NEW BRITAIN — Jaden Shirden, after his usual big rushing day, smiled when his teammates on the other side of the ball came up in conversation, the defense that led St. Joseph to their third CIAC football championship in a row.
“They’re some bad boys,” Shirden said. “They come out and play. They do their job. They’ve always got our backs, and we’ve got theirs.”
The defense contained second-seeded, top-ranked Hand just about all afternoon, made big plays and led the Cadets to a 17-13 win Saturday in a Class L football final that lived up to season-long hype.
Top-seeded, second-ranked St. Joseph (13-0) won Class S in 2017 and Class M last year, moved up each year because of their success the year before as a school of choice.
“That’s what we’ve been talking about since the summer, the 6 a.m. workouts, from Day 1,” defensive back Davee Silas said.
Silas stepped up for a big tackle for a loss at the Hand 2 midway through the fourth quarter, helping force a short punt that set up Shirden’s 15-yard touchdown run with 4:47 left, making it 17-7 St. Joseph.
Shirden finished with 179 yards on 32 carries.
That insurance was handy when Hand’s Phoenix Billings’ fourth-down Hail Mary found Seth Sweitzer in the last minute to set up Billings’ short touchdown run. But the Hogs recovered the onside kick.
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) December 14, 2019
The Hogs had their third title in a row two kneel-downs later, denying Hand a three-peat of its own.
“It was great for us to move up in class and see what we’re all about. We were up against a great team,” St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “It says a lot about our team. It means the world to us to prove, yeah, we are pretty good.”
— Bill Bloxsom (@blox354) December 14, 2019
St. Joseph, which secured its first FCIAC championship on Thanksgiving and went undefeated for the first time since 1983, has won 23 games in a row. It had been ranked second all season in the GameTimeCT poll to the Tigers’ No. 1. Those positions will likely flip when the poll is announced Monday, though unbeaten Class LL champ Newtown might make some waves.
No. 1 in the poll hadn’t met No. 2 in a state final since Xavier held serve against Southington in the 2005 Class LL final.
Hand (12-1) was trying for its 14th title in 20 chances. The Tigers had won 36 games in a row and the past two Class L titles.
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
“For us, I think, you see the tears here, it’s way more than the scores and the wins,” Hand running back Colin McCabe said. “Obviously (a win) feels much better than a loss, but the bonds, the family ties we’ve made are so much more than the scoreboard.”
Hand coach Dave Mastroianni returned to the sideline for the first time since Week 2, after which he had surgery for cancer of the appendix.
“It was incredibly important for me,” Mastroianni said. “The thing I regretted was I couldn’t take the bus up here. We needed to end together. Me being in the booth and them being on the sideline was too much of a separation for me.
“When the game ended, I wanted to be the first to hug them, win or loss.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
St. Joseph defensive lineman Mike Morrissey was in the Hand backfield all game and forced Phoenix Billings into a second-quarter interception that Preston Kral returned 41 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
“We played physical,” Morrissey said. “We played fast and physical, stopped the run.”
St. Joseph turned the ball over four times, an interception, a muffed snap and a couple of fumbles, short-circuiting a couple of good first-half drives.
“I think we fumbled once all year,” Della Vecchia. “The first two times we had the ball: ‘Oh boy.’ I don’t think the (rainy) weather had anything to do with it. They were hitting hard.”
LOTS OF THREES
Hand forced a punt and tied the game at 7 with 31 seconds left in the first half, Billings to Isaiah McNeilly.
All-state kicker Austin Jose missed a 37- and a 45-yard field goal in the first half, but he drilled a 38-yarder to break the tie midway through the third quarter.
“They brought it. They were physical. They didn’t back down at all. They were fast on defense, fast on offense. We came with our best foot forward, but we just didn’t come up with it this time.” — Hand senior running back Colin McCabe