SOUTHINGTON - The Apple Valley Classic between the Southington and Cheshire football teams always lends itself to be an important matchup.
But today’s Thanksgiving Day game has higher-than-usual stakes involved for the 20th-ranked Blue Knights (7-2), who find themselves in an unfamiliar position of having to fight for a Class LL playoff spot.
“It’s more of a ride or die situation,” Southington running back and linebacker Ryan Montalvo said. “If we lose, we’re done and I know that almost every single senior who has played the last four years and put everything we’ve had into it, so that’s not even an option. If anything, it pushes us even more.”
The Blue Knights are amongst four teams (East Hartford, themselves, Fairfield Prep and the Rams) vying for the final two spots. Southington currently sits at No. 8 with the Hornets ranked right ahead, followed by Jesuits at No. 9 and Cheshire (6-3) holding on to the 10 spot.
That’s what makes this Apple Valley Classic that much more important, where the winner will eliminate the loser from the postseason race. But it is not a given the Apple Valley Classic winner will even qualify with Fairfield Prep (7-2) taking on No. 5 West Haven (8-1).
The Blue Knights will head to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year if both the Rams and Jesuits lose. Should both Southington and Fairfield Prep win, the Blue Knights might be able to get by on bonus points, but can only afford to have the Jesuits finish with 10 more.
Cheshire, meanwhile, needs both a win on Thanksgiving Day and a Fairfield Prep loss to even qualify. Should the Rams and the Jesuits win, Cheshire is out.
And while the Blue Knights rather not find themselves in this position, they are certainly not shying away from it either.
“It’s kind of fun having our backs against the wall to be honest,” Southington quarterback Will Barmore said. “I like the intensity we’re practicing with. Everyone knows what’s at stake. It’s more than just beating Cheshire this time.
“We have a few goals to start the year, win the conference, beat Cheshire, make the playoffs and win the championship and we accomplished one of those goals and we’re on to the next one. I have a lot of faith in my guys.”
It should help that for the second time this year, the Blue Knights will be heading into a game following an off week, meaning the team should be close to full strength for this point of the season as well as giving it the opportunity to fine tune some technical things that plagued Southington in its loss to South Windsor. The last time the Blue Knights played after a bye week, they went on to beat New Britain 42-20.
It also can’t hurt Southington hasn’t lost the Apple Valley Classic since 2011.
“It’s always helpful having a good bye week,” head coach Mike Drury said. “Getting extra time to prepare for Cheshire and getting some guys back, that’s always good for everyone at this time of the year.”
Defensively, the Blue Knights will have to contend with another run-heavy offense. The Rams have run the ball 242 times this season compared to 176 pass attempts, but some of that has been to the absence of quarterback Jake Raba, who missed some time with a broken collarbone, allowing Will Graikoski to see the field. As always, Drury has his team prepared for both.
Still, there have been times where Cheshire has struggled to score this season. The Rams come in averaging 24.0 points per game, having scored 30 or more points three times - 35 in Week 2 against NFA (5-4), 38 at Jonathan Law (5-4) in Week 4 and 35 against Wilbur Cross (6-3) in Week 6 - while being held to 20 points or less three times, where they are 0-3.
Southington, on the other hand, has allowed opponents to average just 12.3 points per game. The Blue Knights have, however, given up slightly more points since their first bye week at 16.8 per game.
“They have two pretty good quarterbacks,” Montavlo said. “[Graikoski] has a better arm, but [Raba] is the better athlete. Whoever, they’re going to play, they’re going to play. We’ve been studying their offense a lot because we don’t want the same thing to happen like these past two times we lost. We’re just looking for a chance to prove ourselves.
“Communication wise, we have to all be on the same page and I think that’s what our whole season is going to come down to. If we’re all on the same page, we’re a phenomenal team, but as soon as somebody gets off on the wrong thing - we saw it against South Windsor - and it hurts the team.”
Around those quarterbacks, Cheshire has a few playmakers. Mike Jeffery (36 catches, 491 yards, 6 touchdowns) and Eric Angelone (22 caches, 336 yards, 2 scores) are the team’s leading receivers and have shown the ability to be effective when given the opportunity. Jake Mcalinden is the Rams’ leading rusher with 679 yards and six touchdowns on 101 carries.
It will be important for Southington to get push with its front seven. The Blue Knights have allowed a team to eclipse the 100-yard mark four times this season with opponents averaging a mere 2.2 yards per carry.
As much as Southington’s defense needs to play well, so too does its offense. The Blue Knights have been held under 30 points twice this season, against East Hartford and South Windsor, both of which happen to be losses. Cheshire’s hybrid 3-4, 4-3 defense, though, has given up 19.7 points per game, which could make putting points on the board a little more challenging than usual.
“I definitely think we need to come out that first drive and set the tone,” Barmore said. “We start out slow sometimes and it’s hard to get in a rhythm after that. I think if in the first drive, we’re airing [the ball] out and pushing it down the field, that’ll help a lot.”
It’ll also help Southington is getting one of its best offensive lineman back in Jake Monson from injury to protect Barmore as well as receiver Will Downes.
But even with what is on the line in today’s game, Drury knows his team can’t worry about the playoff picture just yet. They have to win this game first, meaning the players just have to go out and stick to the game plan put in place.
“I’ve been on both sides of the coin in this game,” Drury said. “I know how much it means and I know our kids our going to go out there and work hard. But they have to understand that it’s just a game and you have to go out there and execute. You can’t make it bigger than what it is, you have to go out there and play hard, physical football for four quarters.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @DavidGlovach
No. 20 Southington at Cheshire
When: Today, 10 a.m.
Where: Cheshire HS
Records: Southington 7-2, Cheshire 6-3
Last Year: Southington 47, Cheshire 20
Breakdown: The Apple Valley Classic between Southington and Cheshire is normally a good matchup just by itself. This season, though, there is more a stake than just bragging rights with both teams fights for one of the two final playoff spots in Class LL. The Blue Knights currently hold the No. 8 spot, while the Rams are at No. 10. The winner of the Apple Valley Classic would automatically eliminate the other, while the winner would need some help in the Fairfield Prep-West Haven game with the Jesuits right behind Southington in the rankings. The Blue Knights will head to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year if both the Rams and Jesuits lose. Should both Southington and Fairfield Prep win, the Blue Knights might be able to get by on bonus points, but can only afford to have the Jesuits finish with 10 more. Cheshire, meanwhile, needs both a win on Thanksgiving Day and a Fairfield Prep loss to even qualify. Should the Rams and Jesuits win, Cheshire is out. In order to come out with a win, Southington is going to needs its defense to get back on track. The Blue Knights have allowed opponents to average just 12.3 points per game, but have given up slightly more sine their first bye week at 16.8 points per game. On offense, it will be a matter of how quickly Southington gets start. Slow starts have tended to hamper the unit in some games this season. The Blue Knights can’t afford that today against a defense giving up less than 20 points per game.
David Glovach’s Prediction: Southington 35, Cheshire 27