WEST HAVEN – Since former Notre Dame star Sean Goldrich returned from starring at the University of New Hampshire, he’s been pitching some of the trick plays he learned to coach Tom Marcucci and staff.
Marcucci liked a couple of them enough to throw them into practice, but it always needed to be the perfect time and situation to unleash it on an unsuspecting opponent.
Friday night with halftime rapidly approaching, there it was: Receiver Mike Piechota took a pitch, rolled to his right and, as All-State receiver Nico Ragaini waved his hand wildly to draw attention from every Xavier defender in the secondary, quarterback Chris Elias sneaked away down the right sideline, wide open.
Piechota, also an outfielder on the Class L champion baseball team, just had to hit him and the Green Knights had a back-breaking 35-yard touchdown on the last play of the second quarter.
The Notre Dame defense did the rest, blanking Xavier 20-0 and taking a giant leap toward a return to the Class L playoffs with its sixth win in its last seven games at Veterans Field.
“We actually had another play last year, but we switched and let Chris (Elias) run around because he really wanted to,” Piechota said. “Coach Goldrich is a big advocate of trick plays.
“Last year, they figured out I could throw the ball pretty well and then we drew up a play and it eventually morphed into the throwback to Chris and there it was. We’ve been working on it basically all season. It was a lot of fun to be able to hit that.”
It was the second big play of a first half that was otherwise a defensive standoff on a windy night.
With the game scoreless midway through the second quarter, Ragaini — double-covered on every snap — had just one catch for three yards. But then he took a short pass on a crossing pattern on 3rd-and-11 and ran 72 yards with it for the game’s opening touchdown.
Xavier answered with a long drive deep into Notre Dame (6-3) territory but were stopped on downs. The Green Knights then made a little progress, but it looked like they would hold just a 7-0 lead the intermission until the late trickeration.
“That trick play certainly gave us a cushion, but I thought we played great in just about every facet of the game,” Marcucci said. “We played great defense, hit hard. We were 0-2 against some pretty stiff competition and now we’re 6-3, so we’ve been doing a lot of things well.”
Xavier (5-4) did not record a first down in the third quarter and Notre Dame basically finished the Falcons off with 8:30 remaining when Isaiah Kane finished off a 13-play drive from 1 yard out.
Will Levis was 10-for-21 for 106 yards passing, but the Green Knights held the Falcons to just 26 yards rushing, ending Xavier’s three-game winning streak and any hope of returning the the postseason for the first time since winning a state title in 2014.
“Obviously, they’re a good football team and they played well, but they didn’t do anything that we didn’t expect,” Xavier coach Sean Marinan said. “They just played a lot better than we did. We had struggled with some coverages even before that Ragaini touchdown, so it was coming.”
Other than the two long touchdowns, it wasn’t a real prolific night for the Notre Dame offense, but they did control the time of possession and made few mistakes, allowing its defense to dominate. Elias finished 10-of-21 for 118 yards with Ragaini catching four passes for 87 yards and running for 44 more.
While not mathematically assured a spot, Notre Dame should qualify for the CIAC playoffs for a third straight season if it can beat Hamden on Thanksgiving.
It last won a state title when Goldrich was under center for them in 2009. But ND likes its chances if it can find a way in, and its play has backed up that assessment.
“I have great respect for Hamden, so we have to stay focused, but I believe we’re one of the best Class L teams in Connecticut and hopefully we’ll get a chance to prove it,” Marcucci said.