BRIDGEPORT – The Harding High School football team knew they were in for a rough night before visiting Daniel Hand High of Madison got off the bus.
But they had no idea how rough.
“The last couple of weeks we got off to a slow start so it was good to see them answer my challenge,” Hand coach Dave Mastroianni said after his defending Class L state championship team’s 51-12 victory at John Lewis Field.
The coach’s challenge was only half of the motivation.
“It’s a tradition at Hand,” Mastroianni continued. “Our kids know what they’re supposed to live up to and don’t want to lay an egg. We want to be up there with New Canaan, Darien and Greenwich and other great programs. Great programs don’t slow down.”
The undefeated Tigers certainly did not treat this as a game in which they were probably a five- or six touchdown favorite. Led by quarterback Phoenix Billings, they scored 45 points in the first 15 minutes and 14 seconds of the game. That was six touchdowns on 16 plays from scrimmage.
“That’s a great team,” Harding coach Eddie Santiago said. “We knew what they could do but we’ve got to slow that down.”
“We score in bunches, that’s our deal,” Mastroianni added.
Hand (4-0), has now outscored its four opponents 182-30. Billings had to have a perfect quarterback rating as he completed all eight of his pass attempts for 204 yards (25.5 per attempt), three for touchdowns with no interceptions.
“We felt with Harding’s size on the defensive front, that we needed to throw the ball more tonight,” Mastroianni said. “I think (Billings) did a good job.”
Billings hit Chris Bartosic for 45 yards on the first play of the game and then found Ethan Haberman from 35 yards for a score. It took the Tigers three plays on their next possession, a 16-yard toss from Billings to Ian Butler, and five the next time they had the ball (Bartosic 15-yard run).
Before the quarter had ended Jesse Lutz had run in from 14 yards out and on the first play of the second period, it was Billings to Haberman again from nine yards to make it 38-0.
Finally, with 8:46 remaining in the first half, Billings and Butler hooked up from 21 yards.
“I don’t think our defense came to play tonight,” Santiago said. “I know Hand is a great team but we’ve got to do a better job than that.”
After taking the 45-0 lead Mastroianni called off the dogs. Their final score came on a 20-yard fumble return by Jack Hughes in the final seconds of the third quarter.
To Harding’s credit, the Presidents, led by quarterback Kevin Bednarz and receiver Marcell Robinson, became the first Hand opponent to score two touchdowns. Yes, both came against the second-team defense, but it was a positive, regardless of how minor.
Bednarz (14 for 24 for 159 yards) broke the shutout with a 30-yard pass to Robinson (seven receptions for 101 yards). Bednarz then found Isaiah Hanley from 18 yards out to close out the scoring.
HAND 51, HARDING 12
DANIEL HAND 31 14 6 0 — 51
HARDING 0 0 0 12 —12
DH — Ethan Haberman, 35 pass from Phoenix Billings (William Cosgriff pass from Isaiah McNeilly)
DH — Ian Butler, 16 pass from Billings (McNeilly run)
DH — Chris Bartosic, 15 run (McNeilly run)
DH — Jesse Lutz, 14 run (McNeilly kick)
DH — Shaun Henneberry, 9 pass from Billings (McNeilly kick)
DH — Colin McCabe, 21 run (McNeilly kick).
DH — Jack Hughes, 20 fumble return (kick blocked)
H — Marcell Robinson, 30 pass from Kevin Bednarz (run failed)
H — Isaiah Hanley, 18 pass from Bednarz (run failed)