More than once last week when I was talking about the impending Xavier-Hand game at the new and improved Surf Club, someone came up with a revelation.
“Wow, I forgot about that regular-season game they played last year at Palmer Field. That was huge when it happened.”
You forgot about the most-hyped game in SCC history? Hand ending Xavier’s 30-game win streak with a completely dominant second half? The teams had both won state championships the year before, but had not even played, remember? Then they were both undefeated? Oh, forget it.
There’s an easy answer why our consciousness selectively dismisses certain facts and memories and keeps others, and in this case it had all to do with last December. After its stunning loss, Xavier had an equally shocking comeback victory over Hillhouse and then wasn’t close to being touched again, rolling to its third straight state title. The loss to Hand, while annoying, was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
Hand didn’t stumble, either, of course. Their Class L title completed a dominant SCC football season which saw it grab 75 percent of the state championship hardware.
A year on, things are not so simple, and the state title hardware seems like it will be harder to come by next month. Xavier and Hand met again Friday. There wasn’t the state media mob there was a year ago when the two teams were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls: no live television, and I was able to get up and down the sidelines without crashing into cameras or people.
But you could make a pretty good argument that this game might be of more importance. A loss would surely eliminate Xavier from playoff contention, ending their amazing run. A defeat would not be so dire for the hosts, but with a trip to Ken Strong Stadium looming next week, it would be moving in that direction rapidly.
And so, for the second straight year, it was time to make the Xavier-Hand clash our annual running diary.
For no extra charge, I added in most of the West Haven-Wilbur Cross contest. Unfortunately, you won’t get anything added to the offer if you read in the next 15 minutes.
Without further ado, Friday’s events:
I was about to leave my day job at East Haven High to head to Wilbur Cross for the afternoon tilt when I ran into former East Haven coach Rusty Dunne, now a West Haven assistant. I wished him good luck and asked if he knew why the North Haven-Hillhouse game (at Crisafi Field) was scheduled for 8 and not 7. “Well, our game is at 3:30, so they probably wanted time between games.” “Wait, your game is here? How did I not know that?”
That’s a win, not only because I didn’t have to go anywhere, but it was a little closer to Madison. As it turned out, the game site had been switched long ago and I’m just an idiot.
Armed with a Subway footlong, my laptop, and my notebook, I go to make my way to the press box, but get stopped at the door. Full disclosure, as a part-time media type, I don’t really have a media ID anymore, so I usually get by at SCC games with my coach’s pass which “entitles the bearer entry to all Southern Connecticut Conference athletic contests.” Except this one, I guess. Eventually, after a few minutes of pleading, they relent and I can join the dozen or so other people at this game. Sigh.
Cross has a pretty big team, and they are able to move the ball, but Ervin Philips — whose defense has made almost as many big plays as offense lately — gets a tackle and fumble recovery. He scores four plays later and the rout begins.
The Governors can get West Haven into third-and-long situations, but just can’t stay disciplined. In fact, the Blue Devils have six rushing plays in the first quarter alone that go for negative yardage. But on fourth-and-8, Duane Gary dumps a screen to Philips, who goes 35 yards for his third TD of the quarter and its 21-0 Westies. Oh, well.
The highlight of the afternoon for Wilbur Cross. The Westies use the wind to kick the ball deep and Elijah Long appears to step into the end zone in the process of catching it, which should be a touchback under high school rules. But the officials let it go, and Long goes the distance for an official 99-yard kickoff return, which ties the state and national record because — until they someday change the rules — you can’t go any further.
Cross quarterback A.J. Consiglio is sacked with 10:20 to go in the half, and it will be the last offensive snap for the Governors for nearly 16 minutes of game action.
After Gary’s second TD of the quarter (and Gary seems to be the key for West Haven’s offense this season, both passing and running), West Haven drills the ensuing kick low and for the second straight time, Cross fails to field it and the Westies jump on it.
With 25 seconds left, West Haven — leading 35-7 — goes for the jugular with a Philips’ halfback option, leading to the words “Cochran like” being bandied about in the press box. I don’t have a big problem with it. They don’t score anyway, 35-7 at the half.
