T hey were two of the state’s most storied high school football programs. One owned a CIAC-record 16 titles. The other was next in line with nine.
Yet, they had never met in the state finals.
That all changed on Dec. 11, 2010, when NVL powerhouse Ansonia faced FCIAC juggernaut St. Joseph in the Class S Championship at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
The Hogs, winners of nine state championships, had captured the Class SS title the year before and were considered a favorite to return to return to the finals.
That, of course, was before arguably the state’s best player, linebacker/running back Tyler Matakevich, broke his foot in the preseason. What followed was a frustrating 1-2 start that raised doubts about their chances of a repeat.
In hindsight, there was no reason to worry. Matakevich returned to the field for a pivotal Week 6 win over New Canaan, and the Hogs rebounded from their slow start with an 8-1 stretch. Included were convincing wins over Woodland and Valley Regional/Old Lyme in the state quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
The road was far less bumpy for Ansonia, which ripped off nine straight wins to begin the season — seven of which were by double digits — before falling to rival Naugatuck on Thanksgiving, 38-20.
The Chargers, winners of 16 state championships, were shut out in the Class S semifinals a year earlier by Northwest Catholic. They were young. Future University of Connecticut tailback Arkeel Newsome was just a freshman at the time, and most of team consisted of sophomore and juniors.
But they still had Montrell Dobbs, the team’s only contributing senior, who came into the finals with 3,140 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns, 11 of which he scored in playoff wins over Hyde Leadership and Montville.
With the programs set to meet for the first time since that game, in the Class S Championship at Cheshire Monday night, Hearst Connecticut Media spoke with players and coaches about what they remember most from the 2010 final, won by St. Joseph, 49-28.
Joe Della Vecchia, St. Joseph head coach: It was dubbed 30 years in the making. Everyone always wanted, at one point, Ansonia-St. Joe’s in the state championship. We kind of always missed each other. Going to UConn to play the game — it was the first time we played at Rentschler — I just thought the atmosphere and everything was exciting. It was loud, everything echoed in there. It was everything you could dream of as a high school player and certainly as a coach.
Tom Brockett, Ansonia head coach: You want to play great programs. When you talk about Connecticut high school football, St. Joe’s is right up there with anybody.
Joe Della Vecchia, St. Joseph quarterback: Our coaches — my dad and his staff — always got you in the mindset that you can play with anybody. You can and should beat everybody.
Nick Adzima, St. Joseph offensive guard/nose guard: We felt we were battle-tested for Ansonia and ready for a challenge. The physicality of that game was no surprise to us.
Montrell Dobbs, Ansonia, running back: I just remember them like, ‘Eh, [Ansonia], they only have one player.’ All of that, it was just talk.
John Sponheimer, Ansonia assistant coach: I knew they’d be difficult for us to stop. I thought with Montrell’s abilities to carry the ball and control the game that we had a chance to stay close with a chance to win at the end.
MATAKEVICH MAKES HIS MARK
Ansonia simply had no answer on either side of the ball for Matakevich. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior — who would go on to team up with Dobbs at Milford Academy the next season — finished with 212 all-purpose yards (including 124 rushing and 54 receiving) and four touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, he recorded 16 tackles.
Matakevich’s third touchdown of the night — a 2-yard run on which he leaped over a pile of defenders at the goal line — extended the Hogs’ lead to 27-12 with 7:23 left in the third quarter.
Brockett: He was a great athlete. He could catch the ball, he could run the ball, he could throw the ball. He could have drove the bus if he wanted to. He could do anything on the field.
Adzima: He did some pretty freaky stuff, pretty nonchalantly. It was no surprise. He loved doing that [diving into the end zone] because he loved to show people, who didn’t think he could do it, that he could. I don’t even think he had to do it on that play, to be honest. He was just being a show-off.
Della Vecchia, quarterback: Whenever I was playing, I’d look at Tyler and be like, ‘Ok, we’ve got that guy on our team so we’ll be all right.’
Della Vecchia, coach: He was our go-to guy. If he wanted the ball, you gave it to him.
Sponheimer: Matakevich was the best two-way player in Connecticut.
Adzima: That was the matchup within the matchup. It was their best player versus our best player.
THE MONTRELL DOBBS SHOW
Dobbs was THE Chargers’ offense. The 5-8, 185-pound tailback touched the ball on 55 of the Chargers’ 77 plays. When all was said and done, he had carried the ball a whopping 52 times for 305 yards and three touchdowns, including runs of 1 and 4 yards in the first half.
His final touchdown of the night — a 24-yard run out of the wildcat formation — sliced St. Joseph’s lead to 34-26 with 6:29 left in the fourth quarter.
Dobbs followed that up by leaping over Matakevich for the 2-point conversion — an exact replica of Matakevich’s earlier touchdown.
Unfortunately for the Chargers, Dobbs alone was simply not enough.
Della Vecchia, quarterback: We knew he was going to get the ball. He was the majority of their offense. I can’t remember who said it, but, after the game someone said, ‘Oh, 52 carries, that’s child abuse.’ He was a tough kid. He was the real deal. He ran all over us.
