WALLINGFORD — Lifted into the sky by his jubilant players, St. Thomas More football coach Jason Manson managed to crack a smile, but quickly tried to bring everybody back down to earth.
“It’s only one game,” he said to his kids. “It’s only one game.”
But what a game and what a moment for the new head coach.
Manson had just accomplished what no other had done in 48 games over five years: Beat Choate.
And he did it in his first game.
Led by a smothering defensive effort, and some clutch plays by some new postrgraduates from places as far away as Chicago, California and even Canada, St. Thomas More Prep of Oakdale ended Choate’s 48-game win streak with a 34-9 victory at JJ Maher Field in Wallingford Saturday afternoon.
“It’s great,” said Manson, a former Bloomfield standout who took over for Jeff Moore after a four-year coaching stint at Capital Prep/Achievement first. “It feels awesome it’s great and it’s exactly what we wanted to do. Now, we’ve got the keep them humble and try to get the next win.”
It was Choate’s first loss since a 35-21 setback to Loomis Chaffee, also at home, on November 2, 2013 and the first loss as head coach for L.J. Spinnato, who took over at the start of the 2014 season.
He took the unprecedented experience in stride, especially since Choate graduated a lion’s share of players from last year’s NEPSAC A championship team.
“This was the best thing that could have happened to us,” said Spinnato, now 47-1 as head coach. “In the past I think we might have gotten away with too much because of our talent.
“We didn’t fine-tune little things that we could have and that’s on me. I’ve got to get better and the kids have got to get better. You can’t just expect just because you play at Choate that you’re going to win.”
Led by quarterback Matt Jenner, a postgraduate quarterback from El Dorado, Calif., who threw five touchdowns including two apiece to fellow postgrads Josh McLeod and Alante Brown, St. Thomas More took a two-touchdown lead at halftime and maintained it thanks to the play of its defense.
It was a stark contrast to a year ago, when a star-studded, but undisciplined and poorly conditioned club lost to Choate in the season-opener, 31-6
“Coming in, I didn’t know much about Choate,” said Jenner, who has an offer from Rhode Island. “I knew they were known for being a disciplined football team and they had a long win streak and we were typically known for being undisciplined team and we wanted to change that if we wanted to win. I thought we came together real well in camp and became a disciplined team.”
Spinnato, for one, noticed the difference.
“Kudos to STM,” he said. “Their new coach has got them disciplined, in line, executing plays, not getting penalized. I was impressed with them.”
Jontae Dempsey, a postgrad from Middletown, picked off Choate quarterback Shane Baldwin twice in the first half.
His second interception set STM up at the Choate 28 and Jenner quickly found Hartford’s Naseim Harrison — an all-state receiver from SMSA/University — with a bomb in the corner of the end zone for a 14-0 lead.
An inadvertent snap on fourth down gave STM the ball back at Choate’s 25, but Kaleb Moody picked off Jenner in the end zone to prevent further damage and keep the score at 14-0 heading into halftime.
Moody caught a 40-yard strike from Baldwin to start the second half, pulling Choate within 14-7. But that was the high-watermark of Choate’s offensive production.
STM’s defense — led by Canadians Kenny Mestidor, a three-star linebacker from Ontario, and Lamar Goods, a 6-6, 310-pound tackle from Alberta and committed to Florida — proved to be a brick wall against Choate’s typically tough run game.
Aided by penalties, the Chancellors responded with Jenner’s second hookup with McLeod to make it a two-score game again.
STM then pulled away after wild series that saw a blocked punt by STM, a pickoff at the goal line by Choate’s Harrison Keith, a fumble recovery on the next play by Mestidor and then Jenner’s 10-yard TD pass to Brown.
Though Choate’s Alex Suny returned the blocked extra point all the way back for two points, STM still had a commanding 27-9 lead.
“I could tell that they weren’t as good as last year, but they’ve been winning for a while now,” Manson said of Choate. “We knew that we had to be disciplined and we had to be physical and then we’d have to execute for the whole for quarters in order for us to come out top.
“The kids were focused. They all want to win. They’re all hungry to be successful and they understand that, not just working hard, but they have to be smart in what we do.”
Brown put the dagger in the Wild Boars with his 7-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. A four-star receiver, Brown decommitted from Texas Tech and came to Oakdale to work on his grades. He has 28 offers — Missouri is the frontrunner, he said — and showed the crowd why when he hurdled a defender on a sweep to set up STM’s first touchdown.
“Me and people from everywhere came in (as postgrads) and everybody who was here kept talking about Choate, Choate, Choate. How it was last year and how (Choate’s) a winning program and a really big team,” Brown said. “It brought us together as a team and, we’re excited. As you can see.”
As the clock wound down, the STM players doused Manson with a bucket of ice water and swarmed him with hugs. The significance of this win was not lost on them — their new coach gave them the program a landmark victory.
“Obviously, any player would be concerned,” Mestidor said. “But, honestly, as soon as he came in he told us what the energy would be this year. It was to dominate and be disciplined and go out there and kick some butt on the field.”
As for Choate, it was time to face facts and get back to work.
“We knew that this year was going to be tough with all our new players and the young kids that had to step up,” Spinnato said. “Now we’ve got a dose of reality and our kids have got to respond. I believe they will. They’re a great group of kids.”