WEST HAVEN >> It was such a foregone conclusion Shelton was going to score in the final seconds of a 21-21 game, the Xavier coaching staff debated whether they should let the Gaels cross the goal line so the Falcons could get the ball back to try to force overtime.
But with the football inches from the end zone and less than a minute remaining in Saturday’s Class LL-Small championship game, Shelton quarterback and Southern Connecticut Conference Division I Player of the Year Mark Piccirillo fumbled. Xavier recovered. The game went to overtime.
Shelton got the ball first. On 3rd-and-goal from the 11, Piccirillo hit Alex Kirk, who made a tough catch and dragged a Xavier defender into the end zone to make it 27-21. But the Falcons’ Kaleb Lutton burst through the line on the extra point attempt got a hand on the kick to keep it a six-point game.
“Coach (Andy) Guyon made a key substitution to put Kaleb Lutton in for that last extra point to do just what he did, go up and block it,” Xavier coach Sean Marinan said.
On the ensuing Xavier possession, quarterback Mike Scherer also fought his way into the end zone on third down to tie the game at 27. Andrew Verre, one of the state’s best kickers, drilled the extra point to set off a wild celebration at Ken Strong Stadium as Xavier edged Shelton 28-27 to win its fourth state championship in the last five seasons.
“We talked right before that,” Marinan said. “‘Should we let them score so we have a little time on the clock when we get the ball back?’ I didn’t say yes, thankfully. The kids made me look like a genius because we got the ball on the next play and the rest is history.”
Fourth-seeded Xavier finishes 9-3 while second-seeded Shelton’s magical season ends at 12-1.
“We made some adjustments at halftime on both sides of the ball,” Shelton coach Jeff Roy said. “I thought we had the game there in the second half, but unfortunately we didn’t get it.”
This state championship may be the most improbable in program history for Xavier. A loss to Shelton on Nov. 7 was the Falcons’ third straight and, even after a comeback win over Fairfield Prep the following week, their postseason hopes were questionable at best. Xavier didn’t play on Thanksgiving and had three full weeks off before its semifinal game against top-seeded and unbeaten Newtown.
“We were preparing like we were going to get in,” Marinan said. “We had a special JV game in there, so we put a lot of effort into that. It was getting to be a chore when we got to Monday and Tuesday, they were probably thinking, ‘It’s cold. Why am I here?’ Then (other) Thanksgiving (results) just went our way (and we qualified for the playoffs). Then we had a purpose.”
It was a crushing loss for Shelton, which overcame a sluggish start and had eyes on its first state title since 2003. Piccirillo threw for 233 yards and three touchdowns and added 141 rushing yards to complete a remarkable senior season and high school career. But he committed three turnovers.
“They played as hard as they could play. We played as hard as we could play,” Piccirillo said. “We lost by an extra point. A few breaks didn’t go our way. That’s it, I guess.”
Xavier, which struggled at times offensively this season, came right at Shelton. The Falcons ran the ball 15 straight times between the tackles to start the game and Glenn Cunningham scored two touchdowns. Cunningham ran for 114 yards in the first quarter alone, finishing with 162 yards on a career-high 28 carries.
“I really don’t know what I was expecting,” Cunningham said. “We came through with the win. I have a great line and I just ran behind them.”
After Cunningham’s second touchdown put Xavier ahead 14-6 with 1:39 left in the first quarter, Shelton’s defense stiffened and Xavier didn’t get another first down until the last play of the third quarter.
By then, it appeared Shelton had taken command. Chris Kanios — involved in many of Shelton’s biggest plays this season — took a punt on a bounce, eluded one tackler and raced past the rest for a 74-yard touchdown early in the third quarter. Kanios ran in the conversion to tie the game at 14.
Shelton took its first lead of the night when Piccirillo’s play-action fooled Xavier and led to a 53-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Robinson to make it 21-14 with 39 seconds left in the third.
But Xavier wasn’t quite ready to lay down, embarking on a 13-play, 65-yard drive that featured two fourth-down conversions on Shelton penalties before Scherer scored from 3 yards out to tie the game at 21 with 6:21 left.
On the second fourth-down conversion, Scherer was brought down well short of a first down, but was done so via his facemask, giving the Falcons another chance.
After the teams traded punts, Shelton drove from its own 24 to the Xavier 1 in less than a minute. On 1st-and-goal from inches away, with the Gaels ready to celebrate, Piccirillo fumbled and Xavier recovered in the end zone.
“You never know in high school football what’s going to happen,” Roy said. “It was a great high school football game. Both teams fought. Two great programs, and unfortunately we came up one point short.”
Scherer threw for just 17 yards on 3-of-7 passing and Shelton outgained Xavier 399-312. But in the end, it was the Falcons winning another state title.
“This is very satisfying to come back here and play to the potential these kids have,” Marinan said. “Those losses, even in the first Shelton game, we didn’t play well. We turned the ball over four times. Against Notre Dame, we had two pick-6s. We didn’t play well. It’s nice to come back and avenge that and put that to bed.”
Chris Kanios added a 74-yard punt return early in the second half for the Gaels which tied the game early in the third quarter. A Piccirillo to Kevin Robinson 53-yard score gave Shelton a 21-14 lead after three quarters, but Scherer’s 3-yard run capped a long Xavier drive to tie the game midway through the fourth quarter.
Xavier 28, Shelton 27
|Class LL-Small Final||1||2||3||4||OT||F|
X—Glenn Cunningham 9 run (Andrew Verre kick)
S—Shane Corcoran 65 pass from Mark Piccirillo (kick blocked)
X—Glenn Cunningham 1 run (Verre kick)
S—Chris Kanios 74 punt ret (Kanios run)
S—Kevin Robinson 53 pass from Mark Piccirillo (Joseph Zoppi kick)
X—Michael Scherer 3 run (Verre kick)
S—Alex Kirk 11 pass from Mark Piccirillo (kick blocked)
X—Michael Scherer 5 run (Verre kick)
Team records: Shelton 12-1; Xavier 9-3
RUSHING: Xavier – Glenn Cunningham 28-162, Michael Scherer 20-91, Colin McCarthy 1-19, Ted Duarte 1- minus 1. Shelton – Mark Piccirillo 25-141, Alex Kirk 3-20, Chris Kanios 1-4, Troy Vasilescu 2-1, Sam Kirk 1- minus 4.
PASSING: Xavier – Scherer 5-12-0, 41 yards. Shelton – Piccirillo 8-17-2 233 yards.
RECEIVING: Xavier- McCarthy 1-19, Ricky Murphy 1-12, Cunningham 1-6. Shelton – Kanios 2-66, A. Kirk 4-47, Kevin Robinson 1-53, Shane Corcoran 1-65.