NEW CANAAN >> The rematch ended up being a much more competitive state semifinal than the original.
Notre Dame-West Haven led at halftime and hung tough with New Canaan in the second half Monday night. But in the end, it was the same final result.
The second-seeded Rams will be trying to win their fourth straight Class L state championship on Saturday after holding off No. 6 Notre Dame 20-17 at Dunning Field.
“It’s a tough feeling for all of us to walk off this field, but it’s a little different than we did last year. We gave them everything. They knew they were in a game,” Notre Dame coach Tom Marcucci said.
New Canaan, which beat Notre Dame 51-27 in last year’s Class L semifinal, tied its lowest output of the season, having scored 20 points in the season opener against Trinity Catholic.
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“First of all, how about their defense? I mean we’re averaging 39 points per game and we struggled to get 20,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “That says volumes about those guys, certainly tough kids, see it in the films, how tough they are. … Somehow our kids rose to the occasion and met their toughness and we were able to pull this thing out. I think it was a great high school game.”
It took a gutsy play by Grant Morse on fourth down in the fourth quarter to keep the Rams (11-1) alive to face No. 1 seed Windsor at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Veterans Stadium in New Britain.
Notre Dame (8-4) stopped the Rams 2 yards short of the first down late in the fourth quarter. Out of punt formation from its own 28-yard line, Morse took off and picked up nine yards and the crucial first down.
“It’s a rugby-style kick, and I’ve got my three personal protectors rolling out with me and I have the option to kick or run, and I saw the opening,” Morse said. “There was one guy in my way so it was like, ‘I might as well take it.’”
Graham Braden (game-high 169 yards on 18 carries) busted through the Green Knights’ defense for 51 yards down to the Notre Dame 12.
Ryan O’Connell scored three players later on a 6-yard run to put New Canaan up 20-9 with 1:22 left.
Twice Notre Dame got deep in New Canaan territory in the second half, but the Rams came up with the defensive stop both times.
Josh Witkowsky was thrown for a 4-yard loss on 4th and goal at the 1 in the third quarter. And Chris Elias’ fourth-down pass in the fourth quarter from the New Canaan 10 fell incomplete.
“I tip my hat to their defense,” Marcucci said. “We had a lot of opportunities to score, too many, and we couldn’t convert and their defense did. They know we’re just as good as they were, it’s as simple as that.”
Elias did score on a 9-yard run with 22 seconds left and found Michael Piechota for the two-point conversion to pull the Green Knights within three. But New Canaan recovered the onsides kick.
After getting burned by Nico Ragaini on a 61-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, the Rams held the senior receiver to just two catches in the second half.
“If he’s not the best player in the state, he’s in the top two. I don’t know who the other guy is,” Marinelli said. “We spent more time trying to kick away from him, trying to find out where he is (on offense) and bracket him and double-cover him and he still makes plays. After the game, I went up to him and said, ‘You’re the best player in the state without a doubt. Thank God you’re graduating.’”
New Canaan 20, Notre Dame-West Haven 17
(at New Canaan)
Notre Dame-WH 3 6 0 8 — 17
New Canaan 0 7 6 7 — 20
NDWH—Jared Gallbronner 21 FG
NCA—Ryan O’Connell 14 pass from Drew Pyne (Grant Morse kick)
NDWH—Nico Ragaini 61 punt ret
NCA—Jack Hoelzer 11 pass from (pass failed)
NCA—Ryan O’Connell 6 run (Morse kick)
NDWH—Christopher Elias 9 run (Michael Piechota pass from Elias)
Team records: New Canaan 11-1; Notre Dame-West Haven 8-4