FAIRFIELD — All Fairfield Prep had to do Tuesday night was stop Tanner LaRosa once.
That had been a tough task all night at Fontana Field. But now Southington had fourth-and-inches from inside the Jesuits 2-yard line with 1:26 left, trailing Prep by seven in their CIAC Class LL quarterfinal game.
What followed were 13 seconds that took LaRosa all around the red zone, left the Blue Knights short and sent the Jesuits to a home semifinal date Sunday against New Canaan.
“Fourth and inches, that close to the goal line, emotions were high,” said Jesuits cornerback Luke Hopkins, one of the players LaRosa eluded before Joe DeJesus finally dragged him down. “To see him break that first tackle, then break a few more: great running back, great play. We just wanted it a little more.”
It began with the Blue Knights in the shotgun, with LaRosa a step to quarterback Jacob Drena’s right at the 6-yard line, five yards from the line to gain, six from a chance to tie it.
Well this didn’t go out earlier.
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LaRosa, as the play began, had carried 18 times for 124 yards, 15 of those carries for better than the yard from scrimmage he needed, 11 for at least five yards, four over 10.
“They were running a lot of counter, which we hadn’t done a great job against, which I don’t know why, but we didn’t,” Jesuits coach Keith Hellstern said.
Southington put Weston Brick in motion. Drena took the snap and handed to LaRosa, who took it left and almost instantly had a white jersey with a red 81 flying at him: junior linebacker Charlie Wilcox.
“I saw them motion the guy toward the right,” Wilcox said. “It kind of just opened up for me. They kind of forgot to block both the middle backers.”
LaRosa met Wilcox with a stiff right arm, tucking the ball into his left hand, but Wilcox pushed LaRosa back to the 10 and got both hands on him. But LaRosa wouldn’t go down, ducked and shrugged away and started back and to the right, away from further Jesuits pressure.
“I think our defense has a swarm mentality. All season, we kind of take him down together,” Wilcox said.
Next up was Hopkins. In the time out before the play, he said, the defensive backs had stressed to stay pass-first and trust the linebackers, then come up to the run.
“I saw Charlie wrap him up, and I’m not gonna lie, I thought he was down at first,” Hopkins said, “I saw (LaRosa) reverse field, and I just started going for it.”
They met up around the 18, but LaRosa, now with the ball tucked in his right hand, cut to the inside to duck Hopkins. He looked upfield and saw one more white jersey coming: DeJesus.
“I saw him start to come outside. I knew I had to contain because I let one up earlier not containing,” DeJesus said.
The Jesuits struggled with tackling particularly in the first half; Hellstern thought emotion played a part in that. But now DeJesus had his shot.
But now he had to fight both LaRosa and his body.
“I just thought, I don’t want to lose this game,” DeJesus said. “My leg cramped up, though. I kind of fell a little early.”
As LaRosa tried to duck away once more, DeJesus managed to grab a handful of LaRosa’s jersey with his right hand. From his stomach, DeJesus clung. LaRosa spun to his right, went down at the 18, got to a knee and stayed there about 10 seconds, still cradling the ball. DeJesus popped up, then, when Hopkins stopped holding him up, went back down again, his right leg cramping.
“We’ve got another game coming,” LaRosa said. “That’s all I was thinking.”
T.J. Walton picked up a first down two plays later to seal the deal and give the Jesuits a game at Rafferty Stadium on Sunday.
“The guys made a huge play,” Hellstern said. “It was something I’ll never forget.”