MIDDLETOWN >> It seemed only fitting for Xavier and Hand to play one more game for the ages in Tigers coach Steve Filippone’s last appearance at Palmer Field.
Falcons junior quarterback Will Levis scored the winning touchdown on a 1-yard plunge in overtime and junior linebacker Ryan Cartelli tackled Hand quarterback Brett Bilcheck just two yards from the end zone on the game’s final play to lift Xavier to a thrilling 20-13 SCC victory on Friday night.
“Our defense came up big when they had too, which is nice to see,” Xavier coach Sean Marinan said. “We still have to get more consistent on offense but it’s great to get a win.”
Filippone announced two weeks ago that his 38th season at Hand was going to be his last. And there numerous times over the years when his teams had great success on Xavier’s home field.
“We’ve had some unbelievable football games here,” Filippone said. “And tonight too. Most of the time, ironically, we win here. Most of our losses to Xavier are at the Surf Club. So we usually do well here.”
For Xavier, the win snapped a string of close losses, including a defeat two weeks ago in the final seconds at Cheshire, and kept their slim playoff hopes alive.
Led by senior defensive end Nik Kvietkus and Cartelli, Xavier’s defense dominated the first half, limiting Hand to just one first down. But the Falcons led just 7-0 on a 54 yard scoring toss from Levis to Joe Galatie.
Xavier (3-3) scored on its opening possession of the third quarter, extending the lead to 13-0 when Levis found Kyle MacGillis in the corner of the end zone with a 29 yard touchdown play.
Hand, however, rallied behind the play of junior linebacker Brian Casagrande, who added an interception and a blocked punt to his numerous tackles, and Bilcheck, a senior who came off the bench and sparked the Tigers’ offense.
Bilcheck engineered a 55-yard scoring drive with some terrific running. Senior Nick Leone capped the march with a 2-yard touchdown run on fourth down and Chris Bartosic’s extra point closed the gap to 13-7 early in the fourth quarter.
“When you’ve got a running quarterback like that I’m always on pins and needles,” Marinan said.
After Casagrande blocked a punt on Xavier’s next possession, Hand (1-5) answered again when Leone burst off tackle on fourth-and-2 and raced 35 yards into the end zone. The Falcons, however, blocked the extra point try and it remained 13-13.
“We don’t quit, that’s one thing this team doesn’t do,” Filippone said. “We’ve been in every single game we’ve played and we’re 1-5. We lost on a blocked point. So it’s very hard.”
Xavier drove into field goal range in the final minute thanks to four completions from Levis and a pass interference call. But sophomore kicker Sam Norris’ 42-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
“He’s got the leg for it,” Marinan said. “In practice, he’ll hit them from there routinely. But once he settles down and gains more confidence he’s going to be a real good kicker.”
In overtime, Levis rushed for nine yards on Xavier’s first play, then bulldozed into the end zone behind a Kvietkus block for the game winning score.
“We’re back on the right track,” Marinan said. “We finished out a close game finally instead of coming up on the short end, so that’s huge.”
Xavier 20, Hand 13 (OT)
At Palmer Field, Middletown
Hand 0-0-0-13 0 13
Xavier 7-0-6-0 7 20
X-Joe Galatie 54 pass from Will Levis (Sam Norris kick)
X-Kyle MacGillis 29 pass from Levis (kick failed)
H-Nick Leone 2 run (Chris Bartosic kick)
H-Nick Leone 35 run (kick blocked)
X-Will Levis 1 run (Norris kick)
Records: Hand 1-5; Xavier 3-3.