MIDDLETOWN >> For Notre Dame-West Haven, it was survive and advance.
The Green Knights survived a virtuoso performance by Middletown’s Dario Highsmith, who rushed for 280 yards on 45 carries.
They then got a lightning-bolt fourth-quarter touchdown run of 61 yards from Nico Ragaini that wiped out a 3-point Middletown lead.
Then Notre Dame hung on for a dramatic 13-10 win in the Class L-Small Division semifinals at Rosek-Skubel Stadium at Middletown High on Saturday.
Notre Dame will play Windsor (11-0), a 22-6 winner over North Haven, in the championship game on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Central Connecticut State.
“This was a great game between two good teams,” Notre Dame coach Tom Marcucci said. “Forget that SCC/CCC stuff. Two very good teams and we just a got a big play in the fourth quarter. But that Highsmith kid is unbelievable. We just made a couple of big plays and that made the difference.”
A couple big plays is right. After a scoreless first half — a half in which Middletown had a 206-88 advantage in yards — the Green Knights took a 7-0 lead on a 43-yard touchdown strike from Christian Lupoli (6-for-10, 89 yards) to Wyatt Miller, who was well covered but made an over-the-top catch with 10:18 left in the third quarter.
Middletown (8-3) immediately struck back with a big play of its own when Highsmith ran 42 yards for a touchdown to make it 7-7 with 8:42 left in the third quarter.
The Blue Dragons found themselves back in business five plays later when Laurenzo Thompkins intercepted Lupoli at midfield and returned it to the Middletown 33.
Middletown got to the 4-yard line, but the drive stalled and Mike Aresco kicked a 22-yard field goal to give Middletown a 10-3 lead with 4:24 left in the third quarter.
“I thought holding Middletown to a field goal there was very big,” said Marcucci.
Middletown coach Sal Morello agreed.
“That was huge,” he said. “If we had scored a touchdown it would have made all the difference. But we had other chances. Penalties, our Achilles’ heel all season, really hurt us.”
A fumble by Josh Witkowsky (12 carries, 97 yards) and a personal foul call gave Middletown the ball at midfield midway through the first quarter. But on the seventh play of the drive, a holding call negated a 19-yard run by Isaiah Thompkins (10 carries, 61 yards) to the Notre Dame 8. A chop block call on the next play took Middletown all the way back to the 45-yard line.
In the second quarter, Middletown had 4th-and-1 at the Notre Dame 33 and was going for it, but a procedure call made it 4th-and-6 and the Dragons punted.
On its last possession of the half, Middletown drove from its 15 to the Notre Dame 15 in 12 plays, a drive which featured a holding call against Middletown. So with two seconds left, the Blue Dragons tried a 32-yard field goal which fell short.
“To have over 200 yards of offense and get no points was huge,” said Morello. “Two turnovers (a Highsmith interception and a Thompkins fumble) and the penalties really hurt us.”
The game-winning score came on a sweep by Ragaini. He got a great block from Witkowsky, broke a tackle and was gone down the near sideline with 9:15 left.
Middletown drove to the Notre Dame 37, but on 4th-and-10, Highsmith was intercepted by Ragaini on a long pass down the middle at the 7-yard line. Ragaini and Shawn Houle, who had a step on Ragaini, both got their hands on the ball, but Ragaini came down with it.
“That was a great play,” said Marcucci. “So was the touchdown catch by Miller and Ragaini’s long run. We had a couple of chances in the first half, but couldn’t get points.”
Middletown turned the ball over three times while Notre Dame turned it over twice.
“I thought my kids played hard, we executed the game plan and we were right there,” said Morello. “We can play with anybody, we know that. We just came up a little short.”
Middletown had a staggering 434 yards of offense while Notre Dame (9-3) had 303.
Notre Dame-West Haven 13, Middletown 10
Notre Dame-West Haven 0 0 7 6 — 13
Middletown 0 0 10 0 — 10
N—Wyatt Miller 43 pass from Christian Lupoli (Chris Stanio kick)
M—Dario Highsmith 42 run (Mike Aresco kick)
M—Mike Aresco 22 FG
N—Nico Ragaini 61 run (kick failed)
Team records: Middletown 8-3; Notre Dame-West Haven 9-3