Quest complete St. Joseph football top team in state

Brady Hutchison points out a first down after a second-quarter reception for No. 1 St. Joseph.

Brady Hutchison points out a first down after a second-quarter reception for No. 1 St. Joseph.

Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media

St. Joseph didn’t have to play a perfect game to end up with a perfect season — and with it the No. 1 ranking in the GameTimeCT Top 10 poll.

To elevate itself to the top spot for the first time in 37 years, St. Joe’s knocked off Daniel Hand, 17-13, in the Class L championship game at New Britain’s Veteran Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Coach Joe Della Vecchia’s Hogs came into the final as the top seed, with Hand seeded second. St. Joseph was ranked second in the GameTimeCT poll, with the Tigers first.

“It took 50 years to get to this,” Cadet head coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “I’m so happy for my program and for our kids. I’m happy for everyone who has ever been involved in this. Eddie Mc (St. Joe’s Hall of Fame coach Eddie McCarthy) called today said it’s been a long time since 1982, it’s time to be number one again. This is absolutely a phenomenal feeling... I know it will be even greater when it sinks in.

“This group of seniors is a special group They love playing football. They wanted to be number one since the beginning of the year. We were on a mission and they made a believer out of me.”

To finish its quest, St. Joe’s, which has won 23 games in a row, had to overcome four fumbles on a rainy and foggy field against a Hand team that had won 34 games in a row. En route to a 13-0 finish, the Hogs received key contributions from its defense, offense and special teams.

You want defense? How about Preston Kral returning an interception 41 yards for the game’s first touchdown. Or, the Hogs’ holding the Tigers to 62 yards rushing on 32 carries.

“Throughout practice all week, I saw the back would come out,” Kral said. “When I saw it, I jumped it (the route) and took off. Being on the defensive end of the spectrum, to hold a team like Hand is just amazing...We all came together, acted as one unit and I’m so proud of how well we played.”

“Our front seven can play physical and play fast,” said Cadets senior captain Michael Morrissey, who hit Hand quarterback Phoenix Billings as he let go of a pass that turned into the pick six for Kral. “Our secondary was on lockdown all night. I don’t think there was a weak point in our defense. And we knew Colin McCabe (59 yards on 19 carries) was one of the best and most physical running backs in the state.”

You want a short memory from your place kicker? How about Austin Jose making a 37-yarder for a 10-7 lead in the third quarter. Jose had missed from 37 yards with 6 minutes left in the second period and a 45 yarder on the final play of the half. The senior’s kickoffs carried into the end zone 4 times, forcing the Tians to begin possessions at their 20-yard line.

You want a show of want-to? How about Jaden Shirden taking the hits on all but one of his 32 carries and still finding a way to run for 179 bruising yards including the clinching 15-yard touchdown.

Shirden said: “What a great feeling. What can I say? Going to the state finals four times in a row and getting three. What a way (for the seniors) to end our careers. We were in a battle today. It was war.

“They’re some bad boys,” team captain Shirden said of the Hogs’ defense. “They come out and play. They do their job. They’ve always got our backs, and we’ve got theirs. It was great, all credit to all the coaches. I’m going to miss the SJ community. This is just awesome. The line did the job again.”

Team captain Nick DiIorio, the center on a line of Chris Kiley, Ken Martin, Dennis Elrod and Brian Robertson, said, “Yes, they were big and tough up front. We worked on blocking against those splits. It was a war and I’m so proud of all our guys.”

Hand (12-1) had won 36 games in a row. It tied the game with 31 seconds left in the half when Billings connected with Isaiah McNeilly for an 8-yard TD.

Shirden broke off a 35-yard run to set up Jose’s go-ahead field goal midway through the third quarter. In the period, St. Joseph forced two punts. They also held Hand on downs at the Cadets’ 35-yard line when nose tackle Jermaine Williams and team captain and linebacker Alex Pagliarini led a stance that stopped Billings short on 4th-and-1 with 1:35 left in the frame.

