NEW BRITAIN - This year’s Class M state championship football game features two teams on different sides of history.
Third-seeded Killingly is looking for its second state title in three years and is playing in its fifth consecutive state tournament, while fifth-seeded Weston is in pursuit of its first state championship after reaching the postseason for the first time since 2012.
“I think it would be special for our program,” Killingly head coach Chad Neal said. “When we won in 2017 that group had really worked hard and for this group come back after last year I think it would be very special for our program and community.”
With 19 players still on the team from Killingly’s last championship it’s more than aware of the atmosphere the team is entering Saturday morning at Veterans Stadium in New Britain. One of the keys for the Trojans will be to remain as focused as possible on the task ahead of them and not let the circumstances overwhelm them ahead of the 11 a.m. kickoff.
“[Winning] would be great,” Weston head coach Dan Hassett said. “It would be great for these kids, it would be great for our program, it would be great for the town. But at the end of the day, it’s a football game and we need to go and play [it] as a football game and not make it bigger than the moment, although the moment would potentially be historical for our town. We’re just going to go out there and do our best in the football game.”
Both teams enter Saturday’s game with 11-1 records and a pair of assertive wins in the 2019 postseason. The Trojans open the tournament with a 49-6 win over Abbott Tech, which they followed by blanking top-seeded Rockville 37-0. After a 28-0 win over New Fairfield in the quarterfinals, Killingly earned its spot in the championship game by besting Waterford 35-7.
“Right now we’re just trying to focus on going 1-0 each week and we’ve been doing that since the end of August,” Hassett said. “[We had a] quick turn-around. Killingly is a great program, they have a lot to be concerned about so we’ll be getting after that. The time for meaningful reflection on the season is still a couple of weeks away.”
Weston is led under center by senior James Goetz who completed 53 percent of his passes for 936 yards and 13 touchdowns and ran for 564 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games this season. He missed Weston’s other four games with an injury and senior wide receiver Brendan Sawyer filled in.
“It showed the mental toughness of this team because going into the season, no one expected James to get hurt like that and miss like half the season,” senior Jack Sawyer said. “We prepared fantastically those few weeks, which allowed us to still have success in his absence.”
The Sawyer twins and senior running back Tyler Bower complete the Trojan’s top playmakers on offense. Jack leads the team with 36 receptions for 832 and 11 touchdowns and Bower has gained 886 yards on the ground with 11 touchdowns. Brendan, meanwhile, has 747 rushing yards and 11 scores of his own to go with 179 receiving yards and three scores.
“We had the opportunity to go see them on Thanksgiving in person so we’ve seen that and have some film on them,” Neal said. “Goetz at quarterback is just a tremendous athlete throwing and running, the [running] back runs like a fullback and they have a lot of team speed and they’re well coached and could cause a lot of problems for us.”
Killingly’s offensive attack is even more run-focused than Weston’s and is led by sophomore Jack Sharpe who has carried the ball for 1,721 yards this year and 13 touchdowns. He was not around for Killingly’s championship two years ago, but has every intention of making sure he’s able to hoist the trophy up on Saturday.
“It would be amazing,” Sharpe said. “I wasn’t on the team [in 2017] but I talked the kids that were on the team and it’s an amazing feeling they said and I want to be a part of it.”
Sharpe will draw the eyes of all 11 Weston defenders every time he lines up, but Neal isn’t too worried about young star’s production.
“I think we’re going to have to feed him the rock and keep pounding them and be physical with them,” Neal said. “He has to come to play and he’s arrived each week and shown that he can play even as a sophomore.”
Killingly senior Jackson Lopes actually enters this game with one more rushing touchdown than Sharpe and will look to serve as a useful counterpoint to the 1000-yard rusher. Despite not seeing much playing time two years ago, he is a state champion who gained plenty of experience from 2017 title run. This season, the senior is completing 57.8 percent of his passes for 962 yards and 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions. He’s rushed for 633 yards as well.
“I definitely learned a lot of leadership skills from that 2017 class,” Lopes said. “They showed us the formula and we’ve been trying to repeat that since.”
These teams only faced one mutual opponent this year and not much can be learned from it as Weston opened its season with a 55-7 win over Brookfield who also fell to Killingly 49-7 Oct. 25.
“The emphasis for our team is to be us,” Hassett said. “The stuff that we’ve been doing decently that got us here, we’re going to try and keep doing that. I think you don’t want to get to this point in the season and try to change your identity so I’ve been telling the kids, ‘just be you.’”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org