West Haven fumbles at the Cross 2 to start the second half, so finally — after nearly an hour — the Cross offense is back on the field. But two plays later, it’s a safety anyway. Such is the story of the Governors’ day.
The Westies have largely gone to their second string (Anton Graham was the game’s leading rusher despite having only one carry in the first half), but they bring in Philips on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to run the ball in for a 50-7 lead with 2:50 left in the third quarter. That’s a little dicey, in my humble opinion, but whatever.
Philips finished with only 66 yards on 16 carries, but caught four passes for 135 yards. Anyway, my work here is done, and it’s off to the Surf Club.
Even at rush hour on a Friday, it’s a scenic ride to Madison from East Haven down Snake Hill to I-95 (although be very careful, it’s not the safest of routes if you’re not going at a slow rate of speed). After the mess at the Cross game, I don’t try to pull rank and park in the closed off lot next to the field, which will hurt getting out, but for now, no big deal.
Xavier tailgaters are here in force, and the Hand band is slowly arriving, but I take the time to walk over to the beach and watch the sunset for a little perspective. There are some windsurfers taking advantage of the rough conditions from the storm earlier in the day, and it truly is a beautiful scene. And, thankfully, chilly, but not that cold.
Although I was slightly sad to see the visiting bleachers gone, the new Surf Club looks tremendous. And, if it may not be getting the hype state-wide it did a year ago, the people here know it’s a big game. Even the dramatically expanding seating is all full and the ring of people surrounds the field. These are two proud programs that support their teams.
It’s windy enough where it’s hard to hear the pregame music downstream. That should help the passing game. Advantage: Xavier.
Xavier is ready for the national anthem, but Hand is slightly confused on its pregame routine. They line up at the far end of the field, do their run a touchdown play thing, and then line up. The Falcons, oblivious, have been waiting for two or three minutes. “They’re making us wait, man. They don’t want the pain,” from the Xavier sideline.
Both teams are able to move the ball a little, but it’s an unexpected defensive struggle. Xavier has run nine plays inside Hand territory, but nothing to show for it, even with the help of a 12-yard Tigers punt into the wind.
One of Xavier’s few breakdowns of the evening, Josh DeMartino runs wide open for a 55-yard reception that looked like it was going the distance, but Nate Gonzalez chases him down at the 15, which is huge because Tyler Phan misses a 29-yard field goal. Apologies to Phan for misspelling his name last week, and that’s the irony of life, I guess, I get his name right when he misses and wrong when he connects on the game-winner. Sorry.
Xavier breaks through, a punishing all-on-the-ground drive that Andrew Meoli finishes with a 4-yard run. 7-0 Falcons, and they are owning the line of scrimmage like it’s 2010 or something.
When it looks like Hand is in trouble, a muffed punt gives him a lifeline and Conor Dowd is in the end zone five plays later to tie the game. Welcome to the Surf Club.
A long first half ends 7-7 after Nick van Dell (just 7-of-18 for 96 yards in the first half) is intercepted and Xavier is denied late. The officials are obviously not too familiar with the new configuration at the Surf Club, they can’t escape the fencing and have to jog all the way around through all the fans to get back to their locker room/beach house. Luckily, no controversial calls. Yet.
On the second play of the third quarter, Xavier steals Hand’s favorite play, the bubble screen, and Gonzalez takes it 63 yards for a go-ahead score. Controversy ensues. Gonzalez was running directly toward the visiting Xavier student section and pointed at them as he entered the end zone. Immediately, a flag flies for unsportsmanlike conduct. Late in the second quarter, Gonzalez threw a crushing crackback block, but got flagged for standing over his fallen victim too long. So the second unsportsmanlike like flag was an automatic ejection. Having now seen replays, it was very, very harsh, and I’m not sure the officials understood that Gonzalez was pointing at his own student section. But that’s life, I guess. Xavier would not throw another pass the rest of the evening.
