The highly-anticipated matchup of ranked football teams No. 1 St. Joseph and No. 3 Darien is already the second one this season. St. Joseph beat New Canaan in the opener when the teams were ranked third and first, respectively.
These matchups have happened over the course of the New Haven Register’s Top 10 poll existence. That includes 2012, when No. 3 Hand knocked off No. 1 Xavier in a battle of Southern Connecticut Conference unbeatens.
But it’s been rare to have a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup from different league and on a fall Saturday afternoon. Thirty years ago next month — before social media was even a thought, before the Internet boomed and before Friday night football in Connecticut really came to be — No. 1 Middletown visited No. 2 Stratford at Penders Field in another battle of unbeatens.
The game took place on Oct. 22, 1988. Middletown had Tyrone Speller and Dario Highsmith in the backfield. Stratford had Duane Shirden and Gary Cooper touting the ball and a heralded defense led by Curtis Eller.
Ironically enough, there was another top 10 matchup played that day as No. 9 Ansonia played at No. 6 Derby, the winner that day.
Stratford upended Middletown 21-6. Shirden — father of current St. Joseph junior running back Jaden — scored three touchdowns that day. Cooper had a big 90-yard run in the fourth quarter to set up Stratford’s final touchdown. The Red Devils’ defense did the rest.
“The kids played defense like they’ve never played before,” Stratford coach Walt Czekaj told the New Haven Register that day.
Stratford moved to No. 1 in the poll, a spot the Red Devils would occupy until losing to crosstown rival Bunnell on Thanksgiving Day. The Red Devils dropped to No. 4 heading into the CIAC playoffs, annihilated Sacred Heart-Waterbury in the Class SS final, then had the good fortune of having two of the three teams ranked in front of them — New London and South Windsor — lose for the first time in its respective state finals.
It was the only time Stratford has finished No. 1 in the final Register poll.
Middletown was the other team ranked ahead of Stratford going into the playoffs, but finished the regular season at 7-3 and didn’t qualify for the postseason. The Blue Dragons only lost that one game on the field.
The team was forced to forfeit two of its wins due to the use of an ineligible player, a senior reserve according to the Register, which also noted that Middletown had self-reported the violation to the CIAC.The ruling came down two days less than 48 hours before the game.
So, basically, Middletown’s season came down to the game against Stratford.
“I’ve never lost three games in one week before. I don’t know of many coaches who have,” Middletown coach John Skubel told the Register after the Stratford loss.
The Blue Dragons finished third in the final poll. Fairfield Prep, the Class LL champion, finished second.