NORTH HAVEN >> The margin of error was razor thin between Cheshire and host North Haven in the season opener for both teams Friday.
In a well-played contest that was close throughout, the visiting Rams took advantage of several North Haven miscues and turned them into points. North Haven then missed a field goal with 49 seconds left that would have tied the game, allowing Cheshire to hang on for a 24-21 SCC Division I victory at Vanacore Field.
The Rams (1-0) scored after blocking a punt in the first quarter, and then again after the Indians muffed a punt return in the third quarter.
“Can’t be happier, that’s a really good football team over there,” Cheshire coach Don Drust said. “That’s a very well-coached football team, coach (Anthony) Sagnella does a great job. They’re tough. It was kind of a like an old-school football game. It was hard, it was tough, it was defense, it was a lot of big hits. I’m just proud of our kids, they continued to fight and continued to show up and make plays. That’s all you can ask for, just put yourself in a position to be successful by lining up for the next play and playing as hard as you can.”
North Haven (0-1) took over at their own 28 with 3:19 left on their final possession. The Indians advanced all the way to the Rams 24 before senior Colin Finkle’s 41-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right. Finkle missed a 43-yarder with 8:56 left. Still, Sagnella believed in his first-year kicker to go for the tie instead of a first down on a 4th-and-7 on the last possession.
“The Finkle kid has a live foot,” Sagnella said. “He’s a new guy, but he can boot them. He was very, very confident. I felt at that point it might be better off with them (Cheshire) being fatigued and getting down on the goal line a little bit, if we got it into overtime and see what happens. That’s the field position we kind of like. I thought Finkle could make it, I didn’t think it was a stretch.”
After forcing a 3-and-out on the game’s first possession, Cheshire blocked a North Haven punt and took over at the Indians’ 18. Three plays later, junior quarterback Jack Raba connected with junior receiver Michael Jeffery on a 12-yard touchdown pass to give the Rams a 7-0 lead.
North Haven took a 14-7 lead after a 4-yard touchdown pass from senior Tom Dodge to senior Kyle Melillo and on Dodge’s 38-yard touchdown reception from senior Jack Steinman.
The Rams tied the game when Raba hit senior Mike Millea on a 66-yard touchdown. Cheshire took a 17-14 lead at halftime after junior Ethan Bronson’s successful 33-yard field goal.
Junior Bryce Levenduski (20 carries, 60 yards) scored on a 1-yard touchdown run after a North Haven turnover to give the Rams a 24-14 lead in the third quarter. Later in the quarter, the Indians crept to within three points when Steinman hit Mark Montano on a 31-yard touchdown pass.
Raba, who missed the final game of last season after tearing an ACL, completed 15 of 20 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was awesome,” Raba said. “It was definitely a team win, everyone contributed. There were some great calls by the coaches and the offensive line gave me enough time to get back and pass and they did a great job of run-blocking as well. The receivers are just such great athletes, they go out and make plays for me and it makes my job easy.”
Jeffery caught three passes for 43 yards, Millea made four catches for 92 yards and junior Tommy Wnuck had four receptions for 33 yards for the Rams.
“He (Raba) is a great quarterback,” Jeffery said. “He’s a born leader. When the tough plays came, he made them.”
Dodge caught a touchdown pass and finished with three receptions for 58 yards. He also threw for a touchdown and rushed 11 times for 43 yards.
It was the first game for the Indians as members of the newly-formed SCC Division I. North Haven lost to New Canaan in the Class L state championship game last season and graduated 18 starters.
“I saw growth today,” Sagnella said. “I saw us get guttier. I saw some play on defense that I haven’t seen in the preseason. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Cheshire 24, North Haven 21
(at North Haven)
Cheshire 7 10 7 0 — 24
North Haven 0 14 7 0 — 21
C—Michael Jeffery 12 pass from Jack Raba (Ethan Bronson kick)
N—Kyle Melillo 4 pass from Tom Dodge (Colin Finkle kick)
N—Tom Dodge 38 pass from Jack Steinman (Finkle kick)
C—Mike Millea 66 pass from Jack Raba (Bronson kick)
C—Ethan Bronson 33 FG
C—Bryce Levenduski 1 run (Bronson kick)
N—Mark Montano 31 pass from Jack Steinman (Finkle kick)
Team records: North Haven 0-1; Cheshire 1-0