After a three-and-out, Xavier’s next offensive play sees quarterback Joe Carbone, who seemed to be left alone plenty on Xavier’s option, completes a meandering 85-yard touchdown run to put Xavier up 21-7 just 2:59 into the second half. Game over?
Hand shows plenty of guts with a 14-play drive that finishes with van Dell hitting Tom Wilson from 8 yards out to cut the Xavier lead to 21-14 with 4:59 left. Van Dell was 5-for-6 on the drive. Hand crowd back in it.
But they can’t stop Xavier at the line of scrimmage. They get some help deep in their own territory by a misread from Carbone and a false start. Hand holds and Xavier also misses a 29-yard field goal. Somewhat miraculously, the Tigers have the ball down just 21-14 with 11:05 left.
Xavier sacks van Dell and holds Hand, and a rare mistake from the Tigers on a bad punt snap gives the Falcons the ball on the Hand 16, another chance to bury them. They have to, right?
However, Hand’s defense nearly pulls off an improbable goal-line stand. Meoli falls down on third-and-goal from the 1, and even though a field goal would likely seal the contest the same as a touchdown would, Sean Marinan elects to go for it. This time Meoli barges past the goal line, and Xavier can breathe a little easier, up 28-14 with 5:59 to go.
After getting out of a couple more sticky situations, van Dell throws his third interception on a tipped pass, this time Edwin Luster coming down with it to seal a deserved victory for the three-time defending Class LL champions.
But not before one more harrowing moment. Xavier has a bizarre punting formation that allows rugby-style kicks. Sophomore Noah Cruz is able to run if he sees enough space, but with 2:00 left, leading by two touchdowns, and fourth-and-4 from your own 25, the coaches probably wanted him to kick it no matter what he saw. Alas, Cruz broke a tackle and got 5 yards, good enough by a couple of feet.
Cruz’s run was one of 59 rushing attempts by Xavier on the evening, 57 of them from Meoli and Carbone for a combined 342 yards, the final one a Carbone kneel down in Victory formation. They have a couple of losses, but the Falcons looked like Xavier of old on this night, and that might be bad news for Shelton and Fairfield Prep, the two obstacles that stand in the way of Xavier and the Class LL playoffs.
Marinan: “I really haven’t talked to them about our state playoff situation yet. I don’t want to put too much pressure on the kids yet. I think that’s coming next week. Coming down here is hard enough.” Indeed, after Hand snapped Xavier’s 30-game win streak last year on the road, the run of 24 home games without a loss came to an end here.
Hand coach Steve Filippone: “We got a lot of recognition for winning a lot of games, but we did it basically with smoke and mirrors, and we’ve been doing it with smoke and mirrors the whole year. And tonight, the smoke and mirrors didn’t work. We did not make big plays on defense. The kicking game killed us. They’re great kids, but that kind of thing is going to happen when you play as many sophomores as we do. It was just a matter of when things were going to go bad all at once. And tonight was that night. And we were still in the game and had chances to tie it late against a great football team.”
My last act at the Surf Club was to seek out one of those aforementioned sophomores, Liam Sullivan. You may remember from last season when his brother Matt was playing that he is related to me. He still was trying to smile as he helped carry the equipment, and despite having to try to deal with Xavier’s offense at a listed 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds (which helps him on the wrestling mat). “I played the whole game at corner, did you see?” “Yea, what do you think this notebook is for?” “Oh yeah.” Sometimes we forget that these games, even at the highest level, are being played by 15 and 16-year-old kids.
And I was reminded again as my wait to get out of the parking lot was made longer by the Xavier players blocking traffic so they could raid the Falcons’ parents tailgate, which amazingly seemed to have plenty of grub to go around still. Free food for a teenager who had just finished running around for a couple of hours? What’s better than that?
