February 21, 2018

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.