HIGGANUM — Haddam-Killingworth is playing football in December. This is a first and, understandably, a really, really big deal for the small, no-frills program tucked into the woods off Route 9. The Cougars have made the CIAC playoffs only three times in their 43 seasons of football.
Tuesday’s Class S quarterfinal victory over Bullard-Havens Tech was their first in the CIAC playoffs. It gave H-K 10 wins for the season — yep, another first for a program hard-pressed to keep up in its own conference.
Coach Mike Baklik’s players know it is not often that H-K follows a good season with one even better, but it has finally happened. Their success has been three years in the making. The Cougars won six games last fall with many of this year’s impact players, and they finally conquered rival Valley Regional/Old Lyme in their regular-season finale to punch a playoff ticket.
“We all kind of knew the expectations we had for this season — to not let this team be a below .500 team like we have been the last two decades,” said senior Aiden Maher, a team captain and two-way lineman. “We wanted to achieve something else. Last year was a good year. I think we all realized this was going to be ‘the year.’ ”
Their journey continues. No. 7 seed H-K (10-1) has won seven straight and is ever closer to playing for a state championship, which the Cougars will do if they can beat Stafford/East Windsor/Somers (11-0), the No. 3 seed, in Sunday’s semifinal at Enfield High School. They haven’t played in a state final since winning Class S in 1994.
“This is a totally different game for us,” Maher said. “We all know the stakes now. This is a big game. This is where everyone has to play to perfection in order to succeed.”
H-K’s one hiccup was a late-September loss to Cromwell/Portland, which in the past might have derailed their season. Both were 3-0 when they met. The Cougars took a 13-0 first-quarter lead, but the Panthers came back with a vengeance and ended up winning by four scores.
It was maybe the one time this season that the Cougars felt satisfied with their play, and it cost them.
“The start we had was amazing. The rest of the game we let off the gas. It was a shame,” senior kicker and defensive back Jordan Callahan said. “It’s one of the only things we’ve kept in our minds week after week after week. We can’t let teams get the best of us anymore.
“I almost told the guys, ‘It was good we lost to Cromwell. At least we lost in the middle of the season when it didn’t impact us as much.’ It kind of taught us, as good as we are, when we have a bad game and we don’t show up to play, talent is not going to (save) us against a team that is working harder than us.”
The Cougars have run a double-wing offense almost exclusively for three seasons. Senior Tobey Callender and junior Dalton Modehn are 1,000-yard backs, and along with senior Zach Kauffman and junior Dalton Brown, the four have accounted for 54 of the team’s 56 rushing touchdowns.
“Running the double wing takes a lot of heart and takes a lot of beatings,” Callender said.
“Most people see the double wing and it’s like, ‘Yeah, they’re just going to run the ball.’ And yeah, that’s 98 percent true,” Callahan said. “But it’s a pain for defenses to stop.”
This year, they have thrown an average of 2.3 times per game. In its 52-0 win over Bullard-Havens, H-K ran the ball 50 times and never threw it.
Stafford attacks defenses similarly. The Bulldogs, who took advantage of five Cromwell turnovers in their 41-6 quarterfinal win, go heavy on the run and throw the ball fewer than eight times a game on average. Senior quarterback Colton Engel, who ran for more than 2,000 yards last season, and senior Julien Rivas are 1,000-yard rushers this year. Like H-K, they have been running the same system for the last couple of seasons.
“I think we’re ready for Stafford’s run game and hopefully we can defend their pass, too” said Callender, also a linebacker.
The defenses have been consistently strong all season. Stafford has given up more than 20 points in only three games and an average of less than 11 per game. H-K is big and physical up front and the pressure they bring on quarterbacks has helped lead to 26 interceptions.
The Cougars also do not give away much in the double wing — only eight fumbles in 11 games.
“What we’ve noticed in the past few years is our turnovers just make us lose,” Modehn said. “The running backs just have to hold onto the ball.”
Stafford, making its third straight playoff appearance, was 0-11 four years ago and is trying to win its first state title. H-K had a winless season in 2013, just two years after its last playoff appearance. These teams know from where they have come.
“We know what we have to do,” Baklik said.
“It’s definitely going to be a battle,” he said. “I can’t wait to play them. It’s going to be a really fun game. It’s really who’s going to show up to play and who’s going to want it more.”