Adzima: We saw the Montrell Dobbs highlight tape of him just doing crazy stuff all year.
Brockett: He was a tremendously conditioned athlete and he just had such a warrior mentality.
Dobbs: Everybody knew I was getting the ball 40 to 50 times a game, and then there was Arkeel. We didn’t have much of a passing game. It was regular Ansonia football.
Della Vecchia, coach: He was a terrific player and he was a strong kid.
Sponheimer: I’ve been coaching 46 years and no player in Ansonia High School ever had to carry a team the way Montrell Dobbs did that year. He was the only senior on the team, and he was just unbelievable on both sides of the ball. He carried it 50-something times. He could’ve carried it 60-something times.
Dobbs: If we would’ve went into overtime, I could’ve run the ball 50 more times. Exhaustion came from the loss. Once the clock stopped, I’m just like, “[expletive].”
Sponheimer: That’s as great an effort as any player ever gave in my coaching career. I felt sorry that as a team we couldn’t deliver for him.
The play call was ’43 Fox.’
Leading 34-28 with just under six minutes remaining, St. Joseph faced second-and-8 from its own 40. There was pressure on the Hogs’ offense to make something happen. The last thing they wanted to do was to give the ball back to the Chargers, who had scored just two plays earlier.
The Hogs, in turn, dialed up a play call that would change the game for good: Della Vecchia faked a screen, giving wide receiver Jerry Kramer the time to sneak down the field behind the defense for a 60-yard touchdown pass.
On the ensuing two-point try, Matakevich lobbed a Tim Tebow-esque jump pass to Quinn Irwin to extend the lead to 42-28.
Della Vecchia, quarterback: I just remember him catching it and the crowd going crazy. I was like, ‘All right, we won this game.’ That was awesome because I remember him telling me right after, ‘The lights were in my eye. I didn’t know if I was going to get it.’ I was like, ‘Oh, if you dropped that, I would’ve killed you.’
Brockett: We had them backed up. We could’ve gotten the ball back.
Adzima: We had started to hit them with screens. So, to run a fake, it was a perfect play call.
Dobbs: Those screen plays, Della Vecchia was a great quarterback. His dad was a great coach.
Della Vecchia, coach: It was kind of a play that we had set up earlier in the game. That was the dagger. That was the big play.
Sponheimer: They had so many guns. You couldn’t take them all away.
Della Vecchia, coach: We practiced [the jump pass] all year and they used to get mad at me in practice and say I was never going to call it. We always joke about it because, if you look at the offensive line, I don’t think one of them blocked. They all looked to watch the play.
L.J. Hunt (102 yards rushing) scored on a 14-yard run with 3:02 remaining. A few minutes later, Della Vecchia, with help from Adzima, doused his dad with a bucket of ice water.
St. Joseph, a 49-28 winner, had its second straight title and 10th overall. It was the third-straight season without a title for Ansonia.
Sponheimer: We had ridden Montrell as far as he could take us.
Dobbs: Football is a game. It’s a game of resilience and maturity. And it was just they had more maturity, more seniors, more people who understood and had been in that situation. They were just in the championship the year before.
Della Vecchia, coach: We had a little bit too much for them that day.
Brockett: We were always chasing the score that night. … We were never able to take the lead.
Dobbs: I wanted to go to UConn. I wanted to show them I’m a big-time player. … I definitely put on a show and did what I wanted. But at the end of the day, if I could get anything, I would get the win.
Della Vecchia, quarterback: Once we qualified for the playoffs after starting the season 1-2, there was no way we were going to lose.
Della Vecchia, coach: It was my last game with my son and all his friends. … To actually finish it and win it was probably the top moment of my coaching life.
Newsome, who also played defense, had a quiet final night of his freshman season: five carries for 23 yards and three catches for 19 yards vs. St. Joseph.
But he followed that year with an unbelievable sophomore campaign — 3,763 rushing yards and 62 touchdowns — on his way to becoming the state’s all-time rushing leader.
Ansonia didn’t lose again until Oct. 17, 2014, a 14-8 setback to Newtown that left the Chargers just one win shy of matching Cheshire’s state-record 49-game win streak. Included in the Chargers’ streak were three state titles.
With a largely new roster, St. Joseph went 4-6 and missed the playoffs in 2011.
Matakevich went on to a stellar career at Temple, where the linebacker won the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards as a senior. He is currently in his second season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Dobbs committed to Temple, but never ended up playing there.
Dobbs: [Newsome] got his carries that he usually gets [that season]. It was just — if I can recall — he wasn’t as healthy. He wasn’t in the best shape. He took some hits.
Della Vecchia, quarterback: You didn’t think he was a freshman just by watching him on film, or even watching him in games. He was a quick kid.
Brockett: He had a nice role as a freshman. Again, he was 145 pounds. He contributed. He wasn’t ready to carry the ball 15 times or 20 times at that point. He needed to get stronger, and obviously he did when he became the State Player of the Year as a sophomore.
Sponheimer: We knew we had everybody back the next year, and Arkeel was going to be a sophomore. We would be very formidable. … It was still a bitter disappointment [to lose to St. Joseph].