CHESHIRE - The Southington football team’s Thanksgiving was a bittersweet one.
On one hand, the 20th-ranked Blue Knights celebrated with the Apple Valley Classic Trophy for the sixth straight time, beating rival Cheshire 30-22 Thursday morning.
On the other, Southington (8-2) missed the postseason for the first time since 2011, losing out on the final spot in Class LL to Fairfield Prep by just 20 points.
“I’ve never been around a group of kids I’ve cared about more in my entire life,” said Blue Knights running back and linebacker Ryan Montalvo, who was named the game’s overall MVP. “I’m proud of all of them. It’s overwhelming Fairfield Prep won. But it happens to everybody. It just sucks.”
But it was not the Blue Knights’ passing game that won them the trophy. Instead, Southington relied on an old-school brand of football driven by the running game, the defense and special teams.
Montalvo ran for a career-high 175 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, the defense intercepted Cheshire quarterback Jake Raba three times and Evan Johanns kicked three first-quarter field goals (20, 35 and 30 yards) which ended up proving to be the difference.
“It’s always a tough out against these guys on Thanksgiving,” Blue Knights head coach Mike Drury said. “We knew it was going to be a battle. We made sure we capitalized on any mistakes they had and we were able to move the ball down the field and score. You see how important those field goals are in those situations.”
The Rams’ Cole Escoto and Southington receiver Jamie Lamson each found the end zone - Escoto a 1-yard run, while Lamson caught a 7-yard pass from Will Barmore - in the second quarter to keep the game close. Yet it was Montalvo’s touchdown run with 3:23 left in the third quarter that looked to break the game open. The tailback ran untouched through the middle of Cheshire’s defense for the 28-yard score to cap off a 10-play drive.
Southington defensive back Matt Thompson then intercepted Raba three plays later and returned it 25 yards for the touchdown to make the game 30-14. It was the second of Raba’s three interceptions and helped the junior win Southington’s defensive player of the game trophy.
Anthony Vecchio picked off the signal caller in the first quarter, while Shaun Wagner intercepted a pass in the end zone to prevent the Rams from scoring late in the fourth.
Raba finished his day just 14-of-44 for 218 yards and one rushing touchdown, which had cut the Knights lead to 16-14 midway through the third before Montalvo’s run.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the younger guys on the team,” Thompson said of the defensive performance. “Every day we go into practice, they’re running the scout O, they’re running real hard, diving for balls. It’s almost like a game scenario and it gets us prepared. It’s what enables us to perform like we did today.”
But three plays after the Wagner pick, Montalvo fumbled and Cheshire decided to make the ending interesting. It was the last of four fumbles for Southington.
Raba connected with receiver Michael Jeffery for a 16-yard touchdown and then threw a two-point conversion to Eric Angelone to make it a one-possession game with just 39 seconds left. Jeffery caught a game-high 10 passes for 153 yards. Jimmy Ringrose led the Blue Knights with three catches for 75 yards.
The Rams, though, failed on their onside kick attempt, allowing Southington to take a knee to run out the clock for the final time this season.
“It’s hard to put [this season] into words,” said Barmore, who ended the final game of his high school career completing 15 of 29 passes for 181 yards. “It’s been a great learning experience. You learn a lot about life and football in the four years playing for this team because it teaches you a lot of things you thought you’d never learn. It’s definitely a bummer we couldn’t get in the playoffs. But our season was in our own hands. We lost two tough ones, but it was a lot of fun, a great learning experience.”