West Haven (3-1) at No. 3 Hand (4-0), Friday, 7 p.m.
It was last winter, when Jordan Berrios was working out with his teammates in the West Haven weight room, when he got the news from the coaching staff: He was going to start at quarterback for the upcoming high school football season.
Berrios was… a bit taken back.
“I was like, ‘What? I’ve never played quarterback a day in my life.'”
The West Haven coaching staff was unmoved. The Westies had just said farewell to New Haven Register State Player of the Year Kyle Godfrey and all-stater Chris Chance, in addition to starting quarterback Jake Conlan and many other contributors from last year’s 9-3 Class LL semifinal run, and the coaching staff was planning on mixing up its traditional Wing-T attack with spread formation elements in an attempt to cater to the returning personnel.
Sure, Berrios was a mere at 5-foot-9, 168 pounds, but West Haven coach Rich Boshea believed his would-be junior could handle the responsibility.
“Jordan’s a smart kid, he’s an honors student, so I knew he would be smart enough to learn the quarterback position,” Boshea said on the eve of West Haven’s showdown against No. 3 Hand at the Surf Club Friday night.
“He’s a very good athlete. He’s sneaky fast. He has a pretty good arm. In my opinion, he was a great leader and a quarterback always has to be a good leader and a smart kid, so he filled that job requirement.”
Still, Berrios says he remained apprehensive.
“I talked to coaches a lot. I’d be like ‘Do you really want me doing this?’ And they were like, ‘Yea, we think you’re smart enough,'” he said. “I just took it, went along with it, and obviously I’m doing alright. I’m just going with the flow.”
The offense continues to be a work-in-progress. Berrios and the new-look Westies dropped their first game of the year, 20-19 at home vs. North Haven. Though West Haven’s offense struggled with consistency, Berrios did throw a 12-yard scoring pass to Demerick Blackford for a 19-12 lead at halftime.
West Haven was shut out in the second half, however, including on four downs at the North Haven 1 with 3 minutes remaining.
“We lost so many guys from last year that basically everybody was a new starter,” Boshea said. “We have nine new starters on offense, almost everybody is new on defense. Everybody’s still learning and trying to understand where they’re going and their position and what the rules are. So, it’s been a little bit of a rocky start.”
Since then, West Haven followed with three straight victories — albeit against teams that are currently 4-8 — and are now champing at the bit to make amends.
“We’re 3-1 and we’re pretty happy with that,” Boshea said. “We lost to a pretty good North Haven team and now we’re playing a really good Hand team. We have a huge mountain to climb, that’s for sure.”
The two programs have had their battles over the years. West Haven leads the all-time series 11-9-1, one of the few programs with an all-time winning record vs. the Tigers.
A Supreme Challenge
A key matchup is how West Haven’s young and undersized offensive line, personified by senior Joe Manning, West Haven’s 5-foot-9, 250-pound center who is affectionately called ‘Stump’ by his teammates and coaches, against Hand’s vaunted defensive front of Jack Flanagan, Macken McDonald and Ben Corniello — who average 6-foot-2, 240-pounds across.
Led by that front, Hand’s defense — which recently welcomed back top linebacker Kevin Girardi from injury — has smothered opponents under 13 sacks and more than 30 tackles for a loss.
Boshea says his line, which also features senior, 5-10, 250-pound Gavin Moore, has continued to improve and jell as a unit, helping give new backs Tylen Jennette, Justin Medina and Jaden Grant room to run.
“It’ll obviously have a huge test Friday night,” he said. “Hand’s got a great defensive line and we’ll see what happens.”
West Haven relishes its lunch-pail mentality. Yes, the superstars of yesteryear are gone. But that seems to have pushed this group to work harder.
The linemen won Berlin’s annual lineman challenge over the summer, swiping the title away from three-time defending Class LL champion Darien, a testament to the team’s work ethic.
“We’re all about working hard and keep grinding,” said Manning, a co-captain along with Jennette and Moore. “The last couple of years we’ve had explosive athletes. I’m not saying we don’t have explosive athletes (now), but last year we had Kyle Godfrey, who was an all-state player. We’ve got good guys, but we have to keep working, working our way down the field.”
“We have a lot of kids that work harder,” Berrios said. “Not just the older classmen, but the younger classmen too. It’s a team effort. Last year we had a couple players who could make a play and others could slack off. This year, everybody has got to work hard.”
Plenty of Motivation
This is also a group playing with a chip on its shoulder. West Haven finished ranked No. 5 in last year’s final Top 10 poll, and barely got more than a sniff when the season began.
“They ranked us low from the jump because we lost a couple key players,” Berrios said. “But now we’re coming back hard. It’s a big game coming up. We’ve got to beat Hand, put our name back on the map.”
They also know they’ll be going up against an equally (if not more so) jilted Hand team.
Though ranked No. 3 and dominating all comers so far with a quick strike offense led by junior quarterback Phoenix Billings (531 yards, 7 TDs, 2 INT passing) and emerging junior back Collin McCabe (307 yards, 9 TDs rushing), Hand has done so over criticism over their Tier II schedule.
Long a volunteer member of the SCC’s upper division until a couple sub-.500 seasons contributed to a move down to the middle division last season, plays just two crossover games vs. Tier I.
This game is the first.
The other is Cheshire, which is 0-4.
Of Hand’s 10 games, only West Haven holds a winning record. The other nine are a combined 10-26.
The Westies know in what frame of mind their opponents will be when Friday night arrives: Bitter and fired up to make a statement.
“This (game) depends on whether they’re going 10-0 or not,” Berrios said of Hand.
“We have to understand that this is a big, big, big game for them,” Boshea said.
According to Hand coach Dave Mastroianni, West Haven would be correct.
“Our kids aren’t stupid, they all read the comments, they know what people think,” said Mastroianni, whose program is 16-1 with a state title and comes in with a 15-game win streak dating back to a narrow loss to Shelton in Week 2 of last year. “They’re definitely taking it personal this week. We’ve had a great week of practice and that’s because the kids are motivating each other. We didn’t have to say much to them.
“(Friday) is about proving ourselves to ourselves that we are a Top 3 team who should be in the No. 1 conversation. If we don’t show up and lose to West Haven, we don’t belong there.”
West Haven, meanwhile, faces 4-0 Shelton and 3-1 Fairfield Prep among their five remaining games. Another slip up and it could be curtains for state playoff hopes in Class LL.
“We’ve got to make the playoffs,” Berrios said. “We’ve got to beat them and a couple other big teams — Shelton, Xavier, Prep… a lot of big games ahead of us.”
“We’ve always got to keep our best foot forward. No teams a pushover this year. Especially after already losing one, we can’t take anyone for granted this year. We’ve got to keep pushing.”