August 16, 2017

Sweet Victories and Happy Memories

For the casual football fan, Thanksgiving Day is an opportunity to watch the Lions and Cowboys – preferably over dinner – and spend some down time with the ones you love.

My Thanksgiving for the last several years has begun at Andrus Field, the oldest continuously used football field in the United States, with several thousand people.

Corwin Stadium at Andrus Field in the heart of Middletown, Connecticut has been the one and only playing field for the Wesleyan University football team since the 1880s. Surrounded by academic buildings both modern and historic in the center of the campus, it has become the Thanksgiving meeting place for high school football zealots eager to see the city’s crosstown rivalry, the Middletown Blue Dragons vs. the Xavier Falcons.

This year’s contest produced more than 5,000 spectators for the 10 a.m. contest, the results of which, to my satisfaction, were the same as last year: the Falcons rolled to a decisive 48-6 victory. The win capped the second consecutive undefeated season for Xavier (10-0) and secured the top playoff seeding in defense of its Class LL (Connecticut’s largest high schools) state championship.

Throughout the season the Falcons had narrowly enjoyed the number one ranking in the state polls. Despite having won 23 straight games at this point, Xavier was still just a vote or two away from being supplanted by the Masuk Panthers of Monroe, quarterbacked by Connecticut’s two-time Gatorade player of the year, Casey Cochran. The players knew they had targets on their backs. Every opposing team and player was “up” for the match against them, wanting the prize of knocking off the state’s best team.

The Falcons were by no means a group of no names, but the team’s strength was in its unity. With 20 seniors, the group had formed a bond – an interdependence and trust – that produced confidence and incredible sense of purpose.

The defensive squad, particularly, had a synergy that made it a dominant force, allowing an average of just eight points per game throughout the season. The blitz-oriented scheme not only was stingy in surrendering points, but also resulted in frequent tackles in the backfield. Resulting field position gave the Falcons run-first offense frequent opportunity to find paydirt.

The following Tuesday, the Xavier squad beat the eighth-seeded Glastonbury Tomahawks 34-6, holding them scoreless until the fourth quarter. Four days later, in the semifinal game, the Falcons trailed for the first time this year, 7-6 against Norwalk. They recaptured the lead just three plays later and didn’t look back, beating the Bears 55-14. Masuk’s season came to an end however, losing to Hand High School of Madison.

Saturday, December 10, brought the sublime: the state finals against the Staples Wreckers of Westport. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state’s governing body for high school sports competition, had wisely secured Rentschler Field (home of the UConn Huskies) for its championship games. In the state’s premiere football stadium, the Falcons triumphed 42-7, defending their title and securing the unanimous number one ranking. To add to the sweetness of the championship, Xavier’s resounding defeat of previously undefeated Staples was a bit of vindication too. Staples was the last team to beat the Falcons, in the 2009 semifinals.

The undefeated streak now stands at 26 games.

Xavier will bid farewell to its 20 seniors, but will send with them fond memories of two undefeated seasons and consecutive state titles. Of more enduring value however, will be the bonds of friendship and the sense of confidence in staring down adversity.

The experience of playing sports in high school offers little in comparison. Developing personal skills, practicing teamwork and devising strategies to succeed and advance are cemented. The Xavier players have all this, and an abiding sense of accomplishment too.

Ansonia Captures CIAC Class M Championship Over Ledyard

The 2011 Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) Class M Football Championship featured a match-up of two of Connecticut’s most storied football programs. Ansonia was making its state record 25th appearance in a championship game and was looking to add to their record for most championships won (16). Ledyard was appearing in its 10th championship game and has won four state football championships. Both teams last won a championship game in 2007. This year’s championship berth is Ansonia’s fifth in the last six years, and Ledyard is making their first appearance since they lost to Brookfield in 2008, head coach Jim Buonocore, Jr.’s first season at Ledyard.

Buonocore (4th year, 35-10 record) had been the head coach at Stonington and Fitch before taking over at Ledyard when Bill Mignault retired in 2008 with a state record 321 wins, 10 Eastern Connecticut Conference championships and four state championships. Mignault was inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame in 1991.

Ansonia head coach Tom Brockett (6th year, 70-7 record) has lead Ansonia to four Class S state championships games in his first five seasons, winning the title game twice (2006 and 2007).

Today’s game was expected to be a ground war between two teams that feature record setting running backs. Ledyard senior Alex Manwaring broke the ECC single-season rushing record this season with 2,435 yards (and counting) and his 317 yards against Bacon Academy broke the Ledyard single-game record of 301 yards (set by Tim Curtis vs. Stonington in 1976) which led to him being featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces In The Crowd“.

Ansonia’s Arkeel Newsome (5-6, 150 pounds) had rushed for 3,399 yards this season and needed at least 198 yards to break the state’s single-season record, set in 2007 by former Ansonia running back Alex Thomas. He also broke the previous single-season state scoring record of 294 points, set by Tim Washington of Bristol Central in 2000, with 370 points so far this season.

Ansonia had allowed less than 12 points per game before today’s game and scored an average of 45 points. They defeated #8 seed Bethel and #4 seed Berlin in the first two playoff rounds by a combined score of 83-20. Ledyard’s two first round wins over #6 Waterford and #7 Wolcott were both shutouts (combined score 61-0).

On paper, it looked like the Colonels were going to need everything to go its way if they were to beat the Chargers. Buonocore felt that they would need to limit the Chargers to fewer than 50 offensive plays and control the clock.