Sadly, no space this week, but if you have a chance, take a look at next week’s schedule. SCC Armageddon awaits as almost every game should be close and a handful of teams will see their playoff dreams dashed one way or the other. Should be a blast … If you haven’t yet, follow me on Twitter at currenscc.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Colton Smith, Fairfield Prep and David Ryan, Amity — Smith got the win and did more of the rushing in Prep’s 46-33 win over Amity, running for 222 yards and three touchdowns on nine carries, while throwing for 137 more and another touchdown. Ryan, a former Prep player, was 40-for-56 throwing for 431 yards and four touchdowns for one of the best statistical days in SCC history, even if it was in a losing effort. In all, the game featured nearly 1,100 yards of total offense combined.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Number of teams in the SCC with either one or two losses. In the one loss category, West Haven and North Haven. The Westies can probably afford one more defeat, but the Indians, without as many playoff points, have to be careful. Hand, Xavier, Shelton, Fairfield Prep, and Foran are all likely playing for their playoff lives in the season’s final three weeks. It should be very, very interesting.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Foran at North Haven, Friday, 7 p.m. — There are plenty of options this week, but the Vanacore Field battle is particularly interesting because of recent events, namely the Lions looking like legitimate playoff contenders in the last few weeks. The styles here are about as contrasting as you’ll ever find, and the key will likely be the Foran defense and whether it can handle the power game of North Haven. But the Indians’ pass defense has also been very good this season. Very interesting game. I thought about having a seven-way tie for the top spot in the Power Rankings this season, by the way, that’s how close it is these days.
- 1. West Haven (7-1; Last Week 2)—Entire coaching staff got to watch Hand-Xavier Friday. We’ll see what they saw.
- 2. Xavier (6-2; LW 3)—Not having Gonzalez will limit passing game, they’re hoping it’s not necessary.
- 3. Shelton (6-2; LW 4)—Palmer Field awaits, and they’ll have to be at their very, very best to win in Middletown.
- 4. Hand (6-2; LW 1)—Conditions didn’t help van Dell Friday. And, of course, all those white shirts in his face, too.
- 5. Fairfield Prep (6-2; LW 5)—Should be able to win Friday, but Hamden gave them a heck of a battle last year.
- 6. Foran (6-2; LW 7)—Game at North Haven biggest game in the Bevino Era at Foran? Has to be, doesn’t it?
- 7. North Haven (7-1; LW 6)—Wasn’t easy against Hillhouse. They will be at home against Foran, root for wind?
- 8. Notre Dame (3-5; LW 11)—Just when Hamden thought they might go into Green Bowl favorite, ND rolling.
- 9. Amity (4-4; LW 8)—Cheshire a big game for Spartans, who would love to finish this season above .500 mark.
- 10. Hillhouse (3-5; LW 10)—Loss to Guilford would assure that Acs would finish 2013 with a losing record.
- 11. Guilford (4-4; LW 13)—Like Amity (and opponent Hillhouse), would love to have more wins than losses at end.
- 12. Sheehan (3-5; LW 14)—Sorry didn’t have more space to talk about Titans’ big win. Rolled over Warde.
- 13. Cheshire (3-5; LW 9)—Division I football can be very cruel if you’re just a notch below like Rams are now.
- 14. Wilbur Cross (3-5; LW 12)—Actually had some really good plays and still ended up getting beat 50-7.
- 15. Hamden (3-5; LW 15)—Like Cheshire, just difficult in Division I week in and week out if you have flaws.
- 16. Jonathan Law (1-6; LW 16)—Actually had a decent amount of offense, just never close to stopping Guilford.
- 17. Lyman Hall (2-6; LW 17)—Now won two in a row with a decent chance to make it three against Hyde.
- 18. East Haven (1-7; LW 18)—Both teams at bottom probably really eyeing that Thanksgiving showdown.
- 19. Branford (0-7; LW 18)—See East Haven.
- GameTimeCT / Register Top 10 Poll: We have a new No. 1
- Regional football notebook: Guilford has sights on first division title
- Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Top Players, teams of Week 8; Look ahead to Week 9
- State Football beat: The Week 9 FCIAC, SWC, NVL championship scenarios
- Ray Curren’s Inside the SCC: The Week 8 running diary