MADISON >> You can certainly call Dave Mastroianni’s first game as head coach at Hand a smashing success.
The Tigers dominated Hillhouse on both sides of the ball Friday night to take a 34-16 Southern Connecticut Conference victory at Surf Club on opening night of the 2017 season.
Mastroianni took over for Steve Filippone, who retired after 27 years at the helm last year and he couldn’t have drawn up a better performance, especially in the first half.
“We kept it simple and our boys bought into what we’re doing and they executed,” Mastroianni said. “Mike Ciotti called one hell of a game up top and kept the game manageable for a first day sophomore starting quarterback.”
Remember the name of that quarterback, Phoenix Billings. Billings went 18-for-27 for 184 yards passing and carried the ball 12 times for 50 yards. He added two passing touchdowns and ran for another two, but it was his composure that made the difference and he gained confidence as the game wore on.
“It was great,” Billings said. “I got in it and kept on going.”
One of the things Hand went back to that had been successful over the years was the read screen over the middle. The Tigers went to that play several times in the first half and the Academics had problems containing it.
“It’s always been tough to defend us on that play,” Mastroianni said. “We got away from it a little last year. It had to come back.”
Ninety percent of the Hand offense is new. They are back to a two-back offense and mix in spread offense as well, but it’s simple.
“They are confident in what we’re doing,” Mastroianni said.
The Tigers use that confidence and their running game to score on their first two possessions. Billings ran the football in from 12 yards out three minutes in and later threw a 27-yard TD pass to Ian Butler to put the Tigers ahead 14-0 in the first quarter.
Billings connected with Chris Bartosic for a 28-yard TD pass in the second quarter to make it 21-0 at the break.
A Billings 2-yard run and a 23-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Ryan Coady gave Hand a 34-0 lead in the fourth quarter.
Hillhouse finally broke through on a Greg Chamber 55-yard interception return midway through the final quarter and then Terrell Watts hit Terron Mallory for a TD pass to close out the scoring.
With Mastroanni’s first win in the books, are the Tigers back?
“We’re 1-0, that’s all I know,” Mastroianni said. “Tonight was a validation for all the work we did in the offseason.”
“We showed energy and showed that we’re back,” Billings said. “This was a statement win.”
Hillhouse coach Reggie Lytle was disappointed with his team’s performance.
“We didn’t come to play tonight,” Lytle said. “Everything they ran, we prepared for in practice.”
Lytle said the Academics will regroup.
“We lost one game last year too, but this time it came early,” Lytle said. “We’ll bounce back.”