Ledyard won the coin toss and elected to receive. Ansonia chose to kick with the wind at their backs. Ledyard’s first drive was brief – starting from their 24-yard line, they attempted three plays for five yards and had to punt after two minutes. Ansonia made their game plan clear when, after returning the punt 15 yards to the Ledyard 46, they ran the ball eight times and seven of them were carried by Newsome, including a 13-yard run for the first points of the game. The score was 6-0 after a failed extra point attempt.

Ledyard’s next drive started at their 30 and again they weren’t able to do much against Ansonia’s defense. They ran the ball three times for seven yards and punted. Ansonia took the kickoff to their 34-yard line and then put together an impressive drive down to the Ledyard 10. Ansonia seemed to be in total control of the game at that point but the Colonel’s defense rose to the occasion. Two Newsome runs for a net of zero yards with an incomplete pass in between left Ansonia facing a 4th and goal from the 10-yard line. The swirling wind on the field probably played a part in their decision not to attempt a field goal and they instead ran a pass play that fell incomplete. The first quarter ended shortly thereafter with the score Ansonia 6, Ledyard 0.

The 2nd quarter was more of the same for Ledyard. They moved the ball just one yard on three plays and once again had to punt. Newsome fielded the 35-yard punt and returned it 32 yards to the Ledyard 29. The four play drive was capped with a 7-yard pass from Elliott Chudwick to Roeshaun Finney. After a failed 2-point conversion, Ansonia led 12-0.

Ledyard’s offense finally started to show some life with nine minutes left in the half. They strung together eight plays and two first downs with some help from a 15-yard pass interference penalty against Ansonia but the drive stalled at the Ansonia 47. Shane Baxley’s punt was downed at Ansonia’s 1-yard line. Ansonia once again seemed to have no trouble moving the ball, using six plays to get the ball out to the 32. Then Ledyard’s Joshua Lawrence forced a fumble that was recovered by Cal Williams on the Ansonia 28, giving Ledyard it’s first shot at the red zone. After an incomplete pass, Ledyard’s John Rainey was intercepted by Miky Mason who returned it 11 yards to the Ansonia 38. Ledyard’s defense held Ansonia to three plays and a punt with 32 seconds left in the half.

Given Ansonia’s dominance in the first half, Ledyard had to feel lucky to be down only 12 points at halftime. If they could get some points on the scoreboard quickly in the 3rd quarter, they’d be right back in the game. They forced Ansonia to punt after three yards on three plays on the first drive of the 2nd half and got the ball back on their own 29-yard line. Instead of seizing the moment, Ledyard ran three plays and lost 20 yards, forcing them to punt from their own 9-yard line. Baxley’s 44-yard punt was returned by Newsome 16 yards to the Ledyard 37. Ansonia found its rhythm again and moved down to the Ledyard 10 on seven plays, but Matt Daggett intercepted Chudwick’s pass to end the drive. Ledyard, still unable to find a weakness in the Ansonia defense, ran three plays for a gain of two yards and punted the ball back to Ansonia, landing out of bounds at the Ansonia 43. With three minutes left in the 3rd quarter, Ledyard was still in the game somehow. Ansonia took the ball 57 yards in six plays, capping the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Chudwick to Andrew Matos. The 2-point conversion attempt was thwarted and the 3rd quarter ended with Ansonia leading 18-0.

Ledyard had some success on their next drive, but it stalled after six plays at midfield. Ledyard, sensing they were running out of opportunities, tried a pass play on 4th down needing five yards for a first down. The pass fell incomplete and Ansonia took over on downs. Newsome gained two yards on 1st down, and then sealed the game with a 50-yard dash for Ansonia’s fourth touchdown of the day. Once again, Ansonia failed on a 2-point conversion attempt. After another drive of three plays and a punt, Ansonia scored again using five rushes by Newsome and a 6-yard rushing touchdown by Tyler Lester. With a successful point after attempt, the score was 31-0. On Ledyard’s next possession, a 43-yard run by Alex Manwaring finally got Ledyard inside of the Ansonia 20 for the first time of the day but three plays later they were forced to go for it on 4th and 3. Rainey’s pass to Baxley was just out of reach at the 1-yard line.

Ansonia had one more highlight left in them. Taking over at their own 5-yard line, Newsome took the handoff and raced 95 yards down the field for the final score of the game. Another extra point put the score at 38-0. With the outcome of the game long decided, Ledyard got one more nice run from Manwaring, 42 yards to the Ansonia 38. Ledyard’s final play of the game was a 1-yard loss.

Ansonia was 9 of 16 on 3rd and 4th down conversions, while Ledyard was 2 of 13. Ansonia scored on four of their five chances in the red zone and out-rushed Ledyard 405-166.

Ledyard’s Alex Manwaring rushed for 116 yards on 23 carries for the Colonels, but 85 of those yards came on two caries in the 4th quarter when there was no doubt who would win the game. Dallas Smith led Ledyard with 12 tackles and Matt Daggett had 10 tackles and an interception. Ledyard finished their season with an 11-2 record. They have most of their starters returning next season and they should be contenders again next year.

Ansonia’s Arkeel Newsome had 193 of his 364 yards in the 4th quarter. He set state records for single season rushing yardage (3,763), rushing touchdowns (58) and total touchdowns (62) as well as setting the record for points in a season (388). Ryan O’Connor led Ansonia with nine tackles and Tyler Wood had seven tackles. Ansonia becomes the first team in the state to finish a season 14-0. Look for Ansonia to be back in the championship game the next couple of years as Newsome is only a sophomore.