There’s no words I can use to describe it,” said Williams, who also started as a freshman in a run to the Class M final, a loss to Hillhouse. “It’s the best feeling in the world. I’ve dreamed of this.”

“Hand was stressing the run...the power, the counter,” Cadet linebacker Cole daSilva said. “We know how fast our dline was. We (fellow backers Dennis Rotunno and Alex Pagliarini) knew how good their o-line was crushing people all year Our secondary stepped up. This is a great group of guys, all my family, I love every one of them.”

Key tackles by Caden Porter, Rotunno, daSilva and Morrissey forced an exchange of punts that penned the Tigers up. Davee Silas never hesitated and came up from his position in the secondary to drop Jesse Lutz for a 9-yard loss and force another kick. We picked up a few keys watching film on them. Our kids stayed with their assignments. We played fast and physical today and that’s how we got the job done.

Silas, Shirden, Justin Williams and Jack Coughlin shutdown the passing game and came up quickly to stop runs on the edge.

“Since Day 1, we’ve all been together, going to each other’s house and watch film,” Silas said. “Going out to eat, everything we’ve always done is better for being a family.”

“They were the missing link going into the season, because we had to replace four guys,” Della Vecchia said of his secondary. “They played great. They are fast and tough and confident. I couldn’t be happier the way they played...they went after it.”

With a short field to work with following Hand’s last punt, Shirden ran for 3 yards before he swept the right side for a 15-yard TD with 4:47 remaining. Hand got that score back after Seth Sweitzer corralled a tipped 4th-and-12 pass for a 45-yard gain to the 2. Billings bulled in two plays later. The PAT was blocked by Jermaine Williams and the onside kick failed.

“That was number three, we’ve been working at it since my sophomore year,” senior wide receiver and team captain Will Diamantis said. “We won S, M now we’re Class L champions. There is nothing better than that winning L. It was a ton of fun, a ton of fun playing such a close game, both teams battling. These past four years, I became a much better football player. I want to thank my coaches and teammates for a great four years.”

Fast Facts

No. 1 in the poll hadn’t met No. 2 in a state final since Xavier held serve against Southington in the 2005 Class LL final.

St. Joseph last topped the poll (then branded as the New Haven Register’s) in 1982 after going 11-0 and winning the Class SS championship, the third, as it happens, of five titles in a row. The Hogs went 11-0 the next year, too, and repeated in Class SS but finished second in the poll to Class S champion Ansonia.

This year, St. Joseph won its first FCIAC title and completed its first unbeaten season since 1983.

St. Joseph made the Class M final in 2016 but lost to Hillhouse, won Class S in 2017, moved up to Class M and won that in 2018, and moved up to Class L this year. (Without the success modifier, in which a school of choice gets bumped up if it has reached consecutive semifinals, the Hogs would be barely on the Class M side of the Class S border).

Of the dozen teams that had won three CIAC titles in a row, none had done it in more than two divisions.

Hand was trying for its 14th title in 20 chances. The Tigers had won 36 games in a row and the past two Class L titles.

Hand is the only one of these two teams to get a serious test this season. That came Nov. 15 at the Surf Club in Madison in what most in the preseason had considered the best game of the regular season, a visit from Shelton. The Gaels, who came in with two losses, had a 14-13 lead in the last minute before the Tigers came back to win 21-14 on McCabe’s touchdown with 18 seconds left.

St. Joseph, for its part, hasn’t trailed since Nov. 2… 2018, when it fell behind Staples on an early touchdown but came back to win 17-14. That was 18 games ago.

Both Hand and Newtown received 12 second-place votes and 12 third-place votes, finishing eight points apart. Newtown received that one first-place vote, while Hand received one fifth-place vote.

Hand received 22 first-place votes in the preseason poll and 19 in the final regular-season poll. Twitter: @blox354