NEW BRITAIN - Defense took precedent in the Class L football state championship game between top-seeded St. Joseph and second-seeded Daniel Hand.
And it led to the Cadets capturing their third state championship in their third different class in three seasons.
Only 30 points were scored between two teams averaging 46 points per game or better as St. Joseph came out on top 17-13 at Veterans Stadium on Saturday in a matchup that lived up to the season-long hype. Daniel Hand, the state’s No. 1 ranked team all season, was also going for its third straight state title.
“Our defense has been lights out all year long and they had a tall task today,” said Cadets head coach Joe Dellavecchia, whose team won the Class M championship last season and Class S in 2017. “Hand has a lot of weapons and they’re big and physical and we matched it.”
St. Joseph’s defense needed to be. The Cadets turned the ball over four times, the Tigers once. But St. Joseph (13-0) capitalized on Daniel Hand’s one mistake early in the second quarter, while the Tigers were unable to turn any of the Cadets’ into points of their own.
So it was only fitting St. Joseph’s defense provided the first points of the game when Preston Kral intercepted a Phoenix Billings’ pass on the right sideline and returned it 41 yards for the touchdown with 11:04 left in the second quarter.
“We’ve been working on that all [week],” Dellavecchia said. “They like to throw that little flood and Preston came down nice on it and jumped it. We’ve been waiting for him to do that for a while.”
“Once I saw the formation my coaches called me out and everything fell into place,” Kral said.
Billings finished the game completing 14 of his 24 passes for 124 yards and one touchdown. He also had a fourth-quarter touchdown run with 37 seconds remaining in the game as the Tigers were were held to fewer than 20 points for the first time this season. They close their dominant season playing in a game decided by one possession for only the second time.
The game was tied at 7-7 heading into the second half after Daniel Hand (12-1) was given a short field and scored with 37 seconds before halftime when a screen pass from Billings to Isaiah McNeilly went for a 6-yard score. McNeilly’s touchdown was set up by a 26-yard catch from Haberman, who was one of the bright spots for the Tigers offensively.
Haberman finished with 100 yards receiving, almost half of Daniel Hands’ 216 yards of total offense, a drastic decrease from its’ 319.8 ypg coming into the matchup. The Cadets, meanwhile, finished with 314 yards of total offense, including 91 receiving yards from Brady Hutchison. His quarterback and CT Gatorade Player of the Year, Jack Wallace, completed 13-of-21 passes for 154 yards with an interception.
Austin Jose scored the only points of the third quarter and gave the Cadets a 10-7 lead in with a 37-yard field goal. But with their defense playing so well, they spent the majority of the second half running the ball to kill time.
“We felt towards the end of the first half they were wearing down a little bit so we were just going to pound it with [Jaden Shirden],” Dellavecchia. “[He] said at halftime ‘just feed me the ball’ and our offensive line worked great together. They picked up every scheme they had for the whole contest.”
Shirden, who came into the championship game with 11 touchdowns in the playoffs alone and 33 rushing scores on the season, ran for 179 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown to seal the game in the fourth quarter, on 32 carries.
“The [offensive] line did their jobs today,” Shirden said. “I told them just give me a little crease and I’ll do the rest and that’s what I did.”
Daniel Hand did not stop fighting though. After a penalty made it 4th-and-27 at the Tigers’ own 48-yard-line, Billings threw a deep pass down the right sideline that was tipped by a defender and caught by wide receiver Seth Sweitzer for a 46-yard gain. Billings did the rest of the work himself and scored two plays later.
St. Joseph recovered Daniel Hand’s onside kick and the game was over.
“They’re a great football team,” Tigers head coach David Mastroianni said of St. Joseph. “I just hope our kids go back and look and I can guarantee they left nothing on the field. They made more plays than we did.”
No. 2 St. Joseph 17, No. 1 Daniel Hand 13
At Veterans Stadium, Class L Championship
St. Joseph (13-0) 0 7 3 7 - 17
Daniel Hand (12-1) 0 7 0 6 - 13
S-Preston Kral 41 interception return (Jose Aldo kick), 11:04
H-Isaiah McNeilly 6 pass from Phoenix Billings (McNeilly kick), 0:31
S-Aldo 38 field goal, 6:26
S-Jaden Shirden 15 run (Aldo kick), 4:47
H-Billings 1 run (kick blocked), 0:37
Rushing-Hand: Colin McCabe 19-59, Phoenix Billings 10-2, Jesse Lutz 3-1. St. Joseph: Jaden Shirden 32-179, Jack Wallace 2-9-(-19).
Passing-Hand: Billings 14-24-167-TD-INT. St. Joseph: Jack Wallace 13-21-154-INT.
Receiving-Hand: Ethan Haberman 6-100, Isaiah McNeilly 4-25, Jesse Lutz 2-2, Seth Sweitzer 1-46, Colin McCabe 1-4. St. Joseph: Brady Hutchison 6-91, Will Diamantis 5-51, Jaden Shirden 2-8.