NEW BRITAIN — After he had fallen into the arms of his principal Anthony Salutari, dissolving into tears for a solid minute, Hand coach Dave Mastroianni turned and found his son.
Gabriel, all four years of him, came in for the hug and tackle. Dad and son landed on the ground of Veterans Stadium and the tears gave way to laughs.
“Two opposite ends of the spectrum of support, right?” Mastroianni said after a Connecticut championship Saturday turned unforgettable with the human emotion, relentless effort and unbridled enthusiasm that makes high school athletics such an important part of the fabric of American life. “You’ve got your boss and your athletic director who have been so supportive, and they tell you, ‘Anything you need.’
“And then when you start feeling bad yourself, your son comes over and gives you a big hug and a kiss and you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s right. What am I doing? What lessons am I teaching?’ I needed the tackle from my son at that point or else it probably could have taken a serious turn downhill.”
St. Joseph is the No. 1 team in Connecticut.
Newtown is the No. 1 team in Connecticut’s heart.
Hand and Mastroianni, who overcame his second bout with cancer to return to the sidelines for this Class L championship game, well, they showed us what refusing to give up and grace in defeat is.
Final score from the game everyone awaited: St. Joe’s 17, Hand 13 in Class L.
Final score from the moment no one will forget: Newtown 13, Darien 7 in Class LL.
Taking over the ball at its own 32 with under a minute left, Newtown quarterback Jack Street would find Riley Ward for a 36-yard touchdown pass as time expired. On the seventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, the town’s high school would win its first state championship since 1992 in the most compelling way possible.
WOW! Holy crap. Newtown wins the CLASSS LL title 13-7 over Darien I’m the final play Jack Street hits Riley Ward for 36-yard TD #cthsfb
Newtown’s first state title since 1992 pic.twitter.com/BfSMc0rNIy
— Pete Paguaga (@PetePaguaga) December 14, 2019
The video of the winning touchdown and celebration will bring tears to your eyes. Every time. Every single time.
Jack Street was in the fourth grade at Sandy Hook Elementary that December 14 morning of 2012 when shots rang out and 26 lives perished.
And this day?
Surely, there were angels to be found at McDougall Stadium in Trumbull.
“I love this town,” Ward told reporters.
“Just knowing that we have the whole town right there behind us,” said linebacker Ben Pinto, whose younger brother Jack died at Sandy Hook. “It’s unbelievable.”
Pinto pointed to the celebration.
“Look at this,” he said, “it’s crazy.”
Today we learned sports can be more than just a game, wonderfully illustrated by the Newtown players and coaches.
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) December 15, 2019
Hand, which had been No. 1 in the polls all season, and St. Joe’s, which had been No. 2, was the game everyone in the state awaited. Hand had won 36 in a row. St. Joe’s had won 22 straight and hadn’t trailed in a game since Nov. 2, 2018. Hand had won back-to-back Class L titles. St. Joe’s had won back-to-back titles in Class S and Class M before its success pushed it to Class L.
St. Joe’s had outscored its opponents by an average of 50-5 this season. Hand had outscored its opponents 46-6. Had the game gone as expected?
“No,” Mastroianni said. “I thought points.”
Points were precious. Hand’s defense was terrific. St. Joe’s was better. St. Joe’s committed four turnovers and that hurt the Hogs on the scoreboard. Hand had only 229 yards on offense and that took a deflected fourth-down, 45-yard Hail Mary from Phoenix Billings to Seth Sweitzer that set up the second Tigers touchdown with under a minute to play. All of sudden, Mastroianni pointed out, Hand had a chance. The onsides kick failed. Just as quickly, the drama, the chance was over.
“Our front seven can play physical and play fast,” said Cadets senior captain Mike Morrissey, who earlier had hit Billings as he let go of a pass that turned into a pick six for his teammate Preston Kral. “Our secondary was on lockdown all night. I don’t think there was a weak point in our defense. And we knew Colin McCabe was one of the best and most physical running backs in the state.”
“Yeah, we knew we had to stop the run,” said the 320-pound Williams. “We wanted a shutout.”
Williams plugged the middle. Morrissey was a menace with his speed. The Tigers would gain only 62 yards on 32 carries on the ground. McCabe, thought to be out for this game, managed to pound out 59 yards on 19 carries.
The Hogs’ defense?
“They’re awesome,” said St. Joseph’s Jaden Shirden, who ran for a fourth-quarter touchdown run. “They are some bad boys.”
And so is McCabe.
“His father, for a nice literary reference for you, talked to Colin about El Cid,” Mastroianni said. “Just being there means a lot to your team. I told him as much last night. I said whether you’re playing or not, you here in pads gives us an air of invincibility as a group, including me. I tell a lot of these guys, ‘You’re my hero’ Heroes do heroic things, and for him to perform like he did on a bum leg — good for him. It was his decision. He showed up with a smile, ready to go.”
You had to especially feel good for St. Joe’s, forever locked in the argument over what class Catholic schools should play, on one important count.
“When we won S and M, everyone said we shouldn’t be in S or M,” Morrissey said. “That was never our decision. They put us in L, which was probably the best division this year. We stepped up and got the job done.”
“Absolutely, big satisfaction,” St. Joe’s coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “There are a lot of people out there who didn’t think we could do it. People posted we had fake championships and all that. Everything we’ve done is real. Our kids play hard and play by the same rules as everyone else.”
And sometimes, that effort, that emotion, that enthusiasm of a game and its rules produce moments that are unforgettable.
Watch Newtown celebrate. Try not to cry.
“There is nothing better than to win it for your town,” said Newtown linebacker Jared Dunn. “Especially on a day like today.”