middletown was unable to stop Windsor on third down all night as the Warriors converted nine of 11 third downs, including their first eight in a row.
Windsor added another touchdown on the last play of the third quarter when another bad snap sailed over punter Aresco’s head. He scrambled to retrieve it in the end zone and actually kicked the ball, but Windsor players were all over him, blocked it, and Joe Russell fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown.
Windsor quarterback Jahkari Grant also had a big night, completing 7-of-8 passes for 80 yards as Windsor had 324 yards offense.
“Windsor has a lot of weapons,” said Morello. “It’s hard to prepare for all of them. But I thought this would be a fourth-quarter game. When we didn’t score to open the third quarter, that was huge. If we could have punched in a score it would have been a one-score game. But you know you’re in trouble when you’re talking about a possible third quarter touchdown as huge.
“We couldn’t stop them. You can talk about all the spread offenses and all the fancy stuff, but it comes down to blocking, tackling and execution and Windsor did all of that well tonight. Hey, they punted once and that was late in the game. We have to get better at what we’re doing.”
The game was marred by an altercation near the end of the game. Middletown’s Derrick Raynor, who played because of an injury to Justin McMillian, took a swing at a Windsor defender when a pass to him was just out of reach in the end zone on the Middletown side of the field.
A brief altercation ensued that resulted in the ejection of Middletown players Raynor, Ibn Lombardo and Abdiel Montez. MHS was penalized for four personal fouls — 60 yards. No Windsor players were ejected as one of the officials said, “Windsor was on the defensive.”
“So disappointing,” said Morello. “Those kids lost their composure and that’s no way a reflection of what we’re about. We teach kids all the time to remain poised, then this happens. I thought we taught our kids better.
“I will say I am very proud of so many of our kids who went to break it up and to keep kids out of it. This was an enjoyable team to coach all season; they came to practice, they worked hard, but all it takes is one bad decision. Just so disappointing.”
It marks the third time in four years that MIddletown has come up one game short of qualifying for a state championship game. Windsor will play New Canaan, which defeated Notre Dame/West Haven, 20-17, for the Class L title